1091 Project: A Day In The Life…

What is the 1091 Project?

Welcome to the inaugural post of the 1091 Project, a new collaboration between Iowa State University Library’s Preservation Department blog and Preservation Underground, the blog of Duke University Libraries’ Preservation Department.  Our preservation labs are located 1,091 miles apart, hence the title.  In this new series, we’ll be chronicling the similarities and differences of our two academic library preservation departments, engaging in dialogues and debates about critical preservation topics, and promoting collaboration across the miles.  We encourage you to join the conversation in the Comments section.  On the third Friday of each month, Conservator Beth Doyle at Duke and I will each write up a shared 1091 topic, so be sure to visit both blogs to get the full perspective.

A Day In The Life

It’s tough to nail down a “typical” day in the life of a Conservation Lab, since so much of our work involves an ever-changing palette of problem solving.

2011 Lennox Intern Lauren Calcote removes tape from a Special Collections map fragment.

Ours is a hybrid lab, meaning we treat both the circulating “General Collections” and the non-circulating “Special Collections.” We recently lost a technician to early retirement, so right now we have one Conservation Technician, one Preservation Assistant (our Jane-of-All-Trades), three student workers (1.0 FTE), and one part-time, volunteer conservation intern.  Each summer, we also host a Lennox Foundation Preservation/Conservation Intern full-time for three months.  I’m our only Conservator.  My position is fifty-percent administrative and fifty-percent benchwork, with almost all of my bench time spent treating Special Collections materials.  These might include books, manuscripts, maps, architectural/engineering drawings, photographs, and the occasional non-paper-based artifact.

Special Collections treatment in progress

I meet formally with Special Collections twice a month to pick up items and to discuss upcoming treatments and projects.  Luckily, our lab is located on the same floor of the Library as Special Collections, so casual drop-ins throughout the month help troubleshoot potential problems as they arise. Special Collections items are entered into their own database linked to written documentation for the treatments: condition assessments, treatment proposals, and treatment reports.  When our General Collections workflow is under control, the Conservation Technician assists me with treating Special Collections ephemera as well as designing and building unique Special Collections enclosures.  Our conservation interns mainly work on discrete Special Collections projects, but may also pitch in with the General Collections workflow according to their interests and our needs.

Sorting shelves, where General Collections items await repair

Our General Collections workflow comes mainly from the Circulation Desk, where the staff pulls visibly damaged books as they are returned by patrons to the Library.  Once a week, Circulation delivers these damaged items to the Conservation Lab, where we enter the items into our master tracking database, and sort them onto our holding shelves according to the type of treatment they need.  Other items may filter in throughout the week, especially if a book has gotten wet or moldy and can’t wait for the following week’s delivery.  Our Conservation Technician treats the books in batches to keep this workflow moving efficiently.  She also helps the student workers select appropriate treatments from the shelves according to their training and experience, and helps me oversee their work.

Conservation Technician Mindy Moeller is a master of batch repairs.

On any given day, I may need to check in with the heads of the Binding/Reformatting/Marking Unit or the Digital Initiatives Unit (both part of the Preservation Department), as we direct part of our workflow their way, or receive part of our workflow from them.  Some days, our Preservation Assistant and/or intern and I might be installing an exhibit over at the Special Collections Reading Room.

Preservation Assistant Mindy McCoy makes window mats for some prints.

Another day might see our entire staff dropping everything to respond to a disaster, like a leaking roof at the Library Storage Building, a burst sprinkler pipe in the main Library, or even a flood.  During the school year, we may give a tour to visiting donors or students in a School of Design or Museum Studies course.  Our Head of Preservation and I co-teach an undergraduate honors seminar on preservation during the Fall semester.  We also connect regularly with preservation professionals from the State Historical Society and the University of Iowa to administer and implement an IMLS Connecting to Collections grant for disaster preparedness in Iowa.

Conservator Melissa Tedone and Digital Initiatives Assistant Lori Bousson sort flood-soaked architectural drawings.

Thanks, as always, for stopping by.  I hope this post gives you a better understanding of what goes on day-to-day in the Iowa State University Library Preservation Lab.  Be sure to visit Preservation Underground‘s inaugural 1091 Project post for a glimpse into A Day In The Life at Duke University Libraries’ Preservation Department.


  1. At Duke we do a lot of pre-shelving work including pamphlet binding, tip ins, pockets, CoLibri book covers, and enclosures. Do you do a significant amount of shelf prep like this? or are you primarily working on items from Circulation?

    I’m curious how much work you do for digital projects, too. We are doing more and more, to the point that soon we may need to consider starting it’s own dedicated workflow (you know, when money falls from the sky and we can add staff).

  2. We also do a fair amount of pre-shelving work, for both General and Special Collections. The students do a lot of those treatments. I should also point out that we almost have two Special Collections workflows — the simple stuff with a quick turnaround like pre-shelving treatments and enclosures, and then the more complicated treatments that require assessments, proposals, reports, and photo documentation. Right now, that simple Spec workflow gets tracked only in our master database. Once an item goes into the Special Collections database, it gets the full documentation.

    Within the past year, we started having regular monthly meetings between Conservation, Digital, and Special Collections. This has helped a lot with working out the workflow kinks and planning more digitization projects. Right now, I tend to prioritize treatments that come to me on their way to Digital (so I don’t hold up another unit’s workflow), but like you, I am envisioning a time when we need a dedicated staff member for it. Our Preservation Assistant has been learning to do basic humidification/flattening and paper mending so she can pitch in with the Digital workflow when something bigger comes along. I am also eagerly anticipating that money falling from the sky!…

  3. We have two workflows (well, three if you add in the digital production center) for special collections, too. Our tracking database is in Excel (oh, here’s another 1091 topic!) and we do enter the items we do for Quick Repair and for Boxing Day in separate tabs. It’s a quick way to get some stats for the end of year reports, too. Those projects that are more involved get the “full treatment” documentation of the lab log, condition review, treatment proposal, treatment documentation and photos. We also want to shift our off-and-on mending bees (taking conservation to the stacks!) into something more regular when we can, maybe after renovation.

  4. As I said over at Preservation Underground (since it’s relevant to both introductory posts…):

    This series is really helpful for those of us at the beginning of our careers, too. (I’m only just starting to get a feel for how everything really comes together in an internship I’m doing at Harvard.) Looking forward to future posts and insights!

    1. Thanks for your feedback, Jackie. It’s great to know that you’re interested in the series, and I hope it will prove useful for you. Be sure to let us know if you think of any specific topics you’d like us to address!

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