Shedding Some Light on Medieval Pigments

By Caitlin Moore

Louisa Smieska (postdoctoral researcher, CHESS) and Ruth Mullett (Ph.D. Candidate, Medieval Studies) have been working with Laurent Ferri, (Curator of pre-1800 collections for Cornell University’s Rare and Manuscript Collections) to identify inorganic pigments used in some of the illuminated manuscripts in Cornell’s collection. They will be performing x-ray fluorescence mapping (MA-XRF) experiments at CHESS (Cornell High Energy Synchrotron Source). This analysis will help to determine the chemical makeup of the pigments in a non-invasive way. More specifically, the experiments will yield maps that show the 2D concentrations of chemical elements present in the inks and pigments. Knowing what elements are present can allow researchers to infer the identities of the pigments, and information on chemical impurities might also shed some light on the geographical source of certain pigments.

Louisa and Ruth are particularly interested in using this technology to determine what might lie beneath this image, which you can see has been adhered to the page rather than being painted directly on the parchment. The x-ray analysis could potentially help uncover what is beneath the affixed image, without having to perform the invasive process of physically removing it.

IMG_6241   IMG_6242

Leaf from a Book of Hours, Paris, ca. 1500  Coronation of the Virgin

Conservation treatment of Shakespeare’s Fourth Folio

by Michele Brown

Cornell University Library is commemorating the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death with a series of digital vignettes highlighting Cornell’s Shakespeare collection. Earlier this year, the Fourth Folio came to the conservation lab for treatment and evaluation.

The title page, before repair.

The title page, before repairing the binding.

The binding on Cornell’s Fourth Folio appears to be contemporary with its 1685 printing date. It is a full calfskin binding with a gilt spine.The leather is tightly adhered to the back of the book (this is known as a tight back). When it came into the lab, the front board was detached, the back board was weakly attached, and a large piece of covering was missing from the back board. The tailband was mostly missing, with the core being held on with a few loops. The corners were worn with some losses. It had been previously repaired.

The front board of Shakespeare's Fourth folio, before treatment. The tailband is hanging off.

The front board of Shakespeare’s Fourth Folio, before treatment. Notice how the tailband is hanging off.

The tight bond between the original leather spine and the back of the book  created difficulties for repairing the binding. Usually, when a book is rebacked  the original spine is removed, the back is lined with cloth over  tissue for strength and reversibility, and a new spine made from material similar to the original spine is applied. The original spine would then be stuck on over the new spine. The result is a book with reinforced sewing, new materials in all the areas that take the most stress, and yet with all of its original components retained.

The previous repair leather was applied only to the joints and head and tail caps, indicating perhaps, that the conservator had experienced difficulty removing the original  spine.

The spine of the Fourth Folio, before treatment.

The spine of the Fourth Folio, before treatment. The repair leather is visible at the edges and head of the spine.

Since the spine of a tight back binding is adhered directly to the pages of the book, it is not always possible to remove the spine without damaging it or the pages. When a book is historically significant with a contemporary binding, it is important to retain as many of its original components as possible. That is the case with our copy of the 4th Folio. We can tell our copy was previously repaired not only by the “new”  leather on the outside joints, but also by the treatment of the first few pages and the inner joints.  We don’t know when the earlier repair was done, but the repair leather had deteriorated and needed to be replaced. The front board had become detached and needed to be reattached.

I tried lifting the original spine after first facing it with Hanji paper using methyl cellulose paste as the adhesive. I was able to remove the second panel (containing the title label), and the tail panel, but could only lift the edges of the rest of the spine. The edges of the boards, both inside and outside, were easily lifted.

Once the leather was removed from the second and last panels, these areas were first lined with usu mino tissue using wheat starch paste, and then with unbleached cotton stretch cloth (from Gane Bros) using pva. The stretch cloth was cut wide enough to stretch over onto the boards under the lifted leather. A lining of Conservation Wove paper (from Katie Macgregor), using pva, made for a nice smooth surface on these 2 panels.

Ideally, all of the panels would receive this kind of reinforcement, but the spine adhesion was tenacious. How could I add strength to my repair? I decided to use joint tacketing on the front board. Joint tacketing consists of drilling  several holes into the joint, angled so they come out on the shoulder of the spine. Two corresponding holes for each tacket are drilled into the board. Linen thread is passed through the joint to the spine and secured with a loop. The tails pass through the holes in the board.  A square knot is tied to hold the threads in place. This holds the board to the spine in a way that is similar to its original attachment. The joint tacketing link above provides a detailed description of the procedure.

