Inside Spencer: The KSRL Blog

A Recap of Our Week with Visiting Conservator Minah Song

December 14th, 2021

In October, thanks to the efforts of Mellon Initiative conservator Jacinta Johnson, we realized a long-held dream of hosting a visiting conservator in our lab. Since we moved into this space three and a half years ago, we have been excited about the possibilities our new facility affords – from holding workshops to accommodating researchers, and much more. Of course, we’d barely gotten settled when the pandemic emerged and put these plans on hold. After a period of remote work, followed by returning to work full-time in the lab and getting accustomed to working within covid restrictions, we were ready to take the step of inviting an outside colleague to work with us for a week.

The grant that supports Jacinta’s work here at Spencer Research Library (SRL) and across Marvin Grove at the Spencer Museum of Art (SMA) includes funding to bring in visiting conservators to work on collections that have been identified as needing special attention. Jacinta arranged for Minah Song, a conservator working in private practice in the Washington, D.C. area, to spend a whole week in the lab. Much of Minah’s time here was spent working with Jacinta to examine, document, and explore treatment options for a rare Korean sutra housed in our special collections (MS D23). Minah also delivered a public lecture on the history and technology of Asian papermaking and its uses for conservation and held an information session on care and handling of Asian materials for SRL and SMA staff. In addition, Minah generously agreed to teach three mini-workshops for conservation lab staff and student employees. After such a long period of isolation and distancing, it was wonderful to interact with another conservator, step away from our routines, and learn something new.

Mellon Initiative conservator Jacinta Johnson and visiting conservator Minah Song examine a rare Korean sutra from Spencer's collection.
Mellon Initiative conservator Jacinta Johnson and visiting conservator Minah Song examine a rare Korean sutra from Spencer’s collection. Call number MS D23. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas. Click image to enlarge.

For the first mini-workshop, Minah demonstrated friction drying, a method for flattening papers that may be sensitive to moisture or otherwise difficult to flatten, such as tracing paper. Jacinta has been treating drawings on tracing paper from the Mary Huntoon collections at both the SMA and SRL; she and Minah used two of these works to show how friction drying works. The drawings were first humidified in a Gore-Tex® stack, which allows water vapor to gently humidify the objects without direct contact with liquid water. Next the drawings were sandwiched between two sheets of lightly dampened mulberry paper and dried in a blotter stack under pressure for about a week. The process may need to be repeated for very stubborn creases. This method is a great, low-impact option for flattening notoriously fickle tracing paper.

Mellon Initiative conservator Jacinta Johnson and visiting conservator Minah Song demonstrate friction drying, a technique for flattening delicate paper. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas.
Mellon Initiative conservator Jacinta Johnson and visiting conservator Minah Song demonstrate friction drying, a technique for flattening delicate paper. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas. Click image to enlarge.

In the next mini-workshop we learned how to do a double-sided lining for very brittle paper items, a technique that Minah perfected when she treated a large collection of fire-damaged documents. While this method should be considered a last option due the difficulty of fully reversing it, it can provide surprising stability for severely weakened papers while still allowing the text or images to be seen. (We used discarded newspaper clippings to practice on.) In this method, very thin kozo tissue is adhered to both sides of the item by applying very dilute wheat starch paste through a layer of Hollytex®, a nonwoven polyester material. The lined object is partially air-dried with the Hollytex® still attached, then dried in a stack overnight, at which point the Hollytex® is removed, and the object returned to the stack to fully dry. We were all surprised by the relative simplicity of the process, considering the fragility of the materials involved, and the results were impressive.

Conservation Services staff and student employees practice a double-sided lining technique taught by visiting conservator Minah Song. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas.
Conservation Services staff and student employees practice a double-sided lining technique taught by visiting conservator Minah Song. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas. Click image to enlarge.

For our final mini-workshop, we had the chance to experiment with several types of pre-coated, solvent-set repair tissues. Pre-coated repair tissues usually consist of a thin kozo paper to which a layer of adhesive has been applied and allowed to dry. The coated paper can then be cut to size, reactivated with some type of solvent (usually water or ethanol), and applied to a tear to create a mend. We already use a pre-coated repair tissue prepared with a mixture of wheat starch paste and methycellulose, which is reactivated with water and serves as a good all-purpose repair material. But Minah demonstrated other types of pre-coated papers that offer other possible applications: tissue coated in Klucel™ M and reactivated with ethanol is a good option for documents containing iron gall inks or other water-sensitive media, and tissue coated with Aquazol®, reactivated with water, and set with a heated tacking iron can be an efficient choice for projects with a high volume of needed repairs, tight time constraints, or both.

Visiting conservator Minah Song demonstrates the use of pre-coated repair tissues for Conservation Services staff and student employees. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas.
Visiting conservator Minah Song demonstrates the use of pre-coated repair tissues for Conservation Services staff and student employees. Kenneth Spencer Research Library, The University of Kansas. Click image to enlarge.

We all greatly enjoyed our week working with and alongside Minah, getting to know her, and benefitting from her willingness to share her time and expertise with us. We now have a new conservation friend, and a wealth of new knowledge to bring to our work on KU’s collections.

2021 Virtual Summer Internship: Archival Collection of Fisk University During the Covid Era

August 24th, 2021

Paul Springer, Jr., served as KU Libraries’ second HBCU Library Alliance Preservation Intern in the summer of 2021. He spent six weeks taking classes online with his cohort, who were each assigned to U.S. research libraries with conservation departments. He also worked with staff at Spencer Library to craft his own archival project. In this post, he describes his experiences.

My name is Paul Springer, a senior history and psychology major at Fisk University. My career aspirations involve me working with students and diversifying the academy. As an aspiring historian, I hope combine interdisciplinary studies to further African Diaspora studies. With interests in popular culture, U.S civil rights history, Nigeria, and a special focus on film, I hope to make connections between Nigerian popular culture and U.S social and civil rights movement in the 20th century. I also wish to get involved with archival work dealing with popular culture materials. I believe that my particular skills could be useful in museums and libraries. Born and raised in Memphis, Tennessee, I hope to make impact in my community through historical research. As the home of the National Civil Rights Museum, my hometown has a prominent presence in African American research and heritage. Creating opportunities, engaging in community, and influencing the next generation are the most crucial components to any career path I choose.

Paul Springer, Jr.

Working with the Spencer Research Library at the University of Kansas, my project looks to collect documents, flyers, programs during the academic semesters that Covid-19 interrupted. So far, I have the written speeches of the Student Government Association president, a program for the Honors convocation, and photos from social media. Due to limited time during the internship, this project continues. My goal is to donate this collection to the Fisk University archives.

Paul Springer, Jr.
2021 HBCU Library Preservation Alliance Program Summer Intern

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 Zapolote: a Conservation Treatment for a Lithograph by Mary Huntoon

April 14th, 2021

by Jacinta Johnson, Associate Conservator, Mellon Initiative

Zapolote, 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. Zapolote 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 Zapolote, 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 Zapolote, 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 Zapolote, 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 Zapolote, seen after treatment in raking light. Mary Huntoon Papers, RH MS 209:1:60. Click image to enlarge.

Zapolote 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