Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

A Conservator Working From Home Part 3: Approaching “Normal”

July 20th, 2021

Over a year ago, I wrote about how working from home was going for me, about three months into the COVID19 pandemic. I was spending my time doing a lot of online professional development, attending Zoom meetings, interacting on social media, and working on small hands-on projects. 

A split-screen image showing a screenshot of a Zoom call on the left, with a small child visible in the window next to the author, and a kitchen table at the right, with a school-age child working on an iPad next to the author's laptop and notebook.
Two familiar working from home scenes: small children in Zoom calls, and co-working with a remote-schooler.

Soon after that post was published, the Conservation Services team began our careful transition back to working on-site. In mid-June of 2020, I began going to the lab for a single 4-hour shift each week. Starting very slowly allowed us to establish safety practices and get a sense of our comfort level with in-person work at a time in the pandemic when it seemed there were still more questions than answers about how the virus was transmitted. We wore masks and put an extra focus on hand hygiene, and staggered our lab shifts to reduce the number of people working at a time. Our large lab space also made it possible to keep a safe distance from one another. Even with all the uncertainty, I was grateful not only to still have my job, but to be back in the lab, working directly with the collections once again.

The following month, I increased my lab time to four 4-hour shifts per week, and maintained that schedule through the rest of 2020. I continued my professional development activities during work-at-home time, attending hundreds of hours worth of webinars and lectures, in addition to lots of reading. The annual meeting of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) was held completely online last year, so I was able to attend many more presentations at this conference than I would have if it were held in person. In addition, I filled much of my at-home time from September through December working on an online Chemistry for Conservators course.

In January 2021, I added a fifth 4-hour shift to my schedule, bringing my lab time to 20 hours per week. At-home time continued to be filled with emails, meetings, lots of reading, and more online professional development, including another virtual AIC annual meeting. Then, in May, I moved to working four full days in the lab and one day at home per week. The types of activities I do at home are the same, I’m just doing less of them – and I’m so happy to be working in the lab more. It’s very satisfying to be filling my log sheets with treatment records, and to see my production statistics adding up again. For reference, here’s a comparison of my second quarter statistics from 2019, 2020, and 2021. I was able to complete a small number of treatments after our part-time return toward the end of June 2020, but my 2021 numbers are much closer to normal – a welcome and hopeful development.

Three circle charts comparing second quarter production statistics from 2019, 2020, and 2021.
Three circle charts comparing second quarter production statistics from 2019, 2020, and 2021. Stats for Q2 of 2020 show the impact of working from home for all but about two weeks of that quarter.

While questions remain about what the fall semester will look like this year, and the pandemic is not over by any measure, the experience of the last 15 months has shown that it’s possible to adapt conservation work to extraordinary circumstances. Now that I’m back in the lab nearly full-time, I have a new appreciation for the privilege of being able to do this work, and especially for the people I work with and the supportive environment that they create in our workplace. 

Angela Andres, Special Collections Conservator

Repairing Zapalote: a Conservation Treatment for a Lithograph by Mary Huntoon

April 14th, 2021

by Jacinta Johnson, Associate Conservator, Mellon Initiative

Zapalote, also known as The Goose Woman is one of nine known lithographs by Kansas artist Mary Huntoon. Based on Huntoon’s notations, we know that this single edition print was made in 1923 while she attended the Art Students League in New York, NY. Zapalote is a mysterious image depicting the silhouette of a seated woman contrasted by a bright full moon surrounded by dark clouds. Huntoon used broad, arching lines to hint at the woman’s surroundings, which are generally abstract, and allude to a rippling pool at her feet. 

This work is part of a large collection of prints, drawings, and watercolors by Huntoon at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library. Along with the Huntoon collection at the Helen Foresman Spencer Museum of Art, this collective holding at KU is regionally significant, connecting KU to other regional and national collections (e.g., Alice C. Sabatini Gallery in Topeka, Kansas; Mulvane Art Museum at Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas; and the Philadelphia Museum of Art).