Before drilling the holes, a strip of Hanji paper was attached to the inside shoulder, one edge aligning with the shoulder, the rest extending towards the fore edge. This would be folded up over the linen thread loops towards the end of the treatment. Then, holes at 5 stations  were drilled into the joint and 2 per each station were drilled into the board. At each station, the thread was passed through the shoulder, looped, and then passed through the board and tied in a square knot.

The front joint, with tackets and the strip of Hanji tissue.

The front joint, with tackets and the strip of Hanji tissue.

This is a closer view of one of the tackets, showing the loop and square knot.

This is a closer view of one of the tackets, showing the loop and square knot.

A new tailband was woven using silk twist over the original tailband core.

The finished tailband and cap.

The finished tailband and cap.

New calfskin (from Hewit’s) was pared, dyed and attached to the second and bottom panels, extending across the spine and onto the boards. New calfskin strips were also added to the headcap and joints under the lifted spine edges and onto the boards under the lifted sides. The lifted board material was put down with wheat starch paste.

New leather attached to the joints and 2 panels.

New leather attached to the joints and 2 panels.

This is a closer view of the tacket and new leather. The spine pieces have not been replaced at this point.

This is a closer view of the tacket and new leather. The spine pieces have not been replaced yet.

The corners were repaired with dyed calfskin or colored tissue.  The Hanji strip in the front inner joint was pulled across the joint and adhered under the lifted paste-down with paste. Then, it was covered with CK color kozo. The back joint was also covered with CK color kozo. Wheat starch paste was used for these steps.

The finished front inner joint. The first few pages also had minor repairs.

The finished front inner joint. Losses on the fly leaf were replaced with color kozo from Hiromi, using paste.

The lifted spine panels and edges of the spine were re-attached using wheat starch paste. This hid the tacketing threads on the shoulder. The corners were repaired with dyed calfskin and toned kozo. The loss on the back board was patched with dyed calfskin.

The front board of the finished repair.

The front board of the finished repair.

The finished spine, with the original pieces reattached.

The finished spine, with the original pieces reattached.

As a result of this treatment, the book is much stronger and more easily handled. If the repair leather fails, the tackets should help keep the front board attached. The cloth liners across the 2 panels that were lifted will also provide extra support.

One of our goals in the conservation lab is to make the physical collections accessible for study and analysis. Here’s hoping that readers of Shakespeare will be able to enjoy Cornell’s copy of the Fourth Folio for another 400 years!



Revealing the Past to Save History for the Future: A.D. White’s Historic Plaster Cast Medallion Collection

By Rachel Mochon
Chemistry and The College Scholar Program
Cornell University Class of 2016
plastercasts In 1881, Andrew Dickson White, Cornell’s first president, gifted several significant collections to the university “…as a slight token of continued interest in the educational work of our country and our own state, as also of devotion to classical studies and culture…” These collections include 19th century architectural photographs, large plaster casts of statuary, plaster gems, and plaster casts of Renaissance and Medieval medallions.


A.D. White letter to Henry Sage, 1881, Courtesy of RMC.

The plaster cast medallions were stored for over 100 years in locked wooden cabinets in the A.D. White Library in Uris Library. The A.D. White Library is currently undergoing renovations as a result of a highly successful crowdfunding campaign to Bring Light to the A.D. White Library. For the renovation, the two wooden display cabinets will be relocated, requiring the removal of the plaster cast medallion collection.


The medallions can be seen in the cabinets in this 1979 photograph.

The collection is being transferred to the Rare and Manuscript Collections where it will join the plaster gems already stored there.  With the transfer to RMC, the collection will have improved cataloguing and access and will now be available for research and exhibit use. However, before the medallions could be available for research and use, their significant condition concerns needed to be addressed.


The medallions were not organized in the display cabinets by content or size, nor were they easily accessible for study in the locked cabinets. Heavy amounts of disfiguring dust and dirt settled on the medallions, particularly those near the front of the drawers, which obscured the features and damaged the soft plaster.

The plaster cast medallions are made from plaster, a mixture of powdered gypsum and water. The plaster surfaces were all relatively soft, so the medallions scratch easily. Most of the medallions are circular and vary in size from quite small (the size of a U.S. quarter) to the largest of 10 cm in diameter. Other medallions are shaped like ovals or rectangles with rounded corners. Every medallion is made of white plaster with a brown paper ring around the edge. Many of the paper rings are painted gold along the top edge. The image of the figure is in the center of the medallion with his or her name around the top or bottom of the portrait. Although many of the portraits are in profile, which originated from ancient coins, many of the plaster portraits depict the personage’s full face directly or only three-quarters of the face. A number of the portraits are cast in high relief that reflects light to evoke expressiveness. However, this three-dimensionality varies too. Many of the plaster medallions are quite flat, especially among those that are of the most common size, 7 cm in diameter. Nevertheless, the texture and patina of the plaster is critical to the viewing experience.


