Category Archives: Uncategorized

Rehousing the Dora Erway Doll Collection | A custom-fitting

J.M. Iacchei

Thank you to Eileen Keating, University Records Manager, RMC, for proving the information on the history of the Dora Erway dolls included in this blog post.

A selection of dolls from the Dora Erway Doll Collection

A selection of dolls from the Dora Erway Doll Collection representing dress from the 13-20th centuries. From left to right: 19th century Italian Renaissance, 20th century American Formal, 15th century English, and 13th century English

The Dora Erway doll collection is frequently used for instruction and outreach.  The dolls were made by Cornell University students between 1924 and 1928, under the direction of Professor Dora Wetherbee Erway who taught in the former Department of Household Arts.  The collection was donated by Erway in 1957 and is housed in the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections, Kroch Library.

The dolls are representative of various historical periods and nationalities and were made in order to assist students in their study of the history of costume.  Many of the dresses are exact replicas of authentic gowns.  Some of the material in the costumes was over one hundred years old at the time the dolls were made.  With the exception of the heads, the students made the dolls as well as the clothing.  Some of the students donated their own hair in order to have authentic hair styles representative of the periods.

Some details showing the dolls head, handmade feet and shoes, and elaborate undergarments characteristic of the time represented.

Details showing the head, handmade feet shoes, and elaborate undergarments characteristic of the time represented.

For many years, the dolls were individu,ally wrapped in tissue paper for protection within archival boxes. The tissue paper wrapping covered the dolls, meaning researchers and staff couldn’t see or use the dolls without unwrapping and re-wrapping the tissue each time.  The tissue could catch on some of the hair, delicate cloth, or embellishments, making handling difficult.  A new housing solution needed to be developed that would allow visual access, and provide protection and stability.  In addition to the challenge of creating stability and preventing movement within the boxes, each doll presented its own challenges – loose limbs, delicate embellishments added to the handmade costumes, and accompanying accessories, like elaborate hats. Using archival materials, the housing solution supports each doll within its own compartment, secures the heavy bases, heads, and any unstable parts, and allows full visibility and accessibility for use and instruction.

A custom fit housing solution in six steps:

1) Side walls, lower wall, and lower edge of the archival box base were lined with Ethafoam for cushioning and support.

2) Supports for each doll were constructed from blue corrugated board, padded with Ethafoam, and notched to hold the wood bases and prevent movement.

3) Dividers constructed from blue corrugated board padded on each side with Ethafoam were placed between each doll’s support to secure them in place.

4) Blue corrugated bumpers padded with Ethafoam were placed at the upper end of each support just beyond the heads of the dolls to custom-fit each compartment to the size of the doll.

5) Foam bumpers were fit around the neck of each doll to further prevent movement when the boxes are moved and handled.

6) After rehousing the dolls are held securely in their custom-made compartments.


An Update on Conservation Lab Staffing, Service Priorities, and Current Strategies


Over the last year and a half, a major effort was undertaken by the Cornell Library Conservation Lab to clarify roles, responsibilities, and priorities, the result of which has gone into effect over the last 6 months. Beginning in April 2019, the lab has been restructured to reflect changes in staffing, streamline the reporting structure, improve communication and workflows with partners, and focus capacity in priority areas. We would like to share information about this effort, our current staffing, our priorities, and how we are planning for the future to respond to both the traditional and changing needs of CUL’s collections.

In April, Michele Hamill assumed the position of Head Conservator and now oversees lab staff and operations. Her time is divided between supervisory responsibilities, strategic and workflow planning, and as Cornell University Library’s Paper and Photograph Conservator.

In August, Michele Hamill conducted a research trip to the White House to examine their copy of the Gettysburg Address, seen here, to inform the preservation of CUL’s Gettysburg Address.

Also in April, Michele Brown, Cornell University Library’s Book Conservator of over 20 years, began phased retirement, working half-time until Spring 2021. Her time is being focused on a large, high-priority treatment project that requires a conservator of her experience – the Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections’ Piranesi volumes.

Laurent Ferri, RMC Curator, and Michele Brown examining one of the spectacular Piranesi volumes.

Pat Fox, Assistant Book Conservator, is increasingly working on rare and special collections, while maintaining responsibility for circulating book repair. Caitlin Jochym, Senior Conservation Technician, is now half-time and will be indefinitely. Jill Iacchei, Senior Conservation Technician, is our only staff member working full-time on rare and special collections. The lab hosts 2-3 student employees whose assistance is limited to circulating book repair and basic stabilization of collection materials during academic semesters.

