Conservation


They Hoyt Sherman Place Guest Book

Last year Sonya was contacted by a staff member from the Hoyt Sherman Place in Des Moines with a request to conserve the institution’s treasured Guestbook. One of the house’s most important objects in it’s collection is their Guestbook. In it you can find the signatures of many artists, musicians, writers and public figures who had attended events at the Hoyt Sherman Place. The Guest Book was started in 1914, and the latest signature Sonya could find was from 1989. The Hoyt Sherman Place, built in 1877, is now a recognized historic house and theater, and draws big crowds for its musical acts. It also houses an art gallery.
The sections of the guestbook lay loose in its damaged binding and its original green box was frayed and falling apart. Conservation was required for the volume to be safely exhibited at the Hoyt Sherman’s August VIP public event. The volume required paper repair, resewing the textblock, and reattaching the weighty, leather-covered boards.

 

The pages of the book before, during and after treatment.

Tears and losses in the textpaper were mended and filled with Japanese tissue. The sewing holes in the damaged spine folds were reinforced with Japanese tissue patch repairs so the binding could withstand resewing. The textblock was resewed on linen binder’s tape using a French link-stitch sewing technique.

 

Sonya attaching the binding to the textblock with hinges; the book after completion of work.

The spine was lined with transverse aerocotton and Japanese tissue panels, which served as the board attachment for the cover. Below, you can see the lifted pastedowns, under which the spine linings were inserted.

The binding during and after treatment.

As the volume could not fit in its original cloth case after conservation, a new box was made to house the guestbook and case separately. A cloth-covered, collapsible cradle was made by Cynthia so that the book could be displayed at a 90° angle, enabling safer handling. Once conservation was finished, we were able to arrange dropping the book off and getting our own private tour of the space.

The exterior and the reception area.

Executive Director Robert Warren with Sonya and Cynthia.

When we arrived, Executive Director Robert Warren was excited to see the final result of the conservation treatment, so we displayed the book with a brief description of the repair, and presented it on the custom cradle support. This setup would perfectly display such unique artistic signatures as the one above of “Mr Tweedy.”

The art gallery.

Our first stop on the tour was the gallery. Robert pointed out several notable paintings, including Apollo and Venus by Otto van Veen. This particular painting had been found stuffed in the back of a storeroom closet during renovations. It was badly damaged and discolored, and would undergo conservation before it could be displayed. Speculation as to why the painting was thrown in the storeroom seems to hinge on the central nude form featured in the painting and the conservative nature of early 1900s America. Read more about it here.

This massive secretary desk was meant to travel with the lawyer on his work trips. How unfortunate for his servants!

Robert showed us a lawyer’s desk, which was specially made with a mirror in the center. No, this was not for the jurisprudent to stare into his own reflection at will. Rather, it allowed him to see if anyone was approaching from behind with a look of vengeance and quite possibly a knife!

Original mural painting on the right and the modern recreation on the left.

During the renovation of the house, a conscientious team of historic preservation specialists found a square of the original mural painting when they were preparing the walls to be repainted. They decided to decorate the walls with the same design. True to principals at the heart of preservation, they left an original fragment behind, retaining a record of history and showing the changes the house had undergone.

Cynthia in one of the historic rooms on the second floor of the house

Since its foundation was first laid, the house has worn many hats. It first served as the family home to the Sherman family, built by Hoyt Sherman, a postmaster and politician. At one point, Sherman rented out his home for two years to The Sister’s of Mercy of Davenport, Iowa to host a 52-bed hospital. From 1907 onward, the Des Moines Women’s Club, whose growing membership prompted the construction of the theater in 1923, held their meetings at the house. They still operate out of the Hoyt Sherman Place to this day.

The interior of the historic theater including original Des Moines Women’s Club end panels on each row.

The theater hosts a variety of events, including rock concerts, ballet, and stand-up comedy. It is a must-see if you are ever in the Des Moines area.

Here are some highlights of what we saw at Preservation Destination 2019!

