Campus Observer: Loan Renewal

January 31, 2010
Remains of the page: book con servators, front to back, Rachel Ingold, Mary Yordy, and Erin Hammek

Remains of the page: book conservators, front to back, Rachel Ingold, Mary Yordy, and Erin Hammeke. Duke University Libraries

A professor's dog uses a book as a chew toy. A volume falls down a library elevator shaft. A patron inexplicably decides to use a banana as a bookmark. Extreme cases, yes, but as collections conservator for the nearly 6 million items in the libraries' holdings, Beth Doyle has seen the mundane and the strange. She and members of her four-woman staff rehabilitate books sidelined by decline, decay, or disaster and send them back into the circulation fray.

"Look at this one," she says, holding up a book with a cover that is a mottled reddish pink. "Do you see this damage? The cockroaches eat the starch out of the cloth." Insects and mold, the two greatest enemies of a library, account for most of the books that enter the Verne and Tanya Roberts Conservation Lab, the spotless new facility that Doyle and her staff moved into in 2008. It is a comfortable, clean, and well-organized subterranean space that is a mix of timeless workshop and modern chemistry laboratory, complete with a fume hood for chemical treating, a shallow four foot by five-and-a-half foot sink custom designed to accommodate two large photo trays, and a special room for photographing collections. It is also filled with hand tools and homemade adhesives whose recipes are centuries old.

Mary Yordy, senior conservation technician, has five books with binding problems lined up on her workbench in various states of repair. On the first, she has filed off the old cloth covering. On the next, she has sanded off the original glue. Another sits in a book press waiting to be worked on. Brushing away some of the dust, she explains that conservators are now using reversible methods of repair that are designed to fix an issue but leave it essentially unchanged in the process.

Conservation sponge removes surface dirt

Conservation sponge removes surface dirt. Duke University Libraries

She takes out a small glass jar filled with a cloudy solution of wheat-starch paste, which she cooks in the lab herself, and applies it to a binding. Behind her, Erin Hammeke, a special-collections conservator, is repairing old repairs made nearly a half-century ago to some books from the Jantz German-Americana collection. "I guess conservators in a hundred years will thank us," she says.

Fixing damaged items takes up most of the time in the lab, but Doyle has carved out special time for other missions of the conservation program. Her favorite, by far, is the monthly "boxing day," which, as few outsiders realize, has nothing to do with the Commonwealth's post-Christmas gift giving. Many odd-sized collections enter the lab in need of repair or enclosure or both. Since there is no universal standard for book size, let alone for ancient Ethiopic codices, conservators must build custom housings for them. All other projects are suspended for the day so the staff can cut, fold, and fashion the boxes.

It can be a frustrating or, occasionally, even a hazardous activity. Doyle is struggling with a 1920s phonebook from Lynchburg, Virginia, trying to build a box around it. But for some reason, her measurements keep coming out wrong, leaving her without enough material to close the covering. This, however, is preferable to the time she sliced off the side of her left index finger with a surgical scalpel on a boxing day a few years ago.

The boxes help protect pages from becoming brittle or leather binding from deteriorating. There have been some odd ones she has made—one in particular came from the libraries' John W. Hartman Center for Sales, Advertising & Marketing History. Apparently, an ad agency had once sent its clients small, pink felt dragons for Christmas, one of which found its way into the collection. "A square book is easy," Doyle says. "But a pink dragon? Not so easy." The conservator had to build a special support to protect the dragon's tail.

Newer techniques include precision tools and delicate weights, used here to mend letter from Louisa Whitman to her son Walt Whitman

Newer techniques include precision tools and delicate weights, used here to mend letter from Louisa Whitman to her son Walt Whitman. Duke University Libraries

About a third of the material that the conservation lab processes comes from the Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library; the rest, from regularly circulating materials in Perkins Library. To accommodate the materials' disparate origins, ages, and ailments, the lab has to stay well stocked. For books originating in Asia, for example, there is a drawer holding tissue paper common in those works; conservators graft it onto damaged pages, combining—fiber by fiber—the old and the new.

Collections conservation, for these reasons and others, defies standardization. Of the more than 40,000 books and pamphlets that have entered the lab in the seven years since Doyle arrived, relatively few have been repaired in the same way. Conservators group, or batch, similar collections. Still, each item must be considered on an individual basis, making the impressive accumulated craft knowledge possessed by the conservators indispensable.

The work requires almost as many different tools as there are possible fixes. From surgical scalpels to dental instruments, many come from the medical fields. Others, like the hacksaw blades, the heavy presses, and sandpaper, might seem more at home in a carpenter's workshop. And others yet are more specific to the trade: bone folders for making precise, flat, and even folds; micro spatulas for separating pages from each other; a porcupine quill for getting into those hard-to-reach places; and all varieties of beveled and flat knives used for countless fine tasks.

In addition, there is a massive board shear, basically an enormous version of the common office paper cutter, with the exception that it can cut through thick book boards and requires the operator to use a foot pedal to help hold down the item being cut. There are other machines that crease, edge, or cover book boards, too.

Newer techniques include precision tools and delicate weights, used here to mend letter from Louisa Whitman to her son Walt Whitman

Duke University Libraries

Many of the tools are passed down from mentor to student. Doyle has a bone folder (an oblong, mostly flat piece of bone resembling what one might find in a natural-history museum's collection of hunter-gatherer tools) that was given to her by Gary Frost, a giant in the conservation field. "You really feel the history of your craft," she says.

As Doyle drifts off to talk with a colleague, Yordy leans over her workbench, folding a piece of heavyweight paper, marking it with a pencil, folding again, but never once taking out a ruler. Here, the science of the library system is trumped by craft knowledge. As Doyle puts it, "We're Jills of all trades."