Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

Workshop Recap: Parchment Conservation

September 26th, 2016

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to travel to the International Preservation Studies Center (IPSC, formerly known as the Campbell Center for Historic Preservation Studies) to participate in a 4-day workshop on the conservation of parchment. My nine classmates and I – conservators from a variety of institutions around the country – stayed in IPSC’s dormitory housing in the tiny town of Mount Carroll, Illinois (read about the interesting history of the IPSC campus here) and immersed ourselves in the subject under the guidance of instructor Sheila Siegler, a chemist and conservator with many years of experience treating parchment documents.

From her long experience working with parchment, Sheila brings a wealth of knowledge and a set of strong opinions, but also a refreshing lack of fussiness when it comes to working with a material that has a reputation for being difficult. Along the way she was always very encouraging, reminding us that parchment can be tamed as long as you know what you’re dealing with and accept its quirks and imperfections as par for the course.

We began on the first day with a morning lecture on the history of the use of parchment and how parchment is made. This part is not for the squeamish – the process of turning sheep or calf skin into parchment is a messy business! We also spent some time learning about the chemical structure of parchment and how it deteriorates; as a chemist, Sheila wanted us to understand how and why the parchment would respond to the treatments we performed in class.

We spent the afternoon of Day 1 trying out different ways of examining parchment – under various types of illumination and under different levels of magnification – and comparing the ways that parchment and “parchment paper” behaved under different kinds of stress. Using scraps of historic parchment, modern parchment, and modern parchment paper, we soaked, boiled, and burned samples and recorded the results. Some students had the idea to intentionally disfigure their samples quite severely so that later in the workshop they would have the fun challenge of trying to undo the damage. At the end of Day 1 we broke into pairs and were assigned a large folded historic parchment document (reportedly purchased on eBay) that it would be our responsibility to examine and treat over the rest of the workshop.

Examination of parchment under ultraviolet light.

Examining a parchment document under ultraviolet illumination. Photo by Kyle Clark.

On the morning of Day 2, we worked on cleaning our parchments and preparing adhesives to use in the afternoon session on parchment repair. Sheila’s preferred cleaning technique is simple – a plain cotton ball, slowly and gently brushed over the parchment surface. Very grimy areas could be cleaned with a swab moistened in water if necessary, but Sheila’s no-fuss approach calls for only as much intervention as is needed; after all, very old documents are bound to show their age, and the idea is not to make them look brand new again, but, for those of us who work in research institutions, to make their contents accessible to researchers.

The adhesive we made is called parchment size and is prepared very simply by slowly heating bits of parchment cuttings in water until the mixture thickens into a mild gelatinous adhesive. We put it to use in the afternoon session, experimenting with it and other adhesives (wheat starch paste and methylcellulose) and different kinds of repair tissues (Japanese paper and a material called goldbeater’s skin, made from ox intestines) to mend tears in parchment. We mixed and matched adhesives and repair materials and made notes on the effectiveness of each combination. We also discussed the types of historic stitched or embroidered repairs that are sometimes seen on parchment, and some students experimented with replicating this type of repair on our sample scraps.

Conservation tools and storeroom

The storerooms at IPSC are a little like a candy store to conservators.

On Day 3 it was time for the most harrowing part of our treatment – humidification and flattening of our parchment documents. Students traded horror stories – their own or second-hand – of parchment treatments gone awry, but in her easy way Sheila urged us to jump in and be brave. We laid down plastic on the table, then moistened absorbent material, then a layer of Tyvek (yes, that Tyvek that you see at construction sites – it protects the document from being saturated but allows water vapor through to gently humidify the object) followed by the parchment and then more Tyvek, another moistened layer, and finally more plastic. After around 30 to 60 minutes, most documents were humidified enough to be ready for flattening, a process that involves placing padded clips close together around the parchment edges and pinning them down (we pinned our to sheets of stiff foam insulation) so that the skin is pulled flat. As it dries, it will “remember” its new flat shape.

Parchment workshop

Sheila demonstrating how to flatten parchment with the assistance of students. Photo courtesy IPSC.

Sheila was right – it really wasn’t so scary after all, nor quite as time-consuming as it’s sometimes made out to be. The clips can leave some minor distortions along the parchment edges, but those can either be removed through a second, shorter humidification followed by flattening under weight, or they can simply be left alone if one is satisfied with just having removed the major folds. As for the scraps that had been intentionally damaged earlier in the workshop, we tried the same humidification and flattening technique on them and were surprised at how well it worked.

Parchment workshop

Sheila assessing a student’s flattened parchment. Photo courtesy IPSC.

During the periods of waiting for parchment to humidify or to dry, we did more experimenting, this time with various surface preparations such as those that scribes would have used to prepare parchment for writing upon. We tried an assortment of mild abrasives, liquids, oils, eggs, and combinations thereof to see how they affected the quality of the parchment surface. Someone even found a feather and carved its tip into a nib to make a pen for testing the writing surfaces.

And finally we came to Day 4, when we marveled at our nice flat parchments and did still more experimenting, this time with hinging and matting techniques. Sheila’s preferred method is characteristically simple: a fringe of closely-spaced Japanese tissue hinges all around the document, adhered with wheat starch paste. Using many small hinges (rather than one long one to a side, another common hinging method) allows the skin more room to flex with changes in environmental conditions, which parchment is apt to do.