On Monday our lab’s staff traveled to an event hosted by ICPC (Iowa Conservation and Preservation Consortium). It’s an annual get-together called Preservation Destination. A large group of us, Iowa preservation professionals, go to a place in Iowa and have behind the scenes tours of as many cultural heritage institutions as we can cram into one day. Here are some of our favorite things that we saw.

From Sonya Barron, Collections Conservator:

From left to right: 1. At the University of Northern Iowa (UNI) theater costume storage. 2. UNI Museum: a storage mount made for a saddle. 3. UNI Archives: The Rural School Collection ledgers

At the Ice House Museum we learned about how ice was preserved. Large blocks of ice were loaded into the barn-like building and stored there until the summer. Layers of saw dust had to be placed in between each ice block so that the blocks didn’t fuse together.

Every winter, the Ice House was filled up with ice to the top of the central beam. The light colored wood boards that you see on the roof show where there roof was repaired. Before the repairs these were holes!

From Cynthia Kapteyn, Assistant Conservator:

In 2008, The Cedar Falls Ice House Museum flooded. It was only inevitable, as the historic building is situated right next to the Cedar River. The disaster resulted in damage to nearly all of the artifacts in the collection, most of which were housed on the ground floor. To this day, the collections manager is still dealing with effects of the flood.

That’s where the water was in 2008.

In the picture above, conservator Sonya Barron is pointing to the spot the water rose to during the flood. To circumvent this issue in the case of a future catastrophe, the floor was raised a foot above the flood line.

From Mindy Moeller, Senior Conservation Assistant:

At the University of Northern Iowa Nathan Arndt, Assistant Director and Chief Curator of the UNI Museum at the Rod Library, gave us a very informative tour.  While at the UNI Museum, I was interested in seeing how they displayed and housed their precious and educational exhibits.  One picture that I took really stuck out in my mind as to how simple it was, easy to do, not costly, and we must use this example for the next time we are housing pins, buttons, or other small objects that can be stored together yet separated and protected. 

Small artifacts between dividers.

At the museum, they used small archival boxes and simply made “ice cube tray-like” dividers with pieces of 1/8” thick Ethafoam.  This idea could be used for any depth of an archival box to keep items apart and still have room for an identifying tag for each object. 

From Jim Wilcox, Conservation Assistant:

The raw material on the left and the mounts on the right.

The UNI Museum’s collections care and mount making room is a space with a large table, where you can work all the way around it and have all the supplies needed at hand. Like the large supply of backer rod you might find at a construction site. Why backer rod? To stabilize objects that are round at the base or nearly so and that could tip over easily. The items then could either be boxed, or stored on open shelving like this.

Progress continues on the optical media project here in the Preservation Department. All discs in the University Lecture Series collection have been ripped and are now in the process of being permanently stored. If permissions allow, certain lectures will also be uploaded to the Special Collections’ YouTube channel.
Technically speaking, most of the time so far has been spent navigating the Ripstation, a combination hardware/software system designed to rip large number of optical discs. The collection includes more than 1000 discs, primarily formatted as CD-DA, DVD Video, or data discs. Each of these formats requires a slightly different approach to preservation, typically in the form of what software is used.

The Ripstation at ISU Special Collections.

The Ripstation at ISU Special Collections.

The majority of the discs recorded before 2010 were formatted as Compact Disc-Digital Audio (CD-DA). Because this is also the format most commercial CDs use, Ripstation’s proprietary software (also called Ripstation) was best-suited, as it is optimized for this sort of collection. Discs were ripped into two different formats for both preservation and access purposes. For preservation, the BWF 96khz/24bit format was selected for its lossless, uncompressed quality and its ability to embed desired metadata within the wrapper’s header, thus greatly reducing the chance of intellectual separation between content and metadata. For access, the .MP3 format was selected, because it is widely accepted and supported as an accessible audio format. In addition, of the available output formats, .MP3 can be most easily transcoded into an .MP4 file to upload to Special Collections’ YouTube access channel, with little risk for losing any data.