Over the last year, the conservation lab has had a reduction in staff of 1FTE, primarily through personal choice. It is a priority for all of the departments of Digitization and Conservation Services to maintain a healthy work/life balance and that includes life decisions. Currently, the lab is staffed at 3.875 FTE across 5 people, but there is a larger, strategic plan in place to recruit and hire a Conservator for Special Collections over the next year. This new position will fill needs around conservation strategy for bound volumes, work prioritization and facilitation, and further increase our newly focused capacity to properly care for CUL’s collections.


With our current level of staffing, we have limited capacity to respond to collection materials (even with notable condition concerns) that are not in our current priority areas. We are no longer staging large amounts of collection materials in the Conservation Lab awaiting treatment and we are only accepting items into the lab for treatment when we can identify that a staff member has the capacity to complete the work in 3 months. This represents quite a shift for some of the collection owners we serve and we realize this. We want to be clear about what we can realistically get done in a responsible amount of time, leaving little to fall into the cracks.

In an analysis of available staffing and the range of services we could offer, we determined that our efforts should focus on the 5 priority areas:

  • Exhibitions of rare and special collection materials – assess, treat, and mount collection materials for best presentation and safety.

Pat Fox and Caitlin Jochym constructing custom exhibit supports.

  • Instruction – evaluate where the condition and/or the enclosure interfere with safe use and handling, and needs are immediate or demand is high; provide treatment and/or enclosures as needed.
  • Digitization projects – assess for condition concerns, advise on safe handling, and treat as needed.

Jill Iacchei and Simon Ingall, DCAPS, imaging barkcloth for a digitization project.

  • New acquisitions and processing needs – provide treatment stabilization and/or enclosures to enable new acquisitions and newly processed collections to be safely shelved and available for research, instruction, and exhibition.
  • Other one-time priorities or pressing needs – including special donor or researcher requests, grant projects, or condition concerns requiring rapid response, like water damage or mold.


In order to treat as many rare and special collections items as possible with limited staff, we are exploring different treatments and workflows, more stabilization options, and a variety of enclosures. We are now utilizing all lab staff, with the necessary skills and experience, on all collections types, which has increased our ability to respond to priority areas. You may notice differences from past approaches as we continue to develop our strategies. As we continue to explore new approaches, we welcome input as a necessary and valuable part of the decision-making, particularly regarding the nature of the collection material and how it is used and how often.

Along with all of the work detailed above, here are a few things we’re also currently working on:

  • Rapid response plan for collections emergencies – This includes automated communications strategies, vendor and insurance preparedness, keeping the current disaster plan up to date, and preparation with the Office of Risk Management. We hope to expand to include a rapid response plan for digital content as well in the future.
  • Better facilitation with Library Annex – When routinely consulting on storage strategies across the library, better understanding the needs of our high-density storage is imperative for sharing reliable information for coordinating long-term storage.
  • Mellon Foundation Grant: Assessing the Physical Condition of the National Collection – We are one of the 5 participating US libraries in this project led by the Library of Congress to assess the condition of circulating collections. This project is informing an update to CUL’s Brittle Books Program—We are reviewing the decisions and criteria for the brittle book workflow from a conservation perspective and including digitization for preservation and access to a digital format.
  • Updating the Conservation job family – This is a result of the recent staffing changes and to incorporate the new position of Conservator for Special Collections.

Please reach out to us at with questions and comments.

Tre Berney, Director, Digitization and Conservation Services

Michele Hamill, Head Conservator


Preservation Week: Photo-Albums and Scrapbooks

j.m. iacchei

Today’s blog reports on the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA) workshop Your Photographic Scrapbook: Identification and Preservation and is the 4th in our Preservation Week series highlighting Cornell University Library Conservation Lab’s continuing educational efforts to better preserve and protect our collections.