This workshop was a great experience, and I certainly came away with a better understanding of parchment, as well as the confidence to approach treatment of parchment items in Spencer’s collections.

Angela Andres
Special Collections Conservator
Conservation Services



Throwback Thursday: Student Room Edition

September 22nd, 2016

Each week we’ll be posting a photograph from University Archives that shows a scene from KU’s past. We’ve also scanned more than 28,000 images from KU’s University Archives and made them available online; be sure to check them out!

Student housing at KU sure has changed in one hundred years!

Photograph of a KU student room, 1912

Female students in their room, 1912. University Archives Photos.
Call Number: RG 71/0 1912 Prints: Student Activities (Photos).
Click image to enlarge (redirect to Spencer’s digital collections).

Photograph of a KU student room, 1911

A KU student’s decorated room, 1911. University Archives Photos.
Call Number: RG 71/0 1911 Negatives: Student Activities (Photos).
Click image to enlarge (redirect to Spencer’s digital collections).

This week’s photos were likely taken at Lawrence rooming-houses or private residences, as Corbin Hall, the first dormitory on campus, did not open until 1923. A KU History article about the residence hall summarizes the housing situation KU students encountered in the early decades of the university’s history.

While it’s hard to imagine now, originally there were no University-owned dormitories for students at the University of Kansas. During KU’s early years, housing was catch-as-catch-can, with many of the students in attendance usually hailing from the surrounding area. As such, many lived at home, or with faculty, or in other private residences.

But by the turn of the twentieth century, with more out-of-towners descending on Lawrence every year, the KU housing situation was becoming increasingly dire. This was particularly the case for women students. (Men generally had an easier time finding and retaining residential quarters since it was widely surmised male students had no need of “creature comforts,” and could stay more or less anywhere.)

Forced to fend for themselves when it came to securing room and board, KU women students met with opposition from boardinghouse owners, parents, and others overly concerned about the special issues that women faced in terms of the moral and social order. As such, women were put in the position of securing quarters that were acceptable not only to themselves, but also to their parents or guardians.

Caitlin Donnelly
Head of Public Services

Melissa Kleinschmidt and Abbey Ulrich
Public Services Student Assistants

Meet the Staff: Emily Beran

September 20th, 2016

This is the ninth installment in what will be a recurring series of posts introducing readers to the staff of the Kenneth Spencer Research Library. Joining us in July 2016, Emily Beran is Spencer’s newest team member; she’s the Library Assistant for Public Services.

Emily Beran, Library Assistant for Public Services

Where are you from?

I’m from Claflin, this little town in central Kansas.

What does your job at Spencer entail?

I’m primarily responsible for running reception and assisting with the day-to-day running of things at the Spencer (helping with schedule, office inventory, working with students, etc.). I’m also learning more about the collection right now so that soon I can page materials for patrons and help with research questions.

How did you come to work at Spencer Research Library?

I actually worked for KU Libraries for three years as an undergrad (Watson Cataloging Department). When I saw there was an opening at the Spencer for a library assistant, I knew I had to apply! Not only did the position bring me back to KU but it also gave me the opportunity to work in an environment that really prizes research and accessibility to the amazing resources available here.

What is one of the most interesting items you’ve come across in Spencer’s collections?

Narrowing this down is so hard! Right now I’m really excited about the facsimiles of The St Alban’s Psalter and The Relics of St Cuthbert that I stumbled upon just the other day! Those are at the top of my list of items to check out!

What part of your job do you like best?

Learning more about the collection! I can’t wait to explore more!

What are your favorite pastimes outside of work?

I love to read – something I can do for fun again now that I’m done with my master’s. I also watch a ridiculous amount of Netlfix. Oh and I’m working on learning French!

What piece of advice would you offer a researcher walking into Spencer Research Library for the first time?

Never be afraid to ask questions! It’s the best way to learn!

Emily Beran
Library Assistant
Public Services


Throwback Thursday: Library Study Session Edition, Part II

September 15th, 2016

Each week we’ll be posting a photograph from University Archives that shows a scene from KU’s past. We’ve also scanned more than 28,000 images from KU’s University Archives and made them available online; be sure to check them out!

Photograph of two female students at Watson Library, 1959

Two female students at Watson Library, 1959.
University Archives Photos. Call Number: RG 32/0 1959 Negatives:
University of Kansas Libraries (Photos).
Click image to enlarge (redirect to Spencer’s digital collections).

Caitlin Donnelly
Head of Public Services

Melissa Kleinschmidt and Abbey Ulrich
Public Services Student Assistants

Throwback Thursday: Press Box Edition

September 8th, 2016

Each week we’ll be posting a photograph from University Archives that shows a scene from KU’s past. We’ve also scanned more than 28,000 images from KU’s University Archives and made them available online; be sure to check them out!

Photograph of the press box at Memorial Stadium, 1921

The press box at the brand-new – and still incomplete – Memorial Stadium, 1921.
Gift of Robert L. Gilbert (BA ’23), June 1974. University Archives Photos.
Call Number: RG 0/22/53 1921 Prints: Campus: Buildings:
Memorial Stadium (Photos). Click image to enlarge.

Caitlin Donnelly
Head of Public Services

Melissa Kleinschmidt and Abbey Ulrich
Public Services Student Assistants