This transcoding for the access copies is handled by Adobe Media Encoder, as is uploading directly into the Lecture Series playlist. To match the access copies from the magnetic media, part of the Lecture Series collection that has already been uploaded, the desired output is an .MP4 with audio wrapped inside with a logo (YouTube only accepts video files). After upload, we apply closed captions to all files for accessibility.

An overview of the settings used in Media Encoder.

An overview of the settings used in Media Encoder.

For the DVD-Video carriers in the collection, the desired output (perhaps somewhat obviously) differs from the CD-DA carriers. After some experimentation with variants on a data validation workflow, our conclusion was that the optimal output for Special Collections’ purposes was an .ISO disc image, which can be mounted easily as an access copy for researchers.

As the project progressed, some discs we encountered were neither CD-DA nor DVD, but simply data discs onto which .MP3 or other media files had been “dragged and dropped.” These were ripped with the DataGrabber software, and their original file format was maintained.

A selection of the optical discs held in the Lecture Series Collection.

A selection of the optical discs held in the Lecture Series Collection.

What metadata Ripstation uses and where it draws them from varies by the software used, which itself varies by the format of optical disc being ripped. Ripstation’s primary software is the program of the same name, which is intended for CD-DA-formatted discs, typically commercial ones. For automatic metadata population, an internet connection is required, so Ripstation can scour private and open-source databases for the artist, album, track titles, and other relevant metadata per disc. Acquiring metadata this way would not be helpful to the project because of the singular and noncommercial nature of the content. Due to this constraint, as well as networking limitations, this particular Ripstation was left offline.

So from where could the software draw its metadata? Ripstation has accounted for this possibility in the design of the User Data feature. Typically, the names of ripped files could be an assigned structure of metadata that would look something like %D_%A_%Y . Each letter corresponds to an established metadata category, so files named according to this structure will look like “[AlbumName]_[AlbumArtistName]_[AlbumDate]”. This system also allows for user-input metadata, in the form of a .TXT file in the program folder. The User Data system, which allows up to 10 user-defined metadata categories (%0 – %9) and can be used with all Ripstation software, is what we used for this project.

Each disc file was named according to its AV number and container number, according to the information available in the masterlist. For later discs with no container number available, that value was substituted with the date of recording. Batches were named with the reference number of the collection, the container number of the first disc, the container number of the last disc, and (if CD-DA or DVD) the disc type.

Now that all 1000 discs have been ripped, the next phase is twofold: 1. Documenting the project (of which this blog post is a part) and 2. For the lectures without permissions restrictions, encoding and uploading to the Special Collection’s YouTube Channel. This process has already begun, with over 5000 minutes of audio made publicly available so far.

Board Members of the Iowa Conservation and Preservation Consortium (ICPC) at the Law Library in Des Moines for an annual retreat.

This year I became an official Board Member of the Iowa Conservation and Preservation Consortium (ICPC). The ICPC hosts an annual meeting for preservation professionals in Iowa and the surrounding region SOS (Save Our Stuff), a Preservation Destination program, and training for the Iowa Museums Archives and Libraries Emergency Response Team (IMALERT). As a board member I get to go on an annual retreat with preservation friends, eat chocolates and donuts and discuss organizational business. Life could not get any more fun! Although I cannot shed light on the top secret information that only board members are privy to (just kidding, it’s actually pretty boring), I will share some of the awesome and curious things that we saw during our visit to Des Moines.

Top: State Library of Iowa building. Image courtesy of Flicker. Bottom: The Capitol building. Image Courtesy of RDG Planning and Design.

The board meeting is usually followed by a tour of whatever site hosted the retreat. This summer we were super lucky to meet at the State Library of Iowa. The library’s archivist, Tom Keyser, led us on an extended tour of the buildings and the underground tunnels beneath them. I took pictures of several things that intrigued me, which I will share in this post.

In the reading room of the State Library of Iowa.

