Sara Belasco spent four weeks in the Library’s conservation lab gaining new skills and learning about how conservation fits into the larger library program. We asked her to share a few words about her experience.
This summer I was a pre-program intern for four weeks at the University of Virginia Library conservation lab under conservators Eliza Gilligan and Sue Donovan. I worked on a wide variety of projects, learned new techniques, and participated in general library activities to see the bigger picture of how all the parts of a library function outside the conservation lab. My first project was a continuation of an ongoing effort to preserve one of the newspaper collections. I mended and flattened an issue of the Atlanta Constitution from September 4, 1886. This document contains important information on every day life during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. In addition to gaining experience mending thin, brittle paper, I also thoroughly enjoyed looking at the (crazy) medical ads in the newspaper.
Continuing on the theme of brittle paper, my next treatments were a late-nineteenth century dust jacket and paper wrapper. Before this internship I did not know that dust jackets were made before the mid-twentieth century. The University of Virginia is amassing one of the largest dust jacket collections in the country, and early dust jackets are particularly rare as they were considered to be disposable and were thrown away by owners and librarians alike. Dust jackets pose unique problems in mending because they must retain their original shape in order to fit back on the book. To keep the curves from flattening, the jacket was mended around cardboard inserts and the book wrapped in plastic. Another lesson learned during this treatment was that no matter how well you mend something brittle, the inherent vices of the paper would cause it to keep breaking. As I put this jacket on the photo documentation table, I noticed a new crack had formed, and I needed to resist the temptation of rushing it back to the lab and mending it again. Knowing when to stop is a key skill in conservation.
The following series of projects involved tape removal, the library conservator’s worst enemy. I learned two methods of tape removal using gellan gel and a hot air pencil. The first was a pamphlet of a railroad building committee from 1884. The brittle paper cover had been extensively mended with tape. Since I had never used gellan gel before, Eliza suggested trying it out. Gellan gum is a water-soluble anionic polysaccharide that when dissolved in water forms a rigid gel that can be cut into specific shapes for the area you want to target.
Furthering my tape removal adventure were photogravure plates from Atlas Photographique de la Lune, showing the moon in different phases and locations from 1896-1910. The University of Virginia Library’s plates are made up of three different sets totaling over a hundred plates. A previous graduate fellow conducted a brief survey of the plates, which I adapted into a treatment report form that future interns would follow. I treated four of these plates that had been housed in the University’s observatory and used as classroom posters for decades. I used a hot air pencil to remove the tape. Essentially it is a “pencil” that blows hot air out of the tip. If the air is too hot it can burn the paper, so I used the pencil to heat up a thin metal spatula that would slowly lift up the tape as the adhesive softened.
Overall this internship was a great learning experience. I treated new types of objects with new techniques and came away with more skills. I really appreciated Eliza and Sue’s efforts to integrate me into all aspects of the library as much as possible since I am starting the Masters in Library and Information Science program at the Pratt Institute in New York City this fall. I am also interning at the Jewish Theological Seminary Library, where my project will be matching historical documents from the sixteenth through early twentieth centuries in German and Italian with their catalogue records in preparation for an upcoming digitization project.