On Wednesday, July 23, a small group of technical services librarians (Curt Conklin, Melody Lembke, Pat Turpening, Alice Pidgeon, Linda Meyer, and Hope Breeze) left Baltimore and braved the rain and the chill to travel to Washington, D.C. to tour the Library of Congress conservation lab. The Conservation Division, located in the Madison Building, is one of four divisions within the Library of Congress Preservation Directorate and provides a range of preservation services to all divisions of the library. Staff members in the division serve as liaisons to other divisions and therefore become familiar with particular collections. This familiarity allows them to provide specialized advice on assessing the preservation needs of those collections. In addition to providing restoration and conservation treatments for items held by the library, the Conservation Division is responsible for monitoring environmental conditions within the Library, establishing guidelines for disaster preparedness, helping to establish rules for the use and handling of collections, and educating staff. One day each year the Conservation Division sponsors a workshop for the staff of the Library to learn about preservation issues. The Division also supports an around the clock emergency preparedness response team.
Our group toured three areas of the lab: book conservation, paper conservation, and preventive conservation. Tom Albro, Head of Rare Books Conservation, explained that materials are treated in the lab for the following reasons: they are difficult to catalog because of their physical state; they are needed for exhibitions; they are from large collections of great value; or they require the variety of treatments needed to maintain staff skill levels. In other words, items are generally treated according to greatest need, however some items may be selected for treatment so that conservators use all their skills on a regular basis. Tom said that a great deal of consideration is given to using conservation methods that are sympathetic to the time and the place of the original book, unless these conflict with using archivally sound means of treatment. One staff member devotes all of her time to the development of specifications for the supplies used by the staff and negotiates with vendors to obtain them. All supplies are tested on-site to ensure that they truly meet the specifications. In each area that we toured we were awed by samples of the impressive works they handle. Among their recent conservation projects were Teddy Roosevelt's diary and the bible used at Abraham Lincoln's inauguration.
As we left the book conservation area, we observed the conservation lab library and took a quick peek into the photography studio where before and after photos are taken of materials treated by the lab. Our next stop was in the paper conservation area where Tom introduced us to Ann Seibert. Ann talked with us about the Division's outreach program, which is aimed at preserving the collections of the library by preventing damage from the environment and from mishandling. Ann also showed us samples of prints that she had been treating, including some extremely detailed Civil War battlefield drawings by British artist Anthony Waud. Attempts years ago to preserve these drawings by gluing them to bond paper had caused enough damage to warrant the need for re-treatment. On removing the drawings from the bond paper Ann discovered artist notes on battle statistics that had been concealed from view. As in all libraries, the Library of Congress Conservation Division sees many articles that have been damaged by well-meaning conservators from the past.
Our last stop on the tour was in the preventative conservation area of the lab where Alan Haley showed us some of the materials used to create box enclosures. A boxing machine run by computer cuts the boxes according to specified measurements. Computer programs also generate very professional looking labels for the boxes. In designing enclosures, much consideration is given to the size of the material to be enclosed, its chemical makeup, and how it will be shelved. A book with raised ornaments on the cover is enclosed with extra panels inside which provide indentations for the ornaments while the rest of the book cover is snugly supported by the panels. An enclosure that Alan created for several locks of hair from Thomas Jefferson was designed with a special transparent mesh material which allowed the hair to be viewed without exposing it to damaging chemicals. By the way, Thomas Jefferson was definitely a strawberry blond!
Patience and dexterity are obviously prerequisites to success in the field of conservation. Perhaps less obvious is the versatility of knowledge required to analyze the physical properties and historical significance of items in order to preserve and protect them. All in all, it was a very enjoyable experience for our group and inspired us to think about touring other areas of LC's preservation operation during the 1999 convention.