Our first stop was in the reading room of the State Library of Iowa. Tom showed us the most fascinating medical “reference book” that I have ever seen – a replica human skeleton! All of the bones and the associated muscles are labeled in Latin. Before the days of medical school residencies in hospitals, young doctors did their training in the private practices of more experienced doctors, often in rural areas. The plastic skeleton was mailed out to young doctors as study material, then mailed back to the library when it was no longer needed.

Left: The key to interpreting the skeleton. Top right: The skeleton’s library accession number. Bottom right: There is a small hook fastening on the side of the skull to keep the top closed (I anticipate that the brain is inside).

Instead of walking out the building and crossing the street, we went to the basement and walked through a series of underground tunnels to get to the State Capitol. Apparently, many people who work in the two buildings walk the tunnels in the winter for exercise.

The tunnels right next to the State Library were built in the 19th century, and as you move close to the Capitol, the tunnel construction becomes increasingly more contemporary.
We saw a seemingly endless corridor that branched off the main tunnel and an abundance of mysterious pipes of varying dimensions and types.
In the oldest part of the tunnels we saw (bottom left) brick panel ceilings,  (top left) large enclosed areas filled with dirt almost all the way up to the ceiling, and (right) the spookiest janitorial closet ever.

Once we finally made it out of the sub-basement and into the Capitol, color and decorative elements assaulted the eye from every angle. I noticed that the beautiful floors in the State Library were made of mosaic, while in the Capitol the floors are tile.

Floor mosaic in lobby of the State Library of Iowa.
Details of floor tiles in the State Capitol

Both buildings feature a dome, although the Capitol’s dome is much larger.

Left: The interior of the dome in the State Library of Iowa. Right: The interior of the dome in the State Capitol

Both the exterior and the interior of the State Capitol had been renovated. The work was divided into 9 phases, starting in 1983 and ending in 2001 with the total bill of $41 million dollars. The Law Library, which is located inside of the Capitol, had been renovated as well.

Left: Interior of the State Capitol. Right: The Law Library.

The reading room and stacks of the Law Library feature some interesting outdated elements. There is a dumbwaiter, which used to carry books all the way up and down the 5 floors of the State Capitol. There is also a lovely sink and mirror combination in one of the side rooms. It does not have a currently functional plumbing unit. Small iron posts sticking out of the tall columns remind the visitors that the library used to be illuminated by gas lighting. The poles, which are difficult to see in the photograph below, were used to mount the gas lanterns.

Left: Dumbwaiter. Center: Historic sink and mirror. Right: Mount for a gas lantern. Image courtesy of the Iowa Legislature website.

The most rare and valuable books in the collection are housed in the locked A.J. Smalls Room. Some of the highlights are an atlas of hand drawn maps of the Des Moines River and an early edition of William Blackstone’s Commentaries.

Left: Hand-drawn maps of the Des Moines River. Right: Fire-charred copies of Blackstone’s Commentaries
The Iowa State Capitol on fire in January of 1904. Image courtesy of the Iowa Legislature website.

The Commentaries suffered fire damage during the 1904 fire. There is anecdotal evidence that diligent librarians were throwing these books out of the window in order to save them.

The 100 County Court Houses of Iowa.

A quilt featuring images of the 100 county court houses of Iowa hangs high up from a balcony railing in the library. The court houses are organized on the quilt in alphabetical order of the county. On the floor underneath it there is a small stand with a printed chart that explains which building is from which county. Even though each square on the quilt bares the name of the county, it is really hard to see the text from down below. Iowa actually has 99 counties, not 100. But Lee County has two court houses – one in the south and one in the north of the county, bringing the total for the state to an even hundred.

Many Mrs. and the lone Mr. Governor of Iowa.

The display case in the Capitol that I found the most fascinating, features doll representations of spouses of Governors of Iowa. The porcelain-faced dolls all have the same facial features, with different hair styles, and include 40+ wives and 1 husband. The dolls wear replicas of garments that the actual people had worn to their spouses’ inaugurations, thus showcasing many decades of fashion. It appears that some of the gowns would benefit from ministrations of a textiles conservator.

