Collection Preservation: Demonstrating & Demystifying

Behind a keyed elevator, a succession of swipe-entry doors and monitored by surveillance cameras from every angle, the contents of FIT Library Special Collections & College Archives rest safely snuggled in our collections rooms thanks —only in part—due to security measures. Perhaps more important to ensuring our holdings’ availability to generations to come, however, is yet another protective measure: preservation.

We recently welcomed students enrolled in a new course offering via the History of Art department, HA 319: Art History and Conservation. Taught by Professor Alexander Nagel, the course introduces undergraduate students to caring for a wide variety of materials which might be found in a museum setting: from paintings and sculpture, bones and pottery to textiles and paper.  As the holdings of Special Collections are overwhelmingly paper-based, Special Collections Library Associate and Curator of Print Collections, April Calahan, introduced the students to the basics of paper preservation as practiced in our unit.

First up for discussion was the distinction between conservation—an active process which strives to restore an object to its original or near original state—versus preservation—a passive process whereby further deterioration or damage to the object is halted by way of stabilization.  One of the first lines of defense for our collections is a state-of-the art air filtration and heating, ventilation and air conditioning system which is dedicated solely to our two collections rooms which house approximately 12,000 rare books, 700 rare periodical titles and nearly 500 manuscript collections, in addition to the college’s own archives.  The environments of the collections rooms are controlled and held at 65 degrees Fahrenheit  (18 Celsius) and 45% RH around the clock, as these are the optimal temperature and humidity conditions for the preservation of paper.

Stable environmental conditions can be aided greatly by the wide range of archival materials used to house our collections while in storage on our 6,100 linear feet of shelving.  Students learned about the deleterious effects of acidic materials coming in contact with paper-based objects and the acid-free options for storage boxes offered by the companies specializing in supplies for preservation and conservation including Gaylord Archival, Talas, and University Products.  Students were also introduced to the use of Melinex polyester film as an archival alternative to storing items in the types of plastic sleeves readily available at office supply stores; common plastics were not designed with longevity in mind and after a number of years can off-gas as they begin to deteriorate. This leads to a tacky or sticky surface, an experience most of us will encounter at some point when handling an aging plastic object.

The best-application of other archival preservation products was discussed, including when and where to employ Volara, Ethafoam, unbleached and unsized muslin, acid-free twill tape, buffered and unbuffered tissue paper.  Students were able to view custom-made mounts and archival rehousing projects in-process with detailed discussions about next steps and the rationale for each object’s preservation plan.

Additional further reading recommendations were also offered for the care specifically of photographs as well as book recommendations for the general care of commonly collected materials like paper, photographs, textiles, and works of art.