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.

A Conservator Working from Home, Continued

June 9th, 2020

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.

Three infographics showing statistics related to the productivity of student employees in Conservation Services department of KU Libraries.
I created these infographics (using the free online software Piktochart) to celebrate the amazing contribution that our student employees make to the work of Conservation Services and the Libraries. Click image to enlarge.

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!

A small book lies on a cutting mat; the book is bound in the limp binding style, with a laced paper case, green and yellow endbands, and a fore-edge tie closure.
One of the limp binding models I have made while working from home, this one with a laced pastepaper cover and green and yellow endbands. Click image to enlarge.
A handmade cloth face mask sits on a tabletop next to a sewing machine and other sewing supplies.
One of several face masks that I made in preparation for an eventual return to working in the lab. Click image to enlarge.

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

Dressy Boxes for Special Books

October 4th, 2017

The Spencer Research Library is very fortunate to have a host of student employees to assist with the daily functions of the Library; certainly, the same is true for Conservation Services, the preservation department for all of KU Libraries including Spencer Research Library. One of the important and on-going projects performed by our student employees for Spencer Research Library is creating custom enclosures for some of the more fragile materials. Books with loose or missing covers, damaged spines, or warped covering boards are among those identified by curators, catalogers, and the special collections conservators as candidates to be housed. The enclosures, known as tuxedo boxes or “tux boxes” for short, are custom fitted, four-flap wrappers, constructed from acid-free card stock.

The books are measured using a wooden device known as a MeasurePhase. It is a wonderfully handy tool that functions much like a pair of calipers designed to map the height, width, and thickness of a three-dimensional object.

Tuxedo box, Conservation Services, University of Kansas

One of the great advantages of this tool is that the books (or objects) can be measured in situ and the dimensions recorded on strips of paper with a pencil. These strips can then be taken to the conservation lab, where the materials and equipment needed to construct the boxes reside. This minimizes the likelihood of damage that can occur during handling and transport of the delicate books. Conservation Services student employees use the MeasurePhase, paper strips, and pencils, as noted above. They might need to turn the book several times for each of the dimensions, until the point of greatest width is found.

Tuxedo box, Conservation Services, University of Kansas

Next they transfer the information from the paper strips to the card stock, cutting two long pieces of card to form the wrapper. One piece is cut to the height of the book and the second to the width. The thickness or depth of the book is added, as the students mark, score, and fold the card.

Tuxedo box, Conservation Services, University of Kansas

The two long prices of card are joined using double-sided tape, and a slot and tab is created on the outer two flaps of the wrapper. The tab, in particular, is a task that requires a skillful touch with the straight-edge and scalpel. All pencil marks are erased from the boxes, and the students place the completed boxes on a shelf where they are labeled by our bindery staff person.

Once a group of boxes is labeled, the students return the boxes to Spencer Research Library where they are united with their books. The label information is checked against the book itself  and the book is returned to the shelf. Conservation services student employees construct hundreds of tuxedo boxes each year for the more at-risk books in Spencer Research Library. These enclosures reduce damage from dust, handling, and light, and prevent loss of pages from loosely bound volumes. In this way, a small amount of preservation is spread among a large number of volumes.

 

Roberta Woodrick
Collections Conservator
Conservation Services