Top: Preservation Alert!! Doll with visible signs of damage in the fabric on her dress. Bottom: Commemorative plaque on the side of the display case.

The State and Law libraries have a breadth of material ranging from fiction to notable Iowa-related legal documents, as well as digital resources. Be sure to visit them on your way through Des Moines.

Amanda_1

Lennox intern –  Amanda Gedeon holding a CD from the ISU Lecture Series Compact Disc Digital Audio Collection


How many CDs and DVDs do you still have?

If you lived through the 90s and the 2000s, chances are you do or at some point did have quite a collection going for you.

They might’ve been meticulously organized, a replacement or even a backup to a larger analogue collection – or maybe they were abandoned the moment you could get iTunes to copy every track for you, onto a device half the size of a CD case or even smaller.  Maybe you still have a couple DVDs mixed into your shelf of Blu-rays. Maybe you haven’t touched a disc of any kind in years.

In the grand scheme of things, CDs, DVDs, Blu-ray discs – collectively referred to as optical media because of how the discs are read – might not seem very historical. A lot of us can clearly remember their rise to prominence, which makes it difficult to conceptualize them as an at-risk media carrier.

As the 2019 Lennox intern, my project this summer is to develop and implement a workflow for the preserving the Library’s optical disc collection. The majority of the content in the collection is recordings of the University’s Lecture Series.

Part of my curriculum in earning my M.A. in Preservation and Presentation of the Moving Image from the University of Amsterdam last year included working on a similar project for VIAA, an organization based in Gent, Belgium tasked with digitizing, archiving, and making accessible heritage materials from Flemish memory institutions like museums and research libraries. A significant part of their focus is on audiovisual material, which these institutions may not have the expertise or the resources to preserve individually. My work with VIAA consisted primarily of research and documentation preparation for their CD/DVD transfer project. At Iowa State I will be moving past this phase of project management and focusing on workflow development and testing.

To this end I’ve spent these first two weeks of my time here becoming familiar with the Parks Library administration, department structure, practices in use, and in particular learning the technical details of the Ripstation – a combination hardware/software device designed to copy large batches of optical discs. My next steps are to draft a rough workflow aiming for two separate outputs: a to-the-bit identical copy of the data as it’s stored on the physical discs, transferred to University storage; and an ADA-compliant access copy to be uploaded to the Lecture Series’ YouTube channel, pending permissions. The workflow will also require a variation to handle processing damaged or difficult discs.

This is an exciting chance to formulate and put in place a practice that could remain at ISU as long as there are optical discs to process. I especially look forward to the technical details that this project holds.

[The preservation department of Parks Library here at Iowa State University offers an internship every year generously funded by the Lennox Foundation with the goal of providing experience and education in preservation work within an academic library to a graduate student or recently graduated student of a preservation or conservation  program. The 2019 recipient of the Lennox Foundation Internship for Preservation Education, Training, & Outreach is Amanda Gedeon.]

Left: A 4-H knit cap. Center: Iowa State Can Koozie. Right: a stereoscope with two images mounted on board.

The Artifact Collection

Organizing storage has always been a problem for museums, libraries, and archives. Space is limited and comes at a premium. Housing and archival practices must be sustainable for the collection to remain within the limits of its designated space in an organized, coherent fashion. Pressed by this need for such a prized commodity, staff are even undertaking a massive transfer of books from the general collection stacks in Parks library to an off-site storage facility. It is imperative to revise current practices for the artifacts storage area in order to provide an efficient framework for the future.

The artifact collection is no small deal. There are over 4,000 objects in the special collections storage space. These range from the typical swag bracelet you might get at an engineering college event to signed Greek Life paddles from the second half of the 20th century to surveying equipment used in the construction of Iowa State College in 1858. There is quite a range of both types of artifacts and sources. Items began being accessioned as far back as 1993—nearly 30 years!