The medallions, shown here after treatment and rehousing, vary in size and shape.

The plaster casts were made from existing metal medallions, including Renaissance medals from as early as the 15th century. For example, the A.D. White collection includes a medallion of Alessandro di Gino Vecchietti, born on October 2, 1472, that was cast from a bronze medal that dates to approximately 1498.

VecchiettiMedal vecchiettiCleanedblog







The major condition concern with the medallions was the heavy layer of damaging and obscuring dust and dirt. In addition, some medallions had broken paper rings and some had chips, breaks, old repairs, or were fully broken.



The Alessandro di Gino Vecchietti medallion shows the improvement by surface cleaning.

The first step in the conservation treatment was surface cleaning to remove the disfiguring films of dirt and dust on the surfaces of the medallions.  Because the plaster surfaces are soft, various cleaning methods were investigated to determine what would be the most effective and least harmful method of cleaning. After seeking advice from objects conservators, a HEPA vacuum cleaner, hard and soft bristle brushes, soot sponges, cosmetic sponges, and vinyl erasers were all tested to remove dust and dirt. The combination of the HEPA vacuum, vinyl erasers and a soft bristle brush were determined to remove the most disfiguring dirt without scratching the surface.

RachelCleaningIn addition to surface cleaning, the paper rings on several medallions had torn or two edges had separated where they were originally adhered together. The bands are adhered to the plaster in only one location along the rim, and the remaining paper is wrapped around tightly and secured to itself. To repair broken rings, wheat starch paste and toned Japanese tissue paper were used. In the case of a medallion where the original attachment of two ends had failed, paste was applied with a brush to the underside of the flap that lays on top of the other end of the band. This was then secured with a bridge of toned Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste on the exterior of the band. In the case of a medallion with a torn band, a bridge of toned Japanese tissue was applied underneath the band edges and adhered with wheat starch paste.

The medallions are fragile and several show old glue repairs to reinforce breaks and cracks. In the past some medallions were left un-repaired.


In the inventory photo below from the 1980s, you can see the medallion on the left is broken, and it remained broken for 30 more years.

brokenBT_ATTo repair broken medallions, the pieces were first thoroughly cleaned using vinyl erasers and a soft bristle brush. A stable, conservation adhesive with good strength and dries clear, was then chosen to secure the medallion pieces to one another.  The adhesive was applied to all edges of all the pieces first as a protective layer. Without this layer, the adhesive would be absorbed into the plaster’s pores and the mend between two pieces would not be as strong as it could be. After the protected layers were allowed to dry, another coat was used to adhere pieces together.

After treatment, the medallions were organized by size and housed in archival paper board boxes. Several trays, made from acid-free board, can fit in each box, and, depending on size, on average each tray can fit up 8-24 medallions, separated by acid free paper and/or foam.

By the end of the project over 1500 plaster cast medallions had been cleaned, stabilized and rehoused.  I learned about the variety of materials that can be used to safely surface clean plaster and was able to determine what would work best for the soft, porous, plaster surfaces of these medallions.  Rehousing the medallions was like a jigsaw puzzle—determining how to effectively and efficiently house the medallions securely without expanding the size of the collection!  During the course of this project, I also learned about how historic teaching collections were used in instruction and how they can continue to be valuable assets in today’s learning environment.  Because of this project, A.D. White’s collection of medallions will once again be used as a teaching collection for Cornell University students and researchers.



A.D. White Library Portrait Paintings

By: Michele Hamill

Wonderful progress is being made in the A.D. White Library as part of the enormously successful crowd funding campaign to Bring Light to A.D. White.  Coordinated by our Facilities staff, the large, ornate study table and the two sets of connected study tables have been beautifully refurbished.  Last Fall, we completed the conservation treatment, and archival matting and framing of the original prints and photographs hanging in this historic space.

img1&2 Prints and photographs were framed with protective UV-filtering glazing and strategically positioned around the room to minimize light exposure.

Our current work in the A.D. White Library is to stabilize the portrait paintings.  While we don’t undertake full conservation of paintings, we can conduct beneficial treatments like surface cleaning to remove dust.  The A.D. White Library receives heavy foot traffic since it is a very popular study space and visitor destination.  Over time, dust builds up on surfaces, obscuring the paintings and putting them at risk of chemical and physical damage.  Removing dust improves the appearance and the stability of the paintings.

3img3&4These details show how dust can accumulate, leaving a grey layer over the surface.