Our family albums and scrapbooks are treasured heirlooms. Each page offers a new story or anecdote about the people and places held within the album’s pages. They bring forth the memories, conversations, and storytelling that help us define who we are and where we come from–our family roots.

table with spread of ablums

As part of the CCAHA’s Collections Care Training initiative, Barbara Lemmen, Senior Photograph Conservator, offered a workshop entitled, Your Photographic Scrapbook: Identification and Preservation hosted by the Historical Society of Pennsylvania. The workshop took on three main areas of focus. First, a lecture presentation providing background on the history of scrapbooks and albums, an overview of the styles of bound structures that developed to hold the contents contained within, the structural characteristics and components that deteriorate with age and use, and the ways in which to preserve and care for these items. Second, a visual sampling of a variety of photo albums and scrapbooks within the Historical Society of Pennsylvania’s collections. And lastly, a hands-on component evaluating condition and discussing possible preservation options for specific items.

A lot of material was covered in this one-day workshop. As a Senior Conservation Technician working within an academic institution, I found these last two components of the workshop to be the most informative. Chronologically, we may be able to place albums and scrapbooks into categories but as individual items they all present unique challenges and needs. The historical significance of the structure, the original format and placement of the images, intended use, budget, and available time are all considerations in determining appropriate treatment and storage options.

Scrapbook or Photo album?

scrapbook and photoalbumScrapbooks are not a new or recent trend. Their roots date back to the 1700’s. In effect, the scrapbook is about 100 years older than the photo album. They typically contain clippings and articles, and after the advent of photography in the mid-1800’s – photographs. The distinction between the two is that scrapbooks can be continually added to, while albums are usually themed with a specific direction – for example a wedding album.

The earliest structures used for scrapbooks and albums were blank books sold by stationers intended for writing. The addition of dimensional material adhered to the pages places stress on the binding and inhibits the covers from fully closing-causing distortion that allows light and dust to enter the pages. With the advent of photography in the mid 1800’s, albums were developed specifically to accommodate the added dimension of photographs. The structure of each album or scrapbook and the materials used in its construction inform the present condition. Below are three examples of albums more commonly found among family collections.

Carte-de-visite and Cabinet card albums (ca. 1850-1900)Album cover and open pagesThe album structure and page construction of carte-de visite and cabinet card albums were made to allow for the thickness of mounted photographs. The photographs could be slipped into the window through slots located in the pages.  Each window could accommodate two photographs – one viewed from each side of the page. carte-de-visited album and cabinet card albumThe album shown above accommodated both CDV’s (left) as well as cabinet cards (right).

If carefully placed, the paper windows held the photographs in position. However, the slots could be easily torn when the photograph was placed (as seen in the right image above). A torn window left the photographs less securely held and prone to shifting out of position.

Loose Leaf Bindings (ca. 1920-1970)

side-laced, chicagopost and three-ring albumsLoose-leaf bindings were less expensive to make and pages (leaves) could be easily added or removed. There are various types of loose-leaf bindings including: side-laced (left) Chicago or screw post (center), and 3-ring (right).

Albums of this era were often made from less expensive wood pulp paper. In addition to the albums pictured above, black paper albums were also very common. Black paper was chosen intentionally by the manufacturer. Not only did it provide a strong contrasting background to the black and white photographs held within but it also hid the discoloration caused by the deterioration of lignin (a naturally occurring substance in wood that darkens and breaks down into acidic byproducts as it ages) common to wood pulp papers.

Photographs could be held in position by a few mechanisms: overall or corner mounting using an adhesive, photo corners (left) or slits cut into the support page (right).

Photographs mounted using adhesive presented two issues: 1) page distortion and undulations from additional moisture added by the adhesive and 2) adhesive failure leaving loose photographs, adhesive residue and staining, and possibly abrasion to the paper support. Mounting the photographs with photo-corners or through slits alleviated the distortion caused by adhesive and allowed the photographs to flex with the movement of the page. However, paper slits tear and placement of the photograph’s corners into photo-corners and through slits places stress on the corners which can become bent when inserted. Additionally, the photograph may become discolored in the area placed under the slot or corner.

 Magnetic albums (ca. 1960-2000)

Magnetic albums

Magnetic photo albums are often spiral bound. Each page was coated overall with a pressure sensitive adhesive and wrapped in a plastic overlay. At purchase, the plastic overlay is clear, smooth, free of wrinkles, and held photographs firmly in place. Over time, the plastic material used as overlays can wrinkle, distort, and become creased or folded (right image).  If they remain firmly in place over the photographs, any patterns of distortion (wrinkles) can be transferred to the photograph’s surface. They can also give off acid and plasticizers causing deterioration to the photographs.