The artifacts in the special collections stacks.

Artifact overflow on the map cases.

The artifacts occupy two aisles of rolling stacks, a back wall of stationary shelving, and are sprawled along the tops of map cases in an adjacent aisle. As the rest of the storage space hosts archival and special collections, there is no more room for the artifacts to go. This is not simply a case of having too many artifacts and not enough shelf space: many of the artifacts have been housed improperly, resulting in wasted space both inside the box and out. Small pins have been placed in much larger boxes along with wads of tissue. This tissue often conceals additional artifacts, putting them at risk for loss. Some artifacts are without proper housing or without any housing at all.

Housing Issues. Clockwise from top left: Framed certificate stored without an enclosure. Multiple boxes have made artifacts difficult to retrieve. A small pin housed in a much larger box. Artifacts stored in non-archival housing.

 

A fair few of the artifacts (nearly 300) do not have records in our museum database, Past Perfect, making them impossible to search for and retrieve. These are at high risk for dissociation, one of the ten primary agents of deterioration, as related artifacts are in separate locations, often without proper documentation linking them. This has rendered the purpose of the artifacts—to be utilized by researchers and archivists—null. At the same time, staff with extensive institutional knowledge of the artifact collection have moved on to other positions, taking some of the objects’ origin stories and associations with them.

Our goals with the artifact rehousing project was to provide documentation for all of the artifacts in the collection, and to implement a more sophisticated and effective housing system than the current method of just throwing things onto the shelf in a box.

Buttons and ribbons in box without label tags or protection.

 

Lead Processing Archivist Rosalie Gartner, Head Conservator Sonya Barron, and myself, Assistant Conservator Cynthia Kapteyn examining artifacts during a meeting.

The Process

We began surveying at the beginning of October, 2018 for 1-2 hours a day. This involved examining the item, inferring its place within the collecting scope, and brainstorming ways to categorize them during the rehousing phase. We entered this information into Past Perfect, our museum database software. As the lead on this project, I organized PastperfectLogosurvey times with colleagues and managed the various tasks involved with documenting objects and researching the collection. Additional time was spent outside of survey hours adding photos into the database as some pictures were blurry or dark, and some records did not have photographs. I utilized the project management software to converse with archivists. There we could ask questions about how seemingly arbitrary artifacts fit into our collecting scope by creating a task. I made tasks for items that needed records in the database so archivists could add them. Tasks were also used to note exact duplicates to be considered for possible deaccession by archivists, or flat, paper objects that could be added to their associated archival collections.

RustedHorseshoe_2003_126

A rusted horseshoe in need of a little TLC (Tender Loving Conservation!).

The main challenge at the beginning of the survey was coming up with housing categories into which we could organize the various objects. Archivists had to come to an agreement about how the objects should be grouped that also satisfied the requirements of preservation and supported ‘browseability’ by staff. In preservation, we wanted to group items by type, and, at a deeper level, subject. For instance, grouping buttons together or textiles together would result in better and more compact housing. Each type of object would then be grouped by subject, such as agriculture or 4-H—two notable collecting areas for the library. This would allow safe, effective and secure storage while supporting archivists’ ability to see a variety of related items at once.

Educational Opportunities

Throughout this process, several resources have been extremely useful. STASHc provides useful solutions to various storage situations, such as this tutorial on hanging rolled storage for oversized objects. We participated in Planning your Re:Org Project, a webinar  that helped us to reconceptualize our storage planning process through worksheets and examples that took us through the processes several institutions went through using the Re:Org method. Free additional workbooks and resources are available on the Re:Org Method page hosted by ICCROM.

 

 

 

FarmCropsIDSeeds_2008_102

One of two boxes of farm crop identification seed vials.

Looking Forward

We are closing in on the final leg of the survey, after which we must organize the object records into working spreadsheets that can be used to plan the rehousing. This plan will involve calculating for rolled and hanging storage for large flat textiles and garments, and possibly incorporating vertical storage for long, thin items like surveying rulers, canes, and flat, obtuse objects such as muskrat skin stretchers.

