It’s hard to believe it’s been almost three months since we began working from home. Since March 18, most University of Kansas employees have been working away from campus as we do our part to slow the spread of COVID-19. I wrote about how I filled my time for the first month of work-at-home back in April; it’s now June, so I thought I would check in with an update.
Much like the first month of working from home, I’ve spent most of my time doing online learning, development, and outreach activities, with Zoom meetings and some hands-on work rounding out the mix.
In the professional development area, I’ve attended or viewed no fewer than 18 webinars, online forums, and recorded talks on topics ranging from preservation and conservation, of course, to social justice, wellness, and all things COVID-19 related. Highlights for me have been the series of conservation webinars sponsored by ICON, the professional organization for conservators in the UK; these talks have given me lots of ideas to follow up on when a more “normal” way of working returns. I have also been enjoying attending the virtual AIC – that is the American Institute for Conservation – annual meeting. And an especially powerful Zoom panel hosted by USC on supporting black employees and colleagues provided an intensely personal view, unfiltered by media accounts or editorializing, of how the culture of racial injustice in our country affects black people every day. This most recent national outpouring of emotion about racial injustice has led me to commit consciously to doing my own work to educate myself about racial inequality and to seek out ways in which I can be an anti-racist ally in both my personal and professional life.
I have also been spending time online posting to social media (you can find me @midwestconservator on both Instagram and Tumblr) about what I’m working on at home, and following other conservators and library professionals who are also sharing their remote work activities. Preservation Week was April 26-May 2, and I had a lot of fun designing a series of special infographics to share during that week, focusing on the incredible volume and variety of work done by student employees in the Conservation Services department. I’ve stayed in touch and engaged with my colleagues in the Libraries and the conservation field through a lot of Zoom meetings as well as good old-fashioned emails and phones calls!
To balance all that online time, I’ve kept up with some hands-on projects, with my kitchen table serving as both office and workbench. I’ve been making some small models of limp bindings, and doing a lot of reading to go along with those. I’ve sewn some denim covers for bag weights, and made a small book futon to use at my bench in the lab. I also made myself a pile of masks to wear when I return to working in the lab. The return to campus will be phased, and early stages will certainly require use of face coverings in shared spaces such as the conservation lab.
Angela Andres Special Collections Conservator Conservation Services
In the first installment of this two part blog series, the Kansas artist, Mary Huntoon, was introduced. We shared how her print, Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators, was prepared for an overall washing treatment in order to reduce several dark brown stains along the top edge that interrupted the image area and created bulging in the surface.
Before any washing treatments are performed on works on paper, all media are tested with the proposed washing solutions to ensure their stability. The surface is also checked for any areas where the print may have been previously restored, or even re-touched by the artist with another material that might be water-soluble. I carefully examined the print under magnification during testing in order to make sure the ink and paper were safe for washing. Everything checked out, so I was ready to start the washing step.
Prior to washing, the print was gently surface-cleaned and the brown paper attachments were removed. You can read more about these steps in the first blog post about this treatment.
Before a work on paper is placed into a bath, the entire object must slowly undergo a humidification step. This helps to relax the paper and the media and prevents aggressive swelling. Then the object is gently sprayed with deionized water using a fine mist attachment in order to fully saturate it. This step-wise procedure ensures a gentle transition for the object into the bath.
The print was washed in successive baths of pH-adjusted deionized water and air-dried. I examined the print once again to assess the progress of the washing step. The stains had noticeably lessened, but they were still quite visible, and I decided to test another stain reduction technique.
Using a small brush, I gently introduced very small applications of a dilute reducing bleach to the stained areas. This reduced the stain to an almost undetectable level. Then the bleach was fully rinsed with additional baths of pH-adjusted deionized water. I used an ultraviolet lamp to check to see that all the bleach, which fluoresces under ultraviolet radiation, was rinsed away.
After the stain reduction and overall washing was complete, it was time to address a few structural concerns. Weak creases in the upper corners made the print vulnerable to breakage and tearing, so I reinforced them using Japanese paper applied with wheat starch paste we make in our conservation lab. Instead of cutting the Japanese paper, it is wetted and torn. This torn edge makes use of the long kozo fibers in the paper and creates a strong mend that integrates well into the paper. After all the mends and reinforcements were complete, the print was humidified a second time and flattened between thick felts. Pressing between felts helped to remove planar distortions along the edges, while also maintaining the plate mark of the etching.
Now that the treatment is complete, the print is ready to be returned to the collection where it can be safely examined by visitors to the Kenneth Spencer Research Library.
The Kenneth Spencer Research Library is home to the collection of papers and original artwork by Kansas artist and art therapist, Mary Huntoon (1896 – 1970). As part of a collaborative initiative between KU Libraries and the Spencer Museum of Art, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, many of the prints, drawings, and watercolors by Huntoon will be treated.