The Mary Huntoon lithograph Zapalote, seen before treatment in normal light.
Image 1: The Mary Huntoon lithograph Zapalote, seen before treatment in normal light. Mary Huntoon Papers, RH MS 209:1:60. Click image to enlarge.
The Mary Huntoon lithograph Zapalote, seen before treatment in raking light.
Image 2: The Mary Huntoon lithograph Zapalote, seen before treatment in raking light. Mary Huntoon Papers, RH MS 209:1:60. Click image to enlarge.

I prioritized this print for conservation treatment during a condition survey of Huntoon’s collection of works because the print had sustained significant pest damage (see images 1-2). The entire upper right corner was lost as well as a few other smaller areas across the top edge. Tiny bite marks were visible along the edges and a long strip of the remaining top edge of the sheet was at risk of tearing off during handling.  

Conservators use several techniques for filling paper that is lost. The most common approach is to attach a new piece of paper with a similar thickness, color, and texture that is cut to fit inside the loss like a puzzle piece. The downside to this approach is that the search (and creation) of such a fill is often time-intensive. Even when the edge of the fill is beveled or butt-joined, a small seam is usually visible. The rough and jagged edges created by the hungry pest along this particular loss further complicated the shaping and stabilization process.

I had an opportunity, however, to use a simpler approach that would help stabilize the jagged edges and save time searching for the perfect fill paper: pulp fills. Pulp fills are a great method for filling paper because unlike the method described above, there is a much smoother transition between the original sheet and the fill. In this technique, wet paper pulp is dropped into the area of loss as a slurry, and can be built up to the same thickness as the print. This type of filling method can only be done if the entire print can be washed in advance because the print needs to be wet during this process. Fortunately, my testing confirmed that this print would be safe to wash.  

Next, I consulted my small collection of pre-cast paper pulp, all from high quality papers that had been previously washed. I selected two different colored paper pulps to mix together to make the best possible color match (see image 3). Then the pulp was reconstituted into a slurry with water and mixed thoroughly (see image 4).

Finding a selection of paper pulp that best matched the color of the print.
Image 3: Finding a selection of paper pulp that best matched the color of the print. Mary Huntoon Papers, RH MS 209:1:60. Click image to enlarge.
The paper pulp was turned back into a slurry by adding water.
Image 4: The paper pulp was turned back into a slurry by adding water. Mary Huntoon Papers, RH MS 209:1:60. Click image to enlarge.

After the pulp was ready, I used a pipette to drop small amounts into the area of loss. This was completed on a light table so I could match the thickness of the pulp with the thickness of the paper. I used a vegetable scrubber and curved tweezers to tamp down and shape the pulp into a smooth mat. A sheet of cotton blotter and clear polyester sheeting was also used to control the amount of water in the pulp slurry and anchor and cast the pulp. In about thirty minutes, I had already filled the entire upper right loss (see images 5a-c).

Curved tweezers helped to manipulate the pulp to match the thickness of the print.
Image 5a: Curved tweezers helped to manipulate the pulp to match the thickness of the print. Mary Huntoon Papers, RH MS 209:1:60. Click image to enlarge.
The progression of filling the loss with wet paper pulp.
Image 5b: The progression of filling the loss with wet paper pulp. Mary Huntoon Papers, RH MS 209:1:60. Click image to enlarge.
Cotton blotter was used to absorb excess water and help anchor and cast the pulp.
Image 5c: Cotton blotter was used to absorb excess water and help anchor and cast the pulp. Mary Huntoon Papers, RH MS 209:1:60. Click image to enlarge.

Once all the fills were completed, I dried the print between cotton blotters under moderate weight. After the print was fully dry, I assessed the pulp fill. Since the loss was in an area that would be used to attach it for display and/or handling, I decided to reinforce it with a very thin piece of Japanese paper, called tengucho. This would add extra strength to the area, but not change its visual effect. Finally, the edges of the pulp fill were toned slightly with graphite pencil and colored pencils to match the color of the rest of the sheet. Now that the treatment is finished, the pulp fills help to complete the print and bring the viewer’s eye back to the image area and away from the damage. 

The Mary Huntoon lithograph Zapalote, seen after treatment in normal light.
Image 6: The Mary Huntoon lithograph Zapalote, seen after treatment in normal light. Mary Huntoon Papers, RH MS 209:1:60. Click image to enlarge.
The Mary Huntoon lithograph Zapalote, seen after treatment in raking light.
Image 7: The Mary Huntoon lithograph Zapalote, seen after treatment in raking light. Mary Huntoon Papers, RH MS 209:1:60. Click image to enlarge.