The oil on canvas portrait of Andrew Dickson White by Truman E. Fassett, was small enough to transport to the Conservation Lab for assessment and treatment.  Working closely with us, Rachel Mochon, a Cornell senior majoring in chemistry and the College Scholars Program, documented the condition of this painting using digital photography and examination methods. Her thorough report highlights some minor structural issues that will help us care for this painting in the future.

5The dark background, forward pose, and size of the portrait make the image of Andrew Dickson White appear life-like and connect directly with the viewer.

5a This 1966 photograph shows the White painting on the opposite wall. The artwork and furnishings in the A.D. White Library have moved and changed many times in nearly 150 years.

6Digital photography captures the condition of the painting and serves as a reference image for future evaluations.

Rachel, who is pursuing art conservation after graduating from Cornell this spring, executed a skillful cleaning of both the painting and frame. Rachel gained valuable experience treating this painting and helped preserve it for Cornellians and visitors to enjoy.

img7&8After determining that the paint surface is intact, Rachel passes a HEPA vacuum, which has gentle suction and a dedicated soft brush, lightly over the surface. Cotton–tipped swabs were also used to clean the gilt frame.

The oil painting of George Lincoln Burr, by Christian Midjo, was too large to be moved to the conservation lab.  So, on a quiet day before the Spring semester, we assessed and cleaned the painting in situ in the A.D. White Library.  Christian Midjo was an art professor at Cornell and an accomplished portrait painter.   George Lincoln Burr, Midjo’s subject in this 1921 painting, was a history professor at Cornell and A.D. White’s personal librarian.

9Midjo painted Burr in an unusual pose, showing him pausing during a lecture and looking out intently to his class.  His head covers the portion of the map of Europe that was most devastated in World War I.

9aThe Burr painting used to hang over the front entrance of the A.D. White Library, as seen in this early photograph.

9aaBefore renovations in the 20th century, the north wall, where the Burr painting now hangs, was an open archway into the adjacent Dean Room of Uris Library, as seen in this early cyanotype.

Our HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter conservation vacuum, which traps dust onto the filter and doesn’t blow it back out into the room like a conventional vacuum, was the perfect tool to give this painting a gentle cleaning.  We assessed the paint surface and the frame to ensure they were stable and determined the paint surface to be in excellent condition and firmly attached to the canvas.  The frame has a few small losses of decorative elements, typical of large, ornate frames nearly 100 years old, but otherwise is in stable condition. After vacuuming removed much of the dust we also used soft conservation sponges to dislodge dirt from the carved elements on the frame. After treatment, the painting was greatly improved in both appearance and condition.

10&10aClose work, such as surface cleaning, allows us to detect condition issues, such as this small puncture seen in the detail of the Burr painting. This detail also shows Midjo’s impasto technique that creates thickly textured paint.

11&12The back of the Burr painting had a noticeable layer of dust, possibly related to a nearby heating unit. Along with our Facilities staff we are investigating deflectors for the heating units to direct air and heat away from the paintings.

13&14 In addition to signing the painting on the lower right corner of the front, Midjo also wrote an inscription on the back, seen here before and after cleaning. The canvas support Midjo used has a distinct, nubby texture like that of burlap.

The A.D. White Library has such historic significance to Cornell.  Students enjoy its quiet beauty as they study and alumni remember it with great fondness.  A project like Bring Light to A.D. White gives us the opportunity to enhance our spaces to meet the needs of our students, care for Cornell’s collections and preserve the Library that A.D. White described as “the heart of the University”. We have 2 more paintings to surface clean in the coming months–the portraits of Andrew S. White and Mrs. Andrew S. White, which are mounted high on the walls (I see ladders in our future!) Check back for updates on that work, as well as the new light fixtures and carpeting slated to be installed.

14aThe portrait of Mrs. Andrew S. White hangs near the arched windows as seen in this photograph, likely from the 1970’s. Note the No Smoking sign over the fireplace.

15Thank you to Ronnie Clark and Adam Spry, CUL Facilities, for their expert assistance on our conservation projects in the A.D. White Library.



By Michele Hamill

August 2015 marked the 30th anniversary of the Cornell Library’s conservation program. The traditional gift for a 30th anniversary is a pearl–a gemstone of great beauty, and a term meaning something rare, fine and valuable. We’ve had three gifts– three very fine directors–in our 30 years. Tre Berney, Barbara Berger Eden, and John Dean are each a pearl in their own right.

libescopetb_4It is with great pleasure that we welcome Tre Berney as Director of Digitization and Conservation Services. (Interesting note: Tre hails from Tennessee—whose state gem is the pearl and has the only freshwater pearl cultivation outside of Asia!). This new position was created to provide leadership for both Preservation and Conservation Services and the Digital Media Group.

