This post was written by Preservation intern Sarah Maj K. Siewartz Nielsen. Sarah Maj recently graduated with a BA in Graphic Conservation from The Royal Danish Academy’s School of Conservation in Denmark. Returning from her internship at Smithsonian Libraries’ Book Conservation Lab, she will start her MA at the Academy this fall.
Pink and purple mold. Torn, washed out pages, with bleeding ink. Paper so brittle it breaks if you dust it with a feather. All of that and more is what I’ve tried to salvage the last eight weeks at the Smithsonian Libraries’ Book Conservation Lab. The damages belong to 18 handwritten legislative journals, hailing from the islands of St. Thomas and St. John in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI). The volumes are unique and the only copies of the history of the legislature, including the sale of the Islands from Denmark to the US, which made this project especially interesting to me, because of the shared history between the Islands’, the US’ and my own culture.
The book’s journey to the lab started in in March of 2018, where Smithsonian Libraries conservator Katie Wagner, Ashley Jehle, objects conservator for the National Museum of African Art, and Preston Huff of the National Archives and Records Administration were detailed to the Federal Emergency Management Agency for hurricane Maria and Irma relief in the U.S. Virgin Islands (learn more about Katie’s experience). One of the many sites visited was the Archives of the U.S. Virgin Island’s Legislature on the Island of St. John, where the 18 volumes were found with much water damage and active mold in all colors of the rainbow.
Through the efforts of Senator Myron Jackson, the books were brought to a facility in Fort Worth that has the ability to vacuum freeze dry the materials to arrest the mold, with the help from SCRI (the Smithsonian Institution Cultural Rescue Initiative). Later the books were transported to the Libraries’ Book Conservation Lab for treatment. The actual treatment of the books then became a project for a 50th Anniversary Internship, supervised by Katie Wagner, which I was fortunate enough to be selected for.
The project has two main parts. One is cleaning, stabilizing and restoring the volumes, the other to scan and digitize them, so the books can be spared from handling in the future, and the information they contain can be saved in another format. My part was naturally in the conservation process, which again had two main objectives: cleaning, mending and rebinding of 17 of the volumes, and stabilizing the entire oldest volume, which is both in Danish and in English, detailing the legislature around the time of change of sovereignty. This volume is particularly damaged by insects and paper deterioration, which makes the paper extremely brittle. Especially the first ten sections of the volume were in critical condition.
To stabilize the pages enough for scanning we decided that the pages needed to be lined with a thin Japanese paper – thin enough to see the text through, but strong enough to support the pages. The supplication process was a bit of a tricky thing though. The ink was slightly soluble, and a normal lining process requires that you wet your object. After quite a lot of experimenting, we found that a diluted solution of 1:1 methyl cellulose and wheat starch paste in an air-mister was the perfect fit. When sprayed over the lining material, which then air-dried, it gave both very good adhesion and an even surface when remoistened and applied to the journal pages. It also made it fairly easy to jigsaw-puzzle all the pieces together when the pages were especially damaged (though it was made difficult by the insect damage – imagine completing a jigsaw puzzle with half-eaten pieces!).
As for the treatment of the rest of the books, the first step was to vacuum every page of the book under a fume hood. It was a tricky process due to the extent of the mold, and because a lot of the pages were fused together and had to be carefully separated. The colors of the mold were beautiful though, if a bit worrying. Regarding the rebinding process, it was decided that all the books would be flat-back. It made the process quicker, and would make the journals look uniform, since the first journal and one other couldn’t be rebound and would have to be recased in a custom box. Senator Jackson had decided on a beautiful red linen cloth for the cover, and the Smithsonian Libraries lab volunteer, Bruce Weissgold, made black leather labels stamped with gold-foil for the spines. Most books only needed a few paper repairs, but some had a couple of pages that went through the same lining treatment as the first volume, and one needed to be resewn.
We were also in for pleasant surprises: Senator Jackson himself came to visit and see the work we had completed so far. We showed him the restored books and how the pages from the first volume turned out when lined. He also visited the Digital Imaging Center, where Stefaan Hurts and David Holbert had done a great job digitizing all the books. It was altogether a very delightful visit with people who all believe in the importance of cultural and shared heritage, and an opportunity for me to personally thank the senator for his work to get the journals restored. The senator also proposed that a short film with pictures and videos of the process will be made, to further the project’s public reach.
So what are the results of my eight weeks? Due to the nature of the project (as with most conservation projects with unforeseen situations) we have not finished completely. Eleven books are rebound and finished off, and half of the first volume is lined and stabilized, which leaves six more books and the last half of the first volume. I will unfortunately not be here to see it through, but I have learned so much during my two months, that I now feel confident in approaching a project of this size again, and have a better understanding of disaster response and how to act accordingly when cultural heritage materials are exposed to water damage and extreme weather.
Thank you so much to all the staff at the Book Conservation Lab – Katie Wagner, Vanessa Smith, Keala Richard and Don Stankavage – all of you have been so helpful, welcoming and I’ve learned so much from working with you all. All in all I had a great summer at the Smithsonian, and I hope I can cross paths with this institution again sometime in the future.