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Sunday, September 29, 2019

Preventative Conservation Workshop 2019: Part I - Housekeeping in the Historic Library

During June 2019, aspiring conservators from around the country attended a 2 week intensive preventative conservation workshop at Staatsburgh.  This was the fourth year that the workshop was held at Staatsburgh with sponsorship from The Foundation for the Advancement of Conservation along with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities.  The workshop taught in-depth methods of caring for many different types of collections. Participants gained insight into artifact conservation and the conditions that cause deterioration. After the workshop, several of the participants wrote blog entries about their experience and a specific aspect of the workshop.

Independent Conservator Cathy MacKenzie organized this workshop to occur at Staatsburgh collaborating on its organization with the NYS Bureau of Historic Sites.  Several conservators participated in the workshop's instruction including NYS Bureau of Historic Sites Furniture Conservator David Bayne, textile conservator Kirsten Schoonmaker from Syracuse University, objects conservator Valentine Talland formerly of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, paper conservator Lyudmyla Bua of the Center for Jewish History in New York, NY, and furniture conservator Paige Schmidt from the Mariners' Museum in Newport News, VA.

Blog Authors, Olivia Lambert and Monica Stokes
This blog post was written by Olivia Lambert and Monica Stokes who participated in the two week  workshop at Staatsburgh.  Olivia Lambert graduated from the University of California Los Angeles, with a Bachelors of Science in Chemistry. While in Los Angeles, she worked at the Fowler Museum conserving textiles. She also worked in an art gallery in Visalia, California as a docent where she handled the objects and the display of the individual art pieces. Monica Stokes is the former Exhibit and Development Manager at the International Museum of Surgical Science in Chicago, Illinois. While there, she oversaw the care of the surgical instruments and a medical-focused manuscript and rare book collection. She holds a Bachelor of Visual and Critical Studies from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago and currently resides in Traverse City, Michigan.

If you have visited Staatsburgh State Historic Site before, you have probably marveled at the library which has a large collection of ornate books. Many of the volumes in the library are kept in the original bookcases behind modern glass to protect them from both dust and the occasional bump. The bookcases are not frequently opened, due to the difficulty of removing the glass panels. During this workshop, we had the opportunity to remove the glass casing to clean the books inside. We wanted to share our experience in assessing the texts and our efforts in preventive conservation of this historic collection. 

Before assessing the texts in the Staatsburgh Library, we began by gaining a better understanding of the factors that lead to the deterioration of books in general. There are many issues that come up when looking at books and their conservation. Inherent issues, such as red rot and foxing can cause visible damage to the texts and the leather bindings. Biological issues such as mold and pests, such as insects, can slowly eat away at the books, while dust can grind into the materials. Chemically there can be pollution affecting books from the surrounding air. Relative humidity, visible light, ultraviolet light, and temperature can affect them as well. General issues with artifacts in historic houses can include problems with environmental fluctuations or water leaks. 

Likewise, there are many ways that books can deteriorate with time—gradually. Continuous visible and ultraviolet light reaching the texts will cause them to become brittle and the color to shift. During this workshop, we were able to measure the visible light and UV light levels in the Library of Staatsburgh to see how they are affecting the books, both when the window shutters were open and closed. We did this by measuring the levels with an EL-SEC handheld environmental monitor. We used the device to measure the relative humidity and light levels right at the windows and next to the objects. If the relative humidity gets too high, it can create an environment beneficial to mold. Likewise, dust which is often a collection of organic materials and dead skin cells, will settle on books and create a layer that can become a catalyst for mold. The organic material in dust can also attract book-eating insects, such as silverfish. Regular cleaning is important to mitigate dust, therefore lessening the likelihood of mold and insects. 

Dust and cobwebs found on books in the library.

Before beginning the cleaning process, we thoroughly discussed correct handling, because over-handling of books can speed up their deterioration. One of the methods we learned was the use of book cradles to protect the spines. Book cradles support a book so it can only open to a set point; we tried to keep the opening of the books to 90 degrees or less, which lessens strain on the structure. We encountered a couple of oversized books, unable to fit properly on the shelves, that were placed with their spines up and therefore were resting on the book boards (covers). This causes the spines and joints to become weak as the text block sags and weighs down the spinal joints. We were able to re-position them to rest on their spines. In the long term, books that rest on their book boards rather than their spines become weak at the joints and will often need to re-backed.

Corrected placement of spine for oversize books.
Monica Stokes using book handling techniques while pulling text from the shelf.
In our approach to cleaning, we used both museum specific and household objects: a Nilfisk GM80 vacuum, soft clean brushes, measuring tapes, and our newly acquired handling skills. We learned to use soft bristled brushes to sweep the dust that had collected on the top and the sides of the texts directly into the mouth of the vacuum. This avoided excess dust in the air which could have resettled on the clean books. The Nilfisk GM80 vacuum is a museum-specific piece of equipment with the ability to adjust the strength of the suction. Using the vacuum directly on the books, even at the lowest suction, could have damaged any loose elements and put too much strain on the books. Between the soft brushes, the vacuum, and our newly acquired handling skills, we had all the necessary tools to remove the dust! We also took extra care in wiping and vacuuming the interior of the bookcases, as they are also historic objects. In research for further conservation treatment, we recorded precise measurements of the inside of the bookcases as well as the accession numbers of the individual books. Both of these records will assist in the future care and the record keeping of this collection.

Dust being removed from the tops of books with brush and vacuum technique.
In the cleaning process, we had the opportunity to assess the texts individually, gaining information about the printing process and the past owners. In one circumstance, we came across a book that at first glance looked as though the folded pages had been inserted backwards, with the fold on the outer book edge. On closer inspection, we realized this page had simply not been sliced open during its production to reveal the inner pages. During the production of this book, a larger sheet of paper with multiple pages of text on it should have been folded, sewn into place, then all the outer edges should have been cut to reveal the inner pages. Two of the pages in this book were unreadable, as they were between the uncut fold. This was so interesting to see, because it leads you to wonder if anyone had actually opened this book, other than us.
Diagram showing uncut pages in a book.
Olivia Lambert using brush and vacuum technique to remove dust from books.
The cleaning process became methodical through practice and repetition. We noticed that our group was assessing our past and future relationships with texts. We were discussing our excitement to have better reference points to the historic books we will come across in the future and how this information will enhance the care of our own personal collections. We are appreciative of our ability to further our relationships with the books we encounter and we were delighted to assist in the long term conservation of books in the Staatsburgh library.

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