Tre has been at Cornell for almost 3 years developing and implementing AV digitization workflows to preserve Cornell University’s unique A/V holdings and digital collections. He designed and established a digitization lab to digitize fragile recordings and older legacy formats. Tre and Library colleagues just completed a campus-wide A/V census, the first of its kind at Cornell, as part of a larger A/V initiative partnering the library with Cornell IT to inform a preservation strategy for those formats at imminent risk of degradation, loss and obsolescence. He works closely with Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, Indiana University, Audio/Visual Preservation Solutions, Syracuse University, UCLA, Columbia and the Library of AV_LabCongress. His work in A/V preservation ensures that Cornell’s unique assets in the form of lectures by faculty, Nobel Laureates, writers and artists, and original source recordings used in research in biology, linguistics and art will be available in the future.

Tre brings a wealth of skills and experiences to this position along with energy, enthusiasm and appreciation for the Library’s collections and the work we do in the conservation program. We’re excited to have Tre leading our program and look forward to collaborating to preserve the many formats that comprise the Library’s collections.

IMG_0715We are also celebrating Barbara Berger Eden and her significant contributions to Cornell Library as she retires this week after 30 years of service. In Barbara’s tenure at Cornell Library, she served several key roles including manager for ambitious microfilming projects, grants officer, and Principal Investigator for successful grants including Save America’s Treasures and the Henry Luce Foundation Chinese Librarian Preservation Training Initiative which strengthens Cornell Library’s relationship with our partner libraries in China by fostering exchange between the academic library communities in the United States and China. Due to Barbara’s efforts, the preservation capability across China has been expanded and important materials for teaching and research are being preserved.

As director of Preservation and Conservation Services since 2005, Barbara led the conservation program through times of great change in academic research libraries with insight, advocacy, and collegiality. As a result, our conservation program has thrived, with dedicated staff with deep expertise and the resources to preserve Library collections in their original format.

Barbara is thBarbara_Twoupe past chair of the Preservation and Reformatting Section of the American Library Association and has been an active member of the Preservation Administrators Group of the New York State Comprehensive Research Libraries. Barbara has served as a wonderful mentor to several Library staff as part of the Library’s Mentoring Program sharing her wide experience, knowledge, and perspective to foster the professional growth of our colleagues. We are deeply appreciative of Barbara’s efforts on our behalf and her thoughtfulness, generosity and support. We wish her a healthy, happy retirement filled with good gardening, family and friends. She will be missed.

deanJohn Dean became Cornell University Library’s first conservation and preservation librarian with the establishment of the program in 1985 and served as director for nearly 20 years before retiring in 2003. John’s background, including a 6-year apprenticeship in bookbinding in his native England, some years spent as journeyman bookbinder, leadership of preservation programs at the Newberry Library and Johns Hopkins University, and two graduate degrees (in library science and in liberal arts with a concentration in the history of science), made him a rare and valuable combination of an effective administrator, master bookbinder, and consummate conservator.

As director of the department, John brought a profound knowledge and deep regard for collections in all formats and instilled an appreciation for fine craftsmanship grounded in professional standards for conservation. He mentored and taught at the local, national and international levels. In 2003 John was the recipient of the prestigious Association for Library Collections & Technical Services Paul Banks & Carolyn Harris Preservation Award for his significant contributions to the field.

John2upJohn remains passionate about preservation and conservation and has endeavored to help institutions around the world through education, training and consultancies in developing countries, such as Laos, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, Java, and Cambodia. He created seminal online tutorials for library conservation and preservation in Southeast Asia, Iraq and the Middle East to give librarians and archivists in these and other countries a set of basic guidelines to inform their preservation efforts. In retirement John continues to assist local institutions care for their book collections. John’s legacy has had a lasting impact on the preservation and conservation field, on Cornell University Library, and on those of us who had the honor and privilege of working with him.

Where will we be in the next 30 years? Undoubtedly, there will be new challenges, formats, and discoveries. Thanks to our 3 distinguished directors, Tre, Barbara, and John, Cornell Library’s conservation program is ready to serve the preservation and conservation needs of the Library well into the future. A sincere thank you to Oya Rieger, Associate University Librarian, for her leadership, vision, and support of our program. Stay connected with us on our Facebook page and on this blog for updates on our many projects and for some pearls of wisdom for caring for library collections.

Many Happy Returns

Michele Hamill

Our new cart for transporting posters, architectural drawings, photographs and maps arrived this week. We have long struggled to transport oversize collection materials safely between the Conservation Lab and the Rare and Manuscripts Collections (RMC). It was 2-person job to navigate through 6 doorways (all different widths), tight turns and 2 elevators with standard flat beds. It wasn’t good for the collections or for our backs!