Zapalote will be on view this fall 2021 at the Kenneth Spencer Research Library for the exhibit, Mary Huntoon: Artist and Art Therapist, and will feature several more examples of conservation treatments in this collection. We look forward to seeing you there!

2020 Virtual Internship: Archival Practices in Indigenous Communities in a Small Island Developing State (Dominica)

March 23rd, 2021

Lescia Carline Valmond served as KU Libraries’ first HBCU Library Alliance Preservation Intern in the summer of 2020. She spent eight weeks taking classes online with her cohort, who were each assigned to U.S. research libraries with conservation departments. She also worked with staff at Spencer Library to craft her own project in Dominica, her home country. In this post, she describes her experiences.

In 2020, I was selected to participate in the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Library Alliance Summer 2020 Internship Program in conjunction with Conservation Services in Kenneth Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas (KU). The year came with unprecedented challenges that affected this internship. The program was conducted virtually to allow the program to go on. The staff at the Spencer Research Library welcomed my thousand or so questions and further intrigued me with the work that they do.

Meetings were held each week with the directors of the HBCU Library Preservation Alliance as well as conservators and librarians at KU. Every week a new subject area or sub-field ranging from book treatments to environmental monitoring was taught online. (I will admit that I had no idea the amount of work and resources that went into archival practices.) Although I could not be there physically, the staff at Spencer Library were most happy to give me virtual tours and demonstrations of how they used the equipment and where they did their treatments. It is definitely on my bucket list to visit Spencer Library as soon as this pandemic subsides so that I can contribute a hand.

For my personal project, I worked along with Whitney Baker (Head of Conservation Services) and chose to focus on something that is dear to me, the preservation of artifacts and oral histories of the Kalinago people, an indigenous group in the Caribbean. These people are formerly known as the Caribs from which the Caribbean gets its name. However very little is known of them or by them. Personally, with this project I needed to change this dialogue. I too am Kalinago indian and sadly have known very little about my own people, culture, or even our language.

Kalingo people in their traditional dress. Photo credit Discover Dominca Authorities
Kalinago people in their traditional dress. Photo credit: Discover Dominica Authorities

Like many other Amerindian tribes, the Kalinago, as Dominica’s first settlers, were stripped of virtually all knowledge of themselves. Hence, the goal was to create an archival station in the public library where pictures, awards, and books or anything of importance would be stored and made accessible to the people. Whilst we may never know every single detail, learning how far our ancestors came and obtaining as much information as possible is a gift in itself.

Former archival station in the Salybia Primary School, Kalinago Reserve. Photo credit Lescia Valmond
Former archival station in the Salybia Primary School. Photo credit Lescia Valmond.

In order to retain information, oral history preservation was a focal point in this project. With the assistance of Deborah Dandridge (Field Archivist and Curator of the African American Experience Collections, Kansas Collection) and Letha Johnson (Kansas Collection Curator), an oral history release form and a contract were written for those donating items of interest. From thence, interviews were conducted with many persons who held different roles in society. This ensured diversification in experiences in the Kalinago Reserve rather than only asking the leaders of the community. These recordings were later transcribed for future reference.

Copy of a map showing the land which was promised to the Kalinago people by Queen Elizabeth II. Donated by Noel Valmond.
Copy of a map showing the land which was promised to the Kalinago people by Queen Elizabeth II. Donated by Noel Valmond, photo credit Lescia Valmond.

Apart from interviews, personal items were contributed to the development of the archival station, as it appeared that almost everyone thought that this project was long overdue. While there existed few conservation practices or materials on the island, whatever resources could be found were utilized. After all, it was the start of a major change. Next, it was important to consider storing the items. I had to take into consideration the humidity of the climate, the placement of the maps (ensuring that they were away from sunlight), as well as controlling the occurrence of pests specific to the tropics. Thankfully this internship afforded me the opportunity to identify much of them and ways in which they can be prevented. To assist with the temporary storage, I employed the use of paper with a neutral pH.

