Field Trips


The door to the Textiles and Clothing Conservation Lab, with an embroidered garment from Kashmir just visible inside the doorway.

Recently, the Library Conservation Lab staff took a tour of the Iowa State University Textiles Conservation Lab.  The lab and a new collection storage space were both built in 2007, in anticipation of teaching textiles conservation classes to students in the Department of Apparel, Events, and Hospitality Management (AESHM) in the College of Human Sciences.  Unfortunately, staffing changes and budgetary constraints have put that plan on hiatus for a few years.

Suzanne LeSar shows us a European men's coat from the late 1700s.

Research Associate Suzanne LeSar, who works with the textiles and clothing collection, gave us the tour.  She designs exhibits, maintains the collection’s exhibit space, accepts accessions, weeds the collection, and somehow finds time to develop a searchable database of the collection as well.  Currently, the collection holds about 10,000 items.

Paper dress (in yellow) from the 1960s.

In the lab, which Suzanne uses as a sort of staging area for new accessions and exhibit prep, we saw Indian materials, including an embroidered handbag and an embroidered outfit from Kashmir, which will be part of an exhibit scheduled to open in mid-September.

The beaded hats in the above photo turned out to be Pakistani, and so won’t be included in this exhibit.

Seen through the window from the hallway, garments from various decades hang on a rack in the lab.

This is a teaching collection, so most of these textiles and garments are used in courses in the Apparel, Merchandising, and Design major of AESHM to teach students about different historical periods of dress and methods of clothing construction.  The compact storage includes flat drawers, shelves, and hanging bars for various types of materials.  Ethnic textiles such as saris, caftans, and other types of body wraps are best stored rolled over an acid-free support tube (see photo, below).

Support rolls for body wraps and flat textiles.

Quilts, in contrast, are never rolled because their own weight would crush the portion of the quilt on the inside of the roll.  Quilts are stored loosely folded and are opened up, shaken out, and carefully re-folded every few months to avoid stretching or straining  the fabric in any one place for too long, which could cause permanent damage.

We enjoyed this wonderful glimpse into the textiles and clothing collection with a knowledgeable tour guide.  A big thanks to Suzanne for taking the time to share her work with us.  Thanks, too, to our student employee Hope Mitchell for taking the images in this post on her iPhone.

Don't fret, you can still get your royal wedding souvenirs.

I was in London two weeks ago just taking in the sights with a couple of colleagues–we had the fortune of borrowing a flat from a retired ISU journalism professor.  Thankfully, our travel dates occurred after the royal wedding.  But just in case you were wondering, there’s plenty of commemorative Wills and Kate stuff available.

Movable shelving in King George III's collection allow for easy retrieval of materials.

One of the many places we visited was the British Library, and Martha, our Hertzberg Intern who attended Camberwell, kindly arranged a private tour of the book conservation lab for us.  Frances Sanwell, one of the conservators, showed us around and was a great tour guide.  The lab is in a separate building behind the library, and as we entered, we encountered a permanent preservation education display that was beautifully done.  There were small tools and equipment on the table and video screens built into the wall showing leather work, binding, sewing text blocks, book repair, and cleaning documents.  There was also a glossy pamphlet on basic preservation for library and archives collections for the public.

Interactive preservation display with videos, sample materials, and conservation tools and equipment.

The conservation lab itself is spacious and has wonderful natural light.  The windows, not skylights, are north-facing and have adjustable blinds.

The British Library book conservation lab looking south (left). North-facing windows above the lab (right).

It was pretty quiet in the lab since it was noon, but there were benches throughout the lab.  Most of the benches were designed in a U-shape providing immediate access to an extensive amount of work surface and sometimes a built-in light table.  Below the benches were taborets and lockable cabinets.

U-shaped conservation bench setup with a mounted microscope.

Beyond the main lab there were rooms for wet treatments.  Drying racks were set up, a humidification chamber, washing sinks, and the water filtration system were located in a room connected to the lab.

Drying racks, a humidification chamber, and sinks are located in the adjoining room. The water filtration system is also located in the room.

The dirty room, finishing room, and leaf casting room were all separate from the lab.

Leaf caster.