Thanks to our wonderful colleague Wendy McPhee, conservator for the Toronto Public Library, who alerted us to G.S. Manufacturing in Canada, we now have a custom-built transport cart that safely supports 36” x 48” (and larger) folders in the “U” of the cart, full size cartons on the bottom shelf or additional flat materials, and has a removable lid which can also serve as a work surface.


We have been treating and rehousing several poster collections in the Conservation Lab recently which will now be able to be safely and efficiently returned to RMC with the new cart. WWI and WWII propaganda posters were a visually appealing public campaign to mobilize citizens to the needs of war, unify support, and motivate patriotism. Subjects for the posters included conservation and rationing, recruiting, war bonds, and the perils of careless talk, among others.
The WWII posters arrived in the lab in a tight, flattened bundle. In this state, they were not able to be used by researchers, processed by RMC staff, or safely housed.

13175_BT_DetailWith conservation treatment, these oversize posters (3’ x 4’ and larger) are transformed into a spectacular resource.


Unlike the WWI and WWII propaganda posters which were meant for display in public, WWII Newsmaps, produced weekly during the war years, were created for display in military installations to inform and update troops with recent war developments.

The Newsmaps, like the posters, were inaccessible due to being tightly rolled for decades. The Newsmaps on the outside of the roll were badly damaged with numerous tears. As you can imagine, the paper used for weekly Newsmaps in a time of war, was not high-grade and is now brittle and easily torn.

13210_BTAfter cleaning, humidification and flattening, and tear and loss stabilization, the Newsmaps are ready for return to RMC to be made available to researchers.


With 2 more rolls of Newsmaps to treat and rehouse, we’ll look forward to many happy returns to RMC with our new transport cart that fits through all doorways and elevators and drives like a dream!


Luce preservation training, part 2.

by Michele Brown

The next phase of the Luce intern training program has begun. Chen Zhimei from Xiamen University and Zhang Chunmei from Fudan University recently finished four weeks of basic preservation training with our department.

Book repair

Zhimei (left) and Chunmei learning book repair.

The first grant provided training to librarians from 4 institutions in Beijing: the Chinese Agricultural Library, Renmin University, Peking University and Tsinghua University. The new grant targets the preservation needs of  libraries in other areas of mainland China and Taiwan: Fudan University, Xiamen University, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, National Taiwan University, Nanjing Agricultural University, National Chengchi University, Jilin University and Wuhan University.

The purpose of the training is to acquaint librarians in Mainland China and Taiwan with preservation techniques for their growing collections of Western-style bindings. We focus on the repair of circulating books. Other topics covered are: care and handling of library materials, exhibit support construction, simple enclosures, mold mitigation/ remediation, and disaster training.

We began by making blank books using Coptic sewing and case binding construction. Making a blank book is a good way to get acquainted with the materials and construction of many mass-produced, Western style books. We used Canapetta cloth for the spines and Iris Nevins marbled paper for the sides.

Testing grain direction.

Testing grain direction.

Link-stitch sewing.

Link-stitch sewing.

Finished books.

Finished books.

After discussing the history of Western bookbinding we visited the Rare and Manuscripts Collection where Curator Laurent Ferri showed some  unique examples of Cornell’s rare books.

Visiting the Kroch Rare and Manuscripts Collection.

Visiting the Kroch Rare and Manuscripts Collection.

Then, we moved on to repairing circulating books. The methods we use have been designed for quick, yet strong repair of books that circulate outside of the library. Depending on the damage, we categorize book repair as “partial”, “half” or “full.”  Here is a slideshow showing full book repair.

Chunmei reconstructs the cover of a damaged book.

Chunmei reconstructs the cover of a damaged book.

Zhimei has just put down the new cloth joint of this book.

Zhimei has just put down the new cloth joint of this book.

Simple enclosures can provide low-cost, effective protection for vulnerable materials so Zhimei and Chunmei learned how to make MM (marginal materials) cases, sometimes known as phase boxes, out of 20 pt. folder stock.

Making an MM case.

Making an MM case.

We learned from previous interns that libraries in China have a lot of paperback and glue bindings, so we explored stiffening and glue binding techniques.

We rehearsed disaster response and salvage and discussed how to make an effective disaster plan.

Drying wet books.

Drying wet books.

During the final week, they met with Michele Hamill and Jill Iacchei to get an overview of how to care for flat materials and photographs. We also visited the Syracuse University preservation department to see how another institution handles book repair.