Labeled folders containing pieces of copies of the map.
Labeled folders containing pieces of copies of the map. The purple paper is archival paper.
Labeled folders containing pieces of copies of the map. The purple paper is archival paper. Photo credit Lescia Valmond.

Currently the archival station is housed at the Salybia Primary School, but its intended home is the Salybia Public Library, where the collected materials will be transferred when the library is complete.

Young Miranda Langlais in her early 20’s Photo credit Mary Walters
Young Miranda Langlais in her early 20s. Photo compliments Mary Walters.

To end the summer program, every intern had the opportunity to present their chosen projects to demonstrate what they had learned. Nervous as I was, I was extremely grateful for the knowledge imparted and am even keener on learning more in-depth conservation practices to continue with the archival station in the Kalinago Reserve. The oral history aspect of the project is the most important, given that the essence of all that was captured and will be passed on.

Lescia Carline Valmond
2020 HBCU Library Preservation Alliance Program Summer Intern

Treatment and rebinding of MS E279, part 2

January 22nd, 2021

All the way back in October 2019, I wrote about starting on the treatment of MS E279, Historia flagellantium…De recto et perverso flagrorum usu apud Christianos…Ex antiquis Scripturæ, patrum, pontificum, conciliorum, & scriptorum profanorum monumentis cum curâ & fide expressa, by Jacques Boileau. This volume is the manuscript, dated 1691 and with annotations believed to be in the author’s own hand, for the printed version of the same title published in 1700. Spencer also holds a copy of the printed edition at Summerfield B2655.

The volume was weakened by past water and mold damage and so required especially careful handling throughout the treatment process. After photographing the volume in its pre-treatment condition, I first cleaned the residual mold using soft brushes and low-suction HEPA vacuum, working in our bio-safety cabinet to reduce my exposure to the mold (and prevent contamination of other collection material). After the volume was cleaned, I removed the damaged binding and took apart the sewing.

A damaged folio from MS E279 before treatment, at left, and being mended during treatment, at right.
A damaged folio from MS E279 before treatment, at left, and being mended during treatment, at right. Click image to enlarge.

The most time-consuming part of the treatment involved mending tears, filling losses, and guarding the sections (adding a reinforcing strip of thin Japanese tissue along the fold to strengthen it prior to sewing). The manuscript also has numerous notes and additions pasted in which needed reinforcement or reattaching. Once all the mending was complete, the volume was ready to be sewn and bound. In discussions with Special Collections curator Karen Cook, we considered different options for rebinding the book and settled on a conservation paper case binding, which would provide gentle support for the fragile text.

I sewed the volume with fine linen thread over three cords, adding new endpapers, and added sewn endbands of the same linen thread around rolled paper cores. After lining the spine with Japanese paper, Western laid paper, and linen, I attached a new case of medium-weight handmade paper. The case is attached only by the linen spine linings and by the sewing and endband supports which are laced through the case. The result has an appearance that is similar to and visually compatible with historic limp bindings. This structure has the added benefit of being easily removed if future caretakers of this volume wish to rebind it in a different fashion.

MS E279 after treatment in its new paper case binding, with linen spine lining and laced sewing supports.
MS E279 after treatment in its new paper case binding, with linen spine lining and laced sewing supports. Click image to enlarge.
The title page of MS E279 shown before treatment, at left, and after treatment, at right.
The title page of MS E279 shown before treatment, at left, and after treatment, at right. Click image to enlarge.

The newly-bound volume is housed in a clamshell box along with the old boards. While this manuscript is still fragile, the repairs and new binding will allow it to be consulted by researchers in the reading room, which was not possible in its prior condition. To view this manuscript or any of Spencer’s collections, you may make an appointment to visit the reading room during our updated hours.

Working from home: Making a girdle book model

September 14th, 2020

During the summer of quarantine, I constructed quite a few bookbinding models to try out structures I was reading about or hadn’t made before. I decided to finally pursue my dream of constructing a medieval girdle book. This style of bookbinding is most easily identified by an extension of the covering material, which often ends in a knot. The extension and knot allow for the book to be attached to a belt and carried on the person.