What struck me as amusing during the tour is that in some ways it was not that different from being in our lab.  Even though both of our labs are spacious, well equipped and nicely designed, we all complain about the same things–reduced staffing and funding, and increased work loads.  Like us, they are faced with maintaining the current collections, dealing with new acquisitions, preparing for exhibits and digital conversion projects, and negotiating with bibliographers.  We talked about a form that they use to work with the bibliographers to prioritize items/collections for conservation treatment.  The process includes several categories within which items are assessed and rated on a total scale of 100.

Case full of delicious pastries in the British Library.

But nothing seems too unbearable after a long day of dealing with bibliographers and toiling away at the bench when there’s a case full of yummy pastries at the cafe in the main library building.

Texas State Library & Archives, Austin, TX

While in Austin for Preservation Week, I enjoyed a peek into the newly-outfitted Conservation Lab of the Texas State Library & Archives Commission.  Conservator Sarah Norris gave me a tour, and shared the trials and tribulations of purchasing equipment and designing creative storage solutions for the newly constructed space.

Conservator Sarah Norris of TSLAC in her lab.

When she started her position at TSLAC, the lab contained a sink, a fume hood, and built-in cabinets with deskspace underneath.  Sarah’s careful planning, diligent research, and judicious purchases have transformed this small (598 square ft.) lab into a beautiful and efficient workspace.

The countertop in the foreground is a custom-built cover for the washing sink.

The countertop in this photo is actually a custom-built cover for the stainless steel washing sink.  With the countertop in place, Sarah gains significant flat workspace.  When larger items need washing, the countertop can be lifted off (a 2-person task!) to allow access to the sink.

Crimper and wall-mounted rolls of Melinex.

In keeping with the black, gray, and red color scheme, Sarah spray-painted the crimper red to match the board shear and fume hood.  Another way Sarah saved valuable labspace was to mount her rolled supplies (bookcloth, Melinex) on the wall. She also chose to mount her water conditioning system high enough on the wall to leave the counterspace beneath it usable.

Bright, natural light streams in from the windows, illuminating the moveable suction table with humidity dome. The red fume hood is visible on the back wall.

Wherever possible, tables and equipment are mounted on casters, so they can be pushed around in the most convenient configuration for a given project.

Sarah also kept her workspace in mind when considering her workflow.  She intakes items for treatment on a monthly basis and sticks to a one-month turn-around, so she never has to store large amounts of collection material in her work area.

I was very impressed by the thought and care that went into both the equipping and layout of the TSLAC lab, as well as Sarah’s approach to treatment workflow, and will be taking some of these helpful tips back to our  lab at ISU.

CHIPS, the Cultural Heritage Information Preservation Society at the School of Information, University of Texas at Austin, has been hosting an impressive line-up of events for National Preservation Week. (Click the link to see the full schedule.)

Karen Pavelka shows before and after treatment photos of a James Riely Gordon watercolor

Yesterday, I enjoyed attending a treatment demonstration by Karen Pavelka, paper conservator and iSchool lecturer.  Karen showed us a gorgeous James Reily Gordon watercolor which she had recently treated.  She had washed the watercolor (yes! you can wash watercolors!  Or, more accurately, trained professionals can sometimes wash watercolors, under the right circumstances) to reduce staining in the image area.  Karen had also removed fragments of acidic window mat that had been adhered to the front outer edges of the painting.

Karen Pavelka demonstrates the use of an elephant trunk for working with solvents

We also saw a demonstration of some of the tools of the paper conservation trade — an elephant trunk hood for working with solvents, a suction table, and various types of humidity chambers. Karen illustrated the Beilstein Flame Test for PVC (polyvinyl chloride) plastic, which involved holding a copper wire with a tiny sample of plastic on its end in an open flame.  A bright green flame indicates the presence of chlorine, a positive test result for PVC.

Karen Pavelka demonstrates washing on the suction table

Karen’s demonstration provided a fun peek into the conservation lab for iSchool students, and for a few of us conservators who were in attendance as well.

Props to Lorrie Dong, Katie Pierce and the rest of CHIPS for pulling together some great programming!