We concluded  by reviewing materials and vendors for archival supplies. Zhimei and Chunmei made book models with cutaways that showed some of the techniques they learned.

Zhimei (left) and Chunmei are holding their book models.

Zhimei  and Chunmei with their book models.

Zhimei and Chunmei returned to China at the beginning of June. They have plans to set up preservation operations in their own libraries. We had a great time and hope to see them again. In September we will have interns from Shanghai Jiao Tong University and the National Taiwan University.





Preservation Week 2015: Ways to save your stuff.

by Michele Brown

Last week, Tre Berney provided an excellent summary of AV preservation and related issues. What about books, papers, photographs and other memorabilia you’d like to save and pass along? Here are some resources to help you preserve  your collections.

First, the Cornell Library Conservation website offers many resources to individuals and libraries.

Our  recently revised Preservation and Conservation tutorial for China, which was developed as part of the Luce grant, provides a broad survey of techniques for the preservation of all types of library materials.

One useful tool for protecting fragile books is the marginal materials (MM) case. The tutorial includes a slideshow that describes how to make this simple, but effective container. Written instructions for this and other techniques are included in our repair guides.

Providing a good environment for your materials is the first step in preserving them. The Image Permanence Institute offers numerous resources on ways to understand and control the environment in your home or institution. Watch the video on the effect of humidity fluctuation on a rare book!

Would you like to download leaflets that advise you on the care of your collection and give recommendations for disaster recovery? The Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) has a series of  preservation leaflets that cover a wide range of topics.

Finally, the Association for Library Collections and Technical Services (ALCTS) offers a series of  preservation webinars.

These are just a few of the many resources available to help us save our stuff so we can pass it on. Happy Preservation Week 2015!



Preservation Week 2015 | Audio Visual Preservation

Tre Berney


During the American Library Association’s Preservation Week (April 26-May 2, 2015) libraries all over the country present events, activities, and resources that highlight what we can do, individually and together, to preserve our personal and shared history. To start off Preservation Week 2015, Tre Berney, Multimedia Specialist at Cornell University Library, is sharing his expertise in audio-visual preservation with the following blog post.  Tre designed and established the Library’s digitization lab to digitize fragile recordings and older legacy formats and he is the heading up a campus-wide AV census as part of a larger AV initiative partnering the library with Cornell IT. He works closely with Cornell’s Lab of Ornithology, Indiana University, Audio/Visual Preservation Solutions, Syracuse University, UCLA, Columbia and the Library of Congress. Thank you, Tre, for collaborating with us for Preservation Week 2015! –Michele Hamill

First of all, I’m honored to be a guest on our Library’s Conservation Department blog, as they are a great team doing magical things. When discussing audiovisual preservation and the big issues facing possible catastrophic loss of materials on magnetic media, proper conservation becomes even more important as we chart out solutions that may emerge from our campus-wide AV Preservation Initiative.

Both UNESCO’s Blue Ribbon Task Force publication (Sustainable Economics for a Digital Planet, 2010) and the Library Of Congress are estimating that the vast majority of materials housed on magnetic tapes (cassettes, open-reel audiotape, VHS, etc.) will be lost in the next 10 years due to degradation and playback obsolescence. This includes materials ranging from field recordings of cultural events in dying languages to your own home movies of grandparents or children.

Cornell University Library’s Collection Development Executive Committee has set up a preservation fund (allocated though a grant-based system) awarded to save fragile, unique, and heavily used collections and, due to issues with legacy AV content, a lot of that fund has gone to digitization of AV collections. As an example, I’m currently working on digitizing a large collection of VHS tapes for the Africana Library of unique lectures given at Cornell in the past. Last year, this collection was moved to the annex, as they are the only copies in existence and are no longer in circulation.

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While preservation and digitization is key to older formats, it’s also incredibly challenging for digital formats as well. Digital content, while often easier to use and access in a lot of cases, is incredibly fragile and subject to many problems such as bit rot and errors, proprietary and complex formats and file types, and costly storage. In reality the world is creating digital content at a staggering pace, resulting in petabytes of possibly important or disposable content. How do we deal with this in our work or even in our personal collections of video or photos?

The Library of Congress has provided a thorough resource for individuals to get a handle on the digital content they are creating, as well as digitizing to share with family and friends across the globe. This is a rapidly increasing need of people everywhere, but how do we decide what do we keep and how much? stands out as a good example of an organization that is also promoting a more curatorial culture for our content at large, and for a purpose. They provide a guide to archiving content from a journalism/activist perspective, from creation to preservation and access.