And now for some highlights from our artifact collection…

 

4-H Dress and pins. Date of origin unknown according to donor paperwork.

 

 

 

De Vry 35MM Film Projector found in the stacks with reel still inside. Our AV and Film Preservation Specialist, Rosie Rowe, identified the film as Kodak Safety acetate.

 

CarversBluePigment_2007_349_003

 Dr. George Washington Carver, educated in agricultural sciences at Iowa State College, was more than just a researcher and producer of peanut products. He also studied dyes and pigments. See this article by ISU professor in textiles and clothing Eulanda Sanders, and ISU alumni PhD candidate Chanmi Hwang for more information.

 

Be sure to check out a great blog post by staff in Special Collections for more neat artifacts!

Image courtesy of www.comicsbeat.com
An image from the pages of Wonder Woman, with Trina Robbins’ signature in the lower left corner. Photo credit: www.comicsbeat.com

History and background

The term “underground comix” defines a style of small press or self-published comic books produced outside of the mainstream styles. The Underground Comix Collection in Iowa State University Library’s Special Collections includes over 1,500 printed comics, hand-drawn sketches and related materials ranging from 1947 to 1995. Rare Books and Manuscripts Archivist Amy Bishop notes that while many of the pieces in the collection made their way to the university library in the 1970’s and the 1980’s, records indicate that there are some comics in the collection from as recently as 2007.

Photo courtesy of Iowa State Daily
Fight Girl by Trina Robbins, 1972. Underground Comix Collection,
MS 0636, Special Collections, Iowa State University Library.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the artists who worked in this style created comics that discussed controversial topics and mocked conventional society. Their work explored mature themes like drug and alcohol use, sexuality, violence, feminism, anti-abortion and anti-war sentiments, Black Power, and LGBTQ+ issues. In doing so, the artists and the publishing companies did not adhere to the Comics Code Authority (CCA), which was introduced in 1954 and was intended to censor comic book content. At one time, Underground Comix were banned books.

The official logo of the Comics Code Authority (CCA).

As an aside: While doing a little online research, I came across an interesting blog post on this subject. It was published by The Robert E. Kennedy Library of Cal Poly State University on their Special Collections blog. You could take a brief detour and read it: “Understanding Underground Comix: An Introduction to the Moore Collection.

Covers of selections from the Moore Collection of Underground Comix, Special Collections of the Robert E. Kennedy Library, California Polytechnic State University. Photo credit: CPSU

People

Many artists published with Underground Comix instead of a larger company because it gave them the opportunity to present their work with less censorship of the X-rated content. Underground Comix greats included cult figures like Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, Richard Eugene “Grass” Green, Denis Kitchen and Trina Robbins.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia Commons
Robert Crumb and Gilbert Shelton at an event at Lucca Comics & Games in 2014, Tuscany. Photo credit: Creative Commons

You may be surprised to learn that popular TV shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Johnny Quest, and Space Ghost drew their first breath as underground comix. In fact, Trina Robbins, a female artist who published with Underground Comix, was the first to draw Wonder Woman. Richard “Grass” Green was the first African American comix creator to participate in the movement.

Photo courtesy of the Jewish News of Northern California.
Trina Robbins, the first woman comic artist to draw Wonder Woman, poses in a book shop next to her creation. Photo credit: The Jewish News of Northern California.

ISU Library Special Collections also holds a related collection of Clay Geerdes photographs (MS 0630). Clay Geerdes took numerous photos of Underground Comix artists and of their work. Geerdes’ photographs have appeared in many publications and were published as a book, “The Underground Comix Family Album“, in 1998.