Last week, I was fortunate to be able to attend Rare Book School at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville.  I was drawn to Sue Allen‘s course on 19th century publisher’s bindings because ISU Library holds a number of these bindings, which are increasingly categorized by the preservation field as “medium rare.”  As these materials disappear from collections and grow increasingly more “special,” developing specific preservation policies for treating them becomes increasingly more important.  In order to avoid losing significant bindings (for instance, by inadvertently sending them off to the commercial binder as part of general collections maintenance), I realized that I needed a much stronger knowledge base to make informed decisions.  I had hoped that Sue Allen’s course would provide me with that foundation, and I was not disappointed.

Sue and her assistant Vince proved to be gracious and knowledgeable instructors.  The amount of course material provided to participants was overwhelming, and I am still reorganizing and digesting my notes.  Sue’s passion for these bindings caught everyone up in her enthusiasm.

What makes RBS courses stand out from other similar opportunities for professional development are its collections.  During our one-week course, my classmates and I were privileged to handle literally hundreds of examples of publisher’s bindings.  This exposure to so many historically significant materials provided a priceless experience, and allowed us to internalize Sue’s lessons in a manner that would have been impossible otherwise.

When I returned to ISU, I felt as if my eyes had been opened to a new world.  As I reviewed items from the newly-donated Bob Harvey collection, which is currently being conserved in preparation for an exhibit and reception in Special Collections this fall, I felt a ping of nerdy delight when I recognized several interesting bindings that had seemed perfectly ordinary to me before RBS.

This volume, The New England Book of Fruits (1847), speaks to the design conventions of the late 1840s.  Like many book designs typical of the 1840s, it has a blind-stamped, ornamental border, a gold-stamped centerpiece, and an experimental bookcloth (in this case, imitating the texture of watered silk).  What marks this volume as late ’40s is that the center image, a cluster of golden pears, directly relates to the book’s intellectual content instead of being a generalized, stock image such as a vase of flowers or a lyre.

Injurious Insects was published in 1882 by Orange Judd, who was known for his preference for simple, modest, uncluttered book designs, in sharp contrast with the excess so typical of most 1880s book covers.  Orange Judd’s relationship with his binder was less collaborative than other publishers of the time; Judd sought to impress his aesthetic of simplicity on all the books his firm published.  In spite of its comparative spareness, the cover does still illustrate some design elements typical of the 1880s, such as the blind-stamped back cover, the black-stamped strip border at the head and tail of the front cover, and the quirky, whimsical lettering (seen here on the spine).

Finally, The Training of a Forester (1914) exemplifies the last period of book cover design before dust jackets took precedence.  The silhouetted cover was designed by George H. Hallowell (1871-1926), a painter, stained glass artist, and book cover designer (note his discreet monogram “H” at the lower center of the design).  White stamping developed in the 1890s, and was expensive and time-consuming to produce, because the same area had to be stamped 7 or 8 times to build up enough white colorant for opacity.

When our RBS course began, Sue explained that you can never truly see until someone teaches you how to look, and I thank her and Vince for teaching me how to see the treasures that were right under my nose.

During the interns’ final week with us, the ISU Conservation staff took a field trip to Des Moines to visit the headquarters of Archival Products & Library Binding Services (LBS).  We order many of our conservation supplies from them, and it was great to meet their staff in person, tour the facilities, and learn first-hand about the products they offer.

Janice led us on a tour of the Archival Products floor, where we watched the staff assemble portfolios, pamphlet binders, and other ready-made enclosures.  Seeing its operation in action, it was easy to understand why Archival Products prides itself on its quick turn-around time and flexibility responding to custom orders.

Rob led our tour of LBS, where we saw various types of endsheet construction and were able to examine and handle  many different types of bookcloth.  Seeing behind the scenes at their facility gave us a better sense of how to ask sensible questions about the materials we want to order.  Field trips like this are worthwhile not only because they facilitate better communication with our vendors, but because they also foster a personal connection which strengthens our working relationship.  I was impressed by the care and commitment that the Archival Products and LBS staff show towards their work and their clients, and this in turn makes me more confident about using their products.

Rob explains how large rolls of textile are cut down to custom sizes.

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