Working at home has become the new normal for many of us since around mid-March, when a national state of emergency was declared because of the novel coronavirus (COVID19) and many states, counties, and municipalities began to issue stay-at-home orders. Essential workers have been doing an amazing job keeping services functioning and supplies in stock, and of course health care workers are fighting the virus at great personal risk every day.
For those of us deemed non-essential, staying home and following public health advice is the number one thing we can do to support our essential workers, and to combat the spread of COVID19. After that, the next best thing we can do is take care of ourselves, our loved ones, and our neighbors while maintaining good hygiene and safe distance. After THAT, we can help by continuing to do our jobs to the best of our ability in these challenging circumstances. For some people, work at home might not look a whole lot different from how it looks in their workplace. Others, including many of us conservators, are finding our days looking radically different from a typical day in the lab.
In pre-COVID19 times, a regular day for a conservator probably consisted mostly of doing treatment and other hands-on work at the bench, with a smaller amount of time spent on an assortment of other activities such as email, research and reading, writing, outreach, meetings and committee work, collection surveys, and so many more “other duties as required.” In our new work-at-home reality, the “other duties” now make up the bulk of our work days. Some conservators may have the space and equipment to do treatments at home; I have seen examples of this on social media, although in these cases the treatments are limited to general collections materials. Conservators who work on rare books, special collections, and archival materials (or on museum collections of almost any kind) do not have the option to bring those materials home. There are other hands-on activities that conservators can do that do not require access to collections, such as practicing sewing end bands or making bookbinding models. Many conservators have put their hand skills to work sewing masks for donation to health care workers and community organizations.
Prior to the emergency declaration, when it was becoming clear that widespread closures were likely, the conservation community began to collect ideas for activities that conservators could do while working from home. Conservators from around the world contributed ideas – everything from webinars and professional development opportunities to free online learning resources and links to articles and video tutorials. I have referred to this list often as I put together my daily work-at-home tasks.
So, what does working at home look like for me? I will say that the one thing that working at home has in common with working in the lab it that every day is different! About five weeks in, I have fallen into something of a rough routine, but because I have a three-year-old, a first grader who is doing remote learning, and a spouse who is also working from home, it’s necessary to keep my schedule flexible to adjust to the needs of my “coworkers.”
On the first day of remote work, I took that list that my conservation colleagues had compiled and spent some time sorting it into categories – webinars, online courses, lectures, articles, wellness, and so on. I deleted things that I’d already done or were not applicable, and highlighted those that were of greater interest. I also added a few projects that were already underway and could be continued (at least partially) from home, and brainstormed some new ideas for projects that I could start.
Working from this list, I set about making a to-do list for each day that includes basics like checking email and posting to social media, and a few items from the master list of activities. It’s a good day if I can get everything checked off that day’s list, and most days I do. I’m an early riser, and now that I don’t have a commute, I’m able to start my day earlier to get ahead of things. Once the kids are up and fed, my first grader and I sit at the table and work side by side; he’s mostly gotten the hang of the online learning technology so I just help keep him on task and guide him when he’s stumped. When he’s done for the day, I usually have about an hour more of work time until lunch, and family lunches are definitely a highlight of working from home, especially now that the weather is pleasant enough that we can eat outside on the patio. In the afternoon, I’ll continue to work on my list of activities while navigating sibling politics and keeping them supplied with snacks and activities of their own. The mute function on Zoom is certainly my good friend these days!
That’s how I’ve been working – but what have I been working on? By my count as of Friday, April 17, I’ve watched 9 webinars and 4 archived videos of past presentations or conferences, attended 10 Zoom meetings, read 15 book chapters and 3 articles, posted to social media 39 times*, taken 3 online courses, sewn 26 masks to donate, and followed along on 2 e-forums. I have also been working on 4 projects in various stages of development, including writing up instructions for an oversized book enclosure and a custom cradle for digitization of manuscripts; a research project about training students who work in special collections; and a possible book arts video series. Later this week I will be going in to Spencer when my colleague will be there doing a regular building check; it will be good to see the lab, and I plan to collect some tools, materials, and books to help with some projects I am dreaming up, including models of some binding structures I haven’t tried before.
Somewhere in each day, whether it’s after lunch, early in the morning, or at the end of the work day, I’ve been making time to walk, run, take a bike ride, or do yoga; these activities help me enormously when it comes to managing the stress and uncertainty of this time. I’ve been grateful for the wealth of self-care resources that colleagues have shared, and for all the personal accounts of how people are dealing with this situation; knowing that I am not alone when I’m feeling a little at sea is so helpful. While I miss my colleagues and at the lab very much, I am heartened by the collective effort we are making along with the rest of the world – to have even a small part in a truly global effort is really quite inspiring. Wherever you are reading this from, I hope you are staying safe, taking care, and keeping your sights set on what’s good in the world.
*There is a robust and lively social media community of libraries, archives, museums, conservation professionals, and other cultural heritage institutions and workers. Find me on Instagram and Tumblr as @midwestconservator. Spencer’s Ann Hyde Postdoctoral Researcher, N. Kivilcim Yavuz, is also on Instagram as @manuscriptsetc, posting about Spencer’s manuscript collections every day while we are closed. Be well, y’all!
