Field Trips


When visiting antique stores, I’m used to seeing jumbles of old photographs, cabinet cards, and cartes-de-visites piled in boxes.  Occasionally, the seller takes the time to sort the photographs by format and put each format into its own box.  On a recent visit to Found Things, in Des Moines’ East Village, I was surprised to see their vintage photographs had been individually sleeved in small photo-album binders, which were neatly shelved on a small bookcase.

It was such a pleasure to see these items being cared for — each housed individually, kept out of the light, and free from dust.  It was a good reminder that archivists and conservators are not the only people who devote time and effort to preserving the past.

A group of Buddhist monks from the Drepung Loseling Monastery have been creating a sand mandala in the lobby of the Iowa State Memorial Union this week.

I spent a bit of time watching them work and found it rather calming.  The sands of the mandala will be dispersed shortly after it is completed in a ceremony that reminds the participants of the impermanence of life.  It is always good for us humans to be reminded that life is short, but I also think it is good for conservators to be reminded that not everything, no matter how beautiful or meaningful, is meant to be saved.

If you are on campus this morning, the schedule for the day is:

Mandala Completion, 10-11am

View Completed Mandala, 11am-12pm

Closing Ceremony, 12-12:45pm

Dispersal of the Sand, 12:45pm

This program is being sponsored by the Student Union Board and they have posted more photos and further information at this link.  The Iowa State Daily newspaper also ran an article that can be found here.

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.

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