Only twenty-three girdle books are known to exist today, but if we judge by their presence in medieval art, they were a popular commodity at the time. Manuscript books were luxury items, so their representation in art signifies wealth and prestige. Because these books were meant to be carried on the body, they are usually quite small.

Girdle books have a lot of components, many of which were difficult to acquire early in the pandemic. So I reached out to bookbinder and teacher Karen Hanmer to see if she would sell me the raw materials. She enthusiastically agreed, sending me every last component to make the book, as well as an in-depth instruction manual. Because I have bound books for many years, the manual was sufficient for completing the project. However, for someone new to bookbinding, I recommend taking her class in person.

The first step was to construct the text block. I folded papers into groups of four sheets each (called a section or quire). A piece of parchment, a type of animal skin, was hooked as an endsheet around the outer sheets of the first and last section. The sixteen sections were pressed under a board and heavy weight. After a few days, I sewed the sections on sets of linen cords, using a device called a sewing frame that holds the cords taut. The sewing structure used on this book is called “packed” sewing, which requires sewing around the double cords and looping around a few times in between each quire to add strength along the spine.

Book being sewn on a sewing frame.
Textblock sewn on double linen cords, with linen thread, on sewing frame.

The sewing creates a natural round at the spine. In order to hold that shape, I placed the textblock in a press, further shaped the spine with my fingers, then attached parchment strips between the middle sewing supports with wheat starch paste. The parchment extended beyond the edge of the spine, to be attached to the no-mood-problems.com.

Sewn book in finishing press.
Sewn book in finishing press, with rounded spine shape.

The next step was to sew endbands at the top and bottom (head and tail) of the book. During the medieval era, the endband was sewn on a core (in this case, linen cord) that extended beyond the spine and was laced through the boards to add stability to the book. I chose to sew a primary endband using linen thread wrapped around a linen cord core. This style of endband has the bead (or thread pass-over) on the back. Then I sewed a secondary, decorative endband over it using blue and yellow silk thread, with a bead on the front.

Silk endband sewn on book.
Secondary endband sewn in blue and yellow silk, over a linen cord core.

The boards on medieval books were almost always made of wood. I’m not an experienced woodworker, so the wood shaping steps took a lot of time. I shaped the wood at the spine edge to accommodate the round of the textblock spine, on both the inside and outside of the wood piece. The other edges were beveled. Next I marked and drilled holes for the sewing and endband cords to lace through the wood, and chiseled channels between the two sets of holes. A channel was also cut and chiseled to accommodate a strap at the fore-edge

Book laced into wooden boards.
Front board, with linen cords laced through holes and channels cut in the wood.

Once the cords were laced through and wedged in place, the book was ready to be covered. Karen offered me a few options, and I chose grey pigskin. I have repaired many books covered in pigskin but hadn’t bound any new ones in the material. As expected, pigskin was tougher and less pliable than calf or goatskin. Once dry, the vellum spine lining extensions would typically be adhered to the inside of the wooden boards. I decided to leave them unattached at the front and adhered at the back, since I will use this model as a teaching tool and I wanted to show steps in the bookbinding process.

Girdle book model, open. Made by Whitney Baker.
Completed girdle book, open, with parchment spine linings adhered to the back board.

To close the book, Karen suggested making a simple clasp from brass rod, with a brass escutcheon pin on the center edge of the top board. The strap is a laminate of pigskin and airplane linen. I laced the strap through the back board and adhered it on the inside in the channel cut into the wood. Medieval books were often written on animal skin, which has a spring to it, so clasps were necessary to keep the book closed.

Karen’s kit was so complete that she even included some finishing embellishments. A contrasting gray leather was used to create the traditional Turk’s head knot that is often found at the end of the leather extension. I decided to create a simple design on the outer covers with a bone folder, and added upholstery tacks as bosses (traditionally used to protect the leather when the book was placed on a surface). Karen thoughtfully even included tiny scraps of parchment to create markers on the edges of the book’s pages.

Girdle book model, closed. Made by Whitney Baker.
Completed girdle book, closed, showing cover decoration, clasp, Turk’s head knot.

While this project took many evenings and weekends over a few months, I am very pleased with the results. I will add this model to our bookbinding model collection in Conservation Services, to teach bookbinding history to classes and public visitors.

Whitney Baker
Head, Conservation Services