Angela Andres Special Collections Conservator Conservation Services
When new collections, or additions to existing collections, are accessioned into the Spencer Research Library, I arrange and describe the material so that researchers can access them. More often than not, when I begin to look through the unprocessed boxes, I find some interesting surprises.
The Frowe and Lathrop families collection recently received a donation of many additional boxes of correspondence, photographs, diaries, slides, documents, and other material. This collection comprises several generations of the Frowe and Lathrop families from the 1840s to 2016, many of whom lived primarily in Kansas.
One of the interesting items that I found while going through the unprocessed boxes was a red satin Valentine box. When I opened the candy box, underneath cherished cards and invitations, I found an inscription on the bottom written by Eva Lathrop, “Feb[ruary] 14, 1924/ Fred had my diamond ring in this box of chocolates and presented it to me. The ring box was wrapped in the foil off of one of the pieces of candy.” She accepted A. G. (Fred) Phillips’ proposal, and they were married several months later. Spencer Research Library doesn’t always keep objects unless they have a good story to tell, which this candy box does. Kaitlin McGrath, a student in the conservation department working with Collections Conservator Roberta Woodrick, created a special box to house the Valentine box.
One of the most interesting sets of finds in this collection were very early family photographs inside hinged cases, dated from the 1850s-1870s. There are over 20 daguerreotypes, tintypes, and ambrotypes of identified or partially identified men, women, and children related to the Frowe and Lathrop families. Some of the small, ornately-decorated cases appear to be made out of gutta purcha or vulcanite—common plant-based materials used in this time period. Normally, print photographs are put into acid-free folders and a document case. However, these fragile, bulky photographs in their cases needed special consideration for housing and accessibility.
Special Collections Conservator:
Most of the cased photographs that Spencer already holds are
individual items within their collections, so they are housed individually in
custom enclosures. The size of this group makes that approach impractical; it
would be time-consuming to make so many special enclosures from scratch, and
they would take up a lot of shelf space, which is always a consideration when
housing our collections. Housing this group of photographs together also made
sense from an access perspective; a single container is easier for staff to
retrieve and for researchers to view than twenty-some separate containers.
I estimated that I could fit all of the photographs into one standard size flat archival box, provided I could safely arrange them in two layers. Lynn sorted the photographs by family groups into two sets, and then set about devising a lightweight but protective structure for the interior of the box. I created two trays from layers of archival corrugated cardboard, with cavities cut to fit each of the cased photographs. Each cavity is lined with soft Tyvek® fabric to prevent abrasion of the cases, and cases with loose covers are tied with cotton tape to prevent shifting. I attached strips of archival foam around the edges of the lower tray to support the upper tray, and added handles of linen tape to the upper tray for easy removal.
Lynn Ward, Processing
After the cases returned from conservation in their special box, I needed to come up with a way to describe the cased photographs. Normally for a print photograph, the description would be connected to the folder in which the photograph is housed. Since these cased photographs were arranged in layers in their special box, I decided to describe them by layer and by rows within each layer. Each photograph in its case was described with its location in the box, as well as the identification, or partial identification of the individual(s) when known.
The Kenneth Spencer Research Library is home to the collection of papers and original artwork by Kansas artist and art therapist, Mary Huntoon (1896-1970). As part of a collaborative initiative between KU Libraries and the Spencer Museum of Art, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, many of the prints, drawings, and watercolors by Huntoon are being treated over the next two years.
Huntoon was born in Topeka, Kansas. After graduating from Washburn University in 1920, she studied at the Art Students League in New York City for six years under Joseph Pennell and Robert Henri, and was a good friend and colleague of William Stanley Hayter, founder of Atelier 17. She later became director of the Kansas Federal Art Project and made significant contributions to the early development of art therapy.
Kansas City, Kansas Grain Elevators, is an artist’s proof print (a print made prior to the final edition), an etching in black printing ink on cream, laid, machine-made paper. The primary condition issue involves two large brown stains along the top edge that interrupt the image area and cause distortions in the sheet. An overall washing treatment was proposed in order to reduce the appearance of the stains.
In preparation for the treatment, the printing inks were tested to ensure they would be stable during the wet treatment. The outer margins and back of the print were selectively surface-cleaned with a soft sponge, avoiding all printed areas, as well as the graphite pencil inscription. Surface-cleaning ensures that loose and embedded dirt and grime are not driven deeper into the paper support during the wet treatment.
Brown paper tape attachments on the top edge of the front and back of the print were removed with a methylcellulose poultice. The attachments had been partially removed at some point, and the top layer of the paper was slightly skinned. The poultice delivers moisture in a controlled way, softening the adhesive, and allowing safe removal of the attachment.
The print is
now ready to be washed. Stay tuned for Part 2 to learn how the stains were
Jacinta Johnson Associate Conservator, Mellon Initiative