A newly acquired 1930s letter in the Carrie Chapman Catt Collection.
For the past two months, I have been preserving hundreds of newly acquired items of correspondence for the ISU Library Special Collections Department’s Carrie Chapman Catt Collection. The collection includes handwritten and typed letters on paper ranging from high-end, monogrammed stationery to lined notebook paper to index cards; newspaper clippings; photographs; decorative stickers; pressed flowers; envelopes; and postage stamps. It’s a wonderful collection rich with evidence of daily life during the Great Depression, and has been a delight to work on in spite of the repetitive nature of the conservation work: humidify, flatten, rehouse, humidify, flatten, rehouse…
After being stored folded up in their original envelopes for 80 years, these letters require humidification and flattening before they can be safely handled by researchers. Note the letter in the lower right corner, which is very acidic and brittle.
This collection is being treated before it is processed by our archivists, because the majority of the letters are folded up and still tucked inside their original envelopes. Many of the letters have been written on acidic paper which is now quite fragile and could break apart simply by being unfolded without humidification. Even the items which are not brittle benefit from gentle humidification and flattening between blotter and boards in a press. So far, I have worked through three-quarters of the newly acquired collection. I have humidified, flattened, and rehoused 448 items, and have sorted and rehoused another 281 items which did not require humidification (mostly envelopes and photographs). A few pages required mending, and about 60 particularly fragile items required encapsulation in Mylar/Melinex; the rest of the items were re-foldered and housed in archival document boxes.
Items from the Carrie Chapman Catt Collection being flattened between blotter and boards in a press after humidification.
There are several challenges when working through a project of this size. One is simply time management: I can’t drop everything else to work solely on this one project, even though it is a high priority. I have done my best to schedule a minimum of 2 hours of active treatment time per day to keep the project moving forward, and at least once or twice a week, I devote nearly an entire day to it. Furthermore, humidification takes as long as it takes; it’s a process that involved a lot of “down time.” So, if a batch of letters needs an entire day of humidification, then I simply have to wait until they’re ready for flattening.
Another challenge is keeping the collection materials organized so as not to compromise their archival order. My low-tech organization solution is to keep a mini-streamer with each item. On each streamer, I write a code at the top indicating which box and original folder the item came from [for example, "B2 F4 (29)" means Item 29 from Box 2, Folder 4]. I then make abbreviated notes indicating whether the item is one page of a multi-page letter, whether it pairs with an envelope, and whether any other ephemera were grouped with it ["3 pp., no env., 1/3"]. I am very careful whenever moving items (e.g., from the humidity chamber to a blotter stack for pressing) to make sure each mini streamer stays with its correct item. The system works well, and after the items have been rehoused, I retain the streamers so I can double-check the accuracy of the statistics I have been keeping. In addition to the mini-streamers, I also maintain a project statistics sheet with the date, items treated that day, types of treatment, and the amount of time I spent on the project.
Envelope with 3-cent stamp from the Carrie Chapman Catt Collection.
Beyond time management and organization, the biggest challenge with this type of project is to stay fresh and focused. With such repetitive treatment tasks, there is always the danger of zoning out and putting an item into the humidity chamber that cannot safely be humidified. It’s important to watch out for coated papers, highly water-soluble inks, and paper with pressure-sensitive tape on it.
I’m looking forward to wrapping up this project in the next few weeks, so this fascinating collection can be archivally processed and made available to the community.