Left: Gilbert Shelton inks a page for his Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers in Venice, CA, July 1971. Right: Gary Arlington gives a few tips to Armageddon artist Barney Steel in his San Francisco Comic store, 1971. Images from the Clay Geerdes Collection, MS 0630, Special Collections, Iowa State University Library

Conservation treatment

The library’s collection of 3-dimensional artifacts contains a few dozen buttons from the early 1970’s. The buttons feature some of the iconic characters from Underground Comix. Assistant conservator Cynthia Kapteyn and I have recently run into a box of these buttons in the process of doing a comprehensive survey of the library’s artifact collection.

Underground Comix buttons, 1971-1972, Artifact Collection, 2009-R035, Special Collections, Iowa State University Library

Recently we have been seeing lots of Comix at the Preservation lab, both printed issues and artist sketches.

Left: An issue of E.C. Comics Tales from the Crypt, 1953, PN3448 S45 T34x, Special Collections, Iowa State University Library. Right: Crime SuspenStories, 1952, PS648 C7 C74x, Special Collections, Iowa State University Library.

The printed issues were from the 1950s, published by E.C. Comics. Many of the covers and pages had become torn and creased over time. Chunks of brittle paper have been lost, since these prime examples of ephemera were printed on low quality wood pulp paper and were not made to stand up to time and the relentless deterioration mechanisms of oxidation in cellulose. Mindy Moeller, Senior Conservation Technician, has repaired hundreds of pages using light weight Japanese tissue, pre-coated with a mixture of wheat starch paste and methyl cellulose and activated with a light application of de-ionized water.

Mends and fills made with pre-coated Japanese tissue are visible around the edges of the back cover.
Left: A large fill in a back page was made with Japanese tissue that was pre-coated with a mix of wheat starch paste and methyl cellulose. Right: A detail from an artist sketch, Underground Comix Collection, MS 0636, Special Collections, Iowa State University Library.

One of the oversized boxes within the collection holds a number of drawings by an unknown artist associated with Underground Comix. The sketches were taped together with masking tape. The adhesive from the tape has started to penetrate through the paper, giving the paper a translucent oily quality and causing the sketches to stick together.

Using a micro-spatula, Sonya is lifting the edge of a small “speech bubble” fragment, taped over a previous version.

The artist had gone through a fascinating editing process, while creating their story line. If the artist was dissatisfied with a given cell or a speech bubble, they would rework the image or text on a fragment of paper and tape the new fragment over the segment they did not like. The artist used small loops of masking tape to stick down the fragments, so that the tape would not be visible past the edges of the stuck-on fragment. But over time the adhesive from the tape had leeched into the paper, making the tape underneath show through.

Left: A smaller fragment of paper is attached to the larger sketch with loops of masking tape. Right: Masking tape is lifted and a previous iteration of the sketch is revealed under the small fragment.

Masking tape was removed from the sketches and adhesive residue was reduced as much as possible. Mends of Japanese tissue were used to hold the sketches together in place of tape.

A heated spatula is used to remove fragments of masking tape from the reverse side. A Japanese tissue mend runs along the mid-line of the sketch (note the faint white tint).

The artist’s “edits” were reattached to the sketches using small hidden hinges made from Japanese tissue, using wheat starch paste. The sketches look and function in much the same way as they did before the conservation treatment. But the damaging tape adhesive has been removed, so it will no longer contribute to deterioration of the paper.

Other mentions

In the past, the Underground Comix Collection has been mentioned, exhibited and written about by other people on campus too. The Special Collections and University Archives blog, Cardinal Tales, has featured the Underground Comix Collection in 2015 in a post titled “Not Your Ordinary Comic Books”. The staff at Special Collections has used some rather spooky Underground Comix titles for the library’s Halloween Pop-Up Exhibit.

The Special Collections department featured Underground Comix in their Halloween pop-up exhibit in 2017.

The ISU Daily student newspaper had published the article “Underground Comix Have Rich History” in 2013. Student writer Victoria Emery had interviewed ISU College of Design professor John Cunnally about his scholarship related to the collection.

This is my humble homage to the candid and unapologetic art of Underground Comix artists. The image on the left is part of the cover of “The R. Crumb Handbook”, by R. Crumb and P. Poplaski, 2005.

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