Conservation: A Short Story

By Samantha Couture, MHS Nora Saltonstall Conservator & Preservation Librarian, and Lauren Gray, Reference Librarian 

Color photograph of equipment used to clean and repair paper. In the center is a large metal and wooden press with marble slabs in different sizes and shapes in storage areas below. To the left is carboard and plastic sheets in various sizes, to the right is a metal set of very thin drawers with a plastic measuring top with white lines criss-crossing.
Standing press in the MHS conservation lab, photograph taken by Samantha Couture.

Welcome to Part 2 of our series on conservation at the MHS. The ability to perform conservation treatment is an integral part of providing access to our collections and making sure they will be available far into the future.  We will discuss past conservation methods, how the field has developed, what conservation at the MHS has looked like, and the standards we adhere to today.

Book and paper conservation as a discipline is relatively new. Before the twentieth century, libraries and archives valued documents and books mainly for the text’s intellectual and historical content, rather than for the physical characteristics of the object. Treatments focused on repairs that were sturdy and allowed the item to be handled and read. It was very common to discard damaged bindings and other pages or inserts considered unnecessary.

However, there were individuals interested in the history that can be revealed by the physical characteristics of a book or document. William Blades, from Part 1 of this series, rails against bookbinders who routinely removed original bindings to trim the margins and put on new modern bindings. This was common practice, even at the MHS. One example in the MHS collection is William Bradford’s manuscript, “A ‘dialogue’ or the sum of a conference betweene some young men born in New England, and some ancient men which came out of Holland and old England 1648.” Sometime in the late 1800’s, this thin pamphlet was bound into a smart new Victorian leather binding with elaborate gold tooling.  The fragile pages were sewn into a text of blank pages, but it made it difficult to see all the text, and turning the pages put a great deal of stress on the paper. We will look at how Samantha chose to treat this document later in our series.

Color photograph of two images of a book on a plain blue background. On the left is the closed cover which is green leather with gold foil filigree and lines. On the right is the inside cover which is marbled gold, red black and tan over a dark blue background, with a black and white book plate with the words "Massachusetts Historical Society, Founded 1791" on it.
William Bradford’s manuscript “A ‘dialogue or the sum of a conference betweene some young men born in New England, and some ancient men which came out of Holland and old England 1648.” Front cover on the left, inside front cover to the right. Photograph taken by Samantha Couture.

In the 20th century, chemist and paper conservator William J. Barrow was very influential in the development of library and archives conservation. From the 1930s through the 1960s, he ran the W.J. Barrow Research Laboratory in Virginia. He collaborated with institutes such as the National Bureau of Standards and the Government Printing office. Barrow was an important link between the scientific and library and archive communities. He conducted many early accelerated aging tests, developed de-acidification techniques, and promoted the awareness of acid in modern papers and the damage it causes. [1]

Since Barrow’s time, conservation researchers have studied prevailing treatments and guided conservators in choosing the best methods. Conservators today need an understanding of the chemistry and materials used to reverse or slow the deterioration of paper. We have learned that many of our books and documents are stable without deacidification so long as the storage materials, building environment, and handling practices are suitable for long term preservation.

MHS has a long tradition of repairing manuscripts and books, which has evolved into today’s modern conservation lab.  In 1837, a committee was formed to find “the best mode of preserving the manuscripts of the Society.” [2] In 1910, a bindery was created, and manuscripts were ‘silked’ (a technique that involved attaching sheer silk to support fragile paper) and bound into volumes. By 1972, the first conservation lab was built, allowing for the deacidification of manuscripts. [3] Anne Bentley, Curator of Art & Artifacts Emerita, was the paper conservator for the MHS from 1973 to 1998. During that time, she conserved many crucial documents, including the washing and deacidification of Thomas Jefferson’s manuscript for his book, Notes on the State of Virginia. She oversaw the creation of the second conservation lab built in 2000. Ms. Bentley continues to support the work of preserving our collections as a source of expertise and institutional knowledge.

Modern conservation practice is a blending of art, craft, and science. Many traditional techniques of book and paper conservation are still used, having been proven safe and effective by current research. Two presses from the original bindery are still used frequently in the lab. These sit alongside a chemical fume hood, a water de-ionization system, and testing and analytical tools to enable sophisticated and complex treatments of our archival material. Treatments follow the American Institute of Conservation’s guidelines and code of ethics, which emphasizes retaining original materials, using reversible techniques whenever possible, and documenting treatments with written reports and photographs.

In our next installment, we will look closely at a few examples of repairs and treatments in the lab.

Color photograph of a paper cleaning and repair laboratory. In the foreground is a metal table with a plastic container full of bottles, napkins, erasers, and paintbrushes, near that is a round glass container full of small brown squares, behind that is an open paper book with handwriting and old paper repairs on the pages visible. In the background is a sink and countertop with storage cabinets, to the left of that is a set of many wire shelves hanging from the wall, all parallel to each other and some are angled up while the rest below are angled flat.
MHS Conservation Lab. Photograph taken by Samantha Couture.

[1] William James Barrow: A Biographical Study of His Formative Years and His Role in the History of Library and Archives Conservation From 1931 to 1941, Sally Roggia

[2] MHS Proceedings, ser. 1, vol. 2 (1835-1855), p. 96. (2)

[3] MHS Proceedings, ser. 1, vol. 2 (1835-1855), p. 96. (3)

Advisor: Paul N. Banks
Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of Doctor of Library Science in the Graduate School of Library Service, Columbia University, 1999