Working in a memory institution, I often feel like I’m helping usher content from the past into the future and that is a tremendously gratifying feeling. ‘This work will outlive us,’ is something I often hear said in libraries and archives and while that is true, there is a huge amount of effort and a lot of tough decisions that go into conservation, preservation, and access. Whether it’s a beautiful tome from the 17th century or video of one of the last known public appearances of Jimmy Hoffa, it takes detailed work, resources, and careful planning to keep these things alive. In reality, history is written by every one of us. What’s your story?



by Michele Brown

Parchment is a tough, long-lasting writing and book covering material used historically for important documents and still used for the transcription of some religious and government laws. Consequently, Cornell’s copy of the 13th Amendment was written on parchment. My previous post described its conservation treatment.

Legend has it that parchment was developed in the kingdom of Pergamon during the second century BC  as a result of a shortage of papyrus. (1) Scholars disagree on the reason for the shortage of papyrus, but it is widely accepted that parchment production was first refined in Pergamon, which became parchment’s namesake. Parchment-making has remained largely unchanged since its early beginnings.

Sometimes the term “vellum” is used for parchment.  Vellum, to be precise, is parchment made from calfskin. The terms parchment and vellum are now often used interchangeably.

How does parchment differ from leather since they are both made from animal skins?

Most leather is made from animal skin that has been treated with tannin. This changes the collagen of the skin so that it will be more durable. Since tannins are acidic, leather is also an acidic material.

Leather is usually dyed during the tanning process.

Leather is usually dyed during the tanning process.

Some skins are tawed rather than tanned. Very early books bound in Europe were often bound with alum-tawed leather. We will discuss tawed leather in another post.

Parchment is made by soaking an animal skin (usually from a goat, sheep or calf) in lime and then stretching it on a frame, scraping it to remove excess tissue and allowing it to dry under tension. During this process, the collagen of the skin is rearranged, but not chemically altered. The result is a material that is very smooth and hard, and also very sensitive to changes in humidity. Since it has been soaked in a solution with a high pH, it is basic.

A skin of parchment stretched on a frame.

A skin of parchment stretched on a frame.

Pergamena has been making leather and parchment for generations and has offered parchment-making workshops. The following images are from one of their workshops.

Skins arrive with their fur still intact. They have been salted to preserve them.

Skins waiting for processing.

Skins waiting for processing.










First, they  are “de-haired”.

Skins are put into the dehairing barrel with a solution of lime.

Skins are put into the de-hairing barrel with a solution of lime.

And then allowed to drain.

The skins are allowed to drain after being limed.

The skins are allowed to drain after being de-haired.

Excess flesh is removed, in this case, using a fleshing machine. Traditionally, they would have used a two handled knife.

Jesse Meyer pulling a dehaired skin through the fleshing machine.

Jesse Meyer pulling a de-haired skin through the fleshing machine.

On this day, we were making colored goatskin parchment so at this point the skins were dyed.

Dyed goatskin parchment.

Dyed goatskin parchment.

And then, clipped to a frame to dry under tension.

Goatskin parchment drying. The screen allows airflow on both sides of the skin.

These are skins of dyed goatskin parchment drying under tension. The screen allows airflow on both sides of the skins.

The skins for calfskin parchment were treated differently. Since they weren’t being dyed, they were allowed to dry and were re-hydrated before being stretched for scraping.

Dried calfskins after dehairing and fleshing.

Dried calfskins after de-hairing and fleshing.

The dried skins would be re-hydrated and then stretched and clipped.

The dried skins are re-hydrated and then stretched and clipped before scraping.

Once the skins were stretched and clipped, they were scraped to make them thinner. Parchment-makers use a curved knife called a lunellum for this purpose.


A lunellum.


Scraping the flesh side of the skin.

Scraping the flesh side of the skin.

The skins may be sanded after scraping.

Sanding with a rotary sander.

Sanding with a rotary sander.

Once the skin has been scraped so it is thin and even, it can be used for writing or binding.

Thirteenth amendment.

Thirteenth amendment.

Galileo's Discorsi bound in Pergamena parchment.

Galileo’s Discorsi bound in Pergamena parchment.

Parchment can be difficult to work with because it has a hard surface and, depending on its thickness, can be somewhat inflexible. It is extremely sensitive to changes in humidity and using adhesives can be problematic. However, it is a beautiful and resilient material and with good care will last for centuries.


(1)  In Natural History, Book XIII, Pliny ascribes the cause of the papyrus shortage to the rivalry between King Ptolemy V, who was building the library of Alexandria and King Eumenes II, who was building the library at Pergamon. Some sources say that King Ptolemy cut off the papyrus supply to Pergamon, forcing it to come up with an alternative source of writing material.