The adhesive on the pages deteriorates as well, oxidizing when exposed to air. The oxidation will cause the adhesive bond to react in one of two ways – it will either strengthen, making it difficult to safely move the photos, or it will fail, resulting in loose photographs (center image above).

To better preserve your personal albums and scrapbooks they can be placed in an enclosure in an environment where temperature and humidity don’t fluctuate. The main level of your home may offer a more stable environment than the basement or the attic. Archival boxes can be purchased from Gaylord Archival Products. When they are brought out to be looked at, handle them with care. A soft pillow(s) can offer support to albums with fragile bindings. The cushioning of the pillow supports the opening, allowing the pages to be viewed without compromising the binding. For specific concerns to your personal albums (broken sewing, loose pages, photographs stuck firmly to magnetic pages), contact a conservator. They may be able to offer feasible suggestions to help preserve and extend the life of your albums and scrapbooks into the future.

For more information about preserving scrapbooks, see ALA’s Preservation Week Preserving Historic Scrapbooks and Making New Ones That Last (Melissa Tedone, 2014). The recording as well as handouts, slides, questions and answers are available as a PDF.

Below are some additional resources discussing preservation and history of photograph albums and scrapbooks.

Zachary, Shannon, ed. (2000) Conservation of Scrapbooks and Albums: Postprints of the Book and Paper Group/Photographic Materials Group Joint Session at the 27th Annual Meeting of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, June 11, 1999, St. Louis Missouri. Washington, D.C.: American Institute for Conservation.

Haley, Alan and Adrienne Lundgren (2011) Preserving Photographic Albums. Photographic Memory: The Album in the Age of Photography. Verna Posever Curtis, ed. New York: Library of Congress and Aperture Foundation, 277-279.

Long, Jane S. and Richard W. (2000) Scrapbooks and Albums. Caring for your Family Treasures. New York: Abrams, 38-45.


Treatment of a 19th C. hydrographical map

The Conservation Lab mentors students interested in library and archives conservation and their conservation projects are great learning opportunities for us all. Margaret Canfield, a Cornell University junior majoring in art history, has been a student employee in our lab for several semesters.  Her blog describes the treatment of an early 19th century map.

Margaret Canfield

In the field of conservation, the history of an object helps inform its treatment. A survey of the coasts of Cornwall and Devonshire in the Bristol Channel from St. Agnes Head to Hartland Point includes interesting additions of mailing labels and postage stamps that form part of its unique history. This map is from the Maps and Geospatial Information Collection, an extensive collection in Olin Library that contains over 650,000 maps. The treatment of this map took the historical evidence of the mailing labels and stamps into consideration and focused on stabilizing areas that were detaching from the cloth backing, to prevent loss of the paper support and media.

The geographic area depicted in the map was surveyed in 1772 by Murdoch Mackenzie and published by the Hydrographical Office in 1810 by Captain Hurd. Hydrography is the science that measures and describes bodies of water and adjoining coastal areas for improved navigation, safety, and efficient transport.

The map is an engraving in black ink on good quality, handmade, wove paper.

The Man and his Man refer to two small islands north of St. Agnes. Also known as Bawden Rocks and Cow and Calf.

Raking light shows the many surface undulations on the map.

The map was lined overall on the verso with a coarse, sturdy fabric, resembling burlap.  The edges of the map were reinforced with dark green ribbon.  Because maps at this time would have been working documents—in this case, used and referenced in the study of this geographic area—it was common for them to be made more robust with strong fabric linings and edgings.

On the fabric lining, there are stamps, labels, and postage marks that reveal a glimpse into the story of the map’s life. A paper stamp on the upper left corner of the verso (shown here on left), and another paper label on the front that covers some original text, indicate the map was sold by James Wyld, the geographer to the King. This could refer to either James Wyld Sr. (1790-1836) or his son James Wyld Jr. (1812-1887), who partnered with him in the family business of cartography.

A shipping label on the verso (on right, above) shows the map was mailed from James G. Commin to E.J. Bailey, of Eddy St, Ithaca. Commin was a noted bookseller in Exeter, England and there is evidence that he was in possession of maps from Devon and Cornwall from various newspaper ads in The Publisher’s Circular and Bookseller Record of British and Foreign Language Volume LVIII.

The canceled stamp on the verso shows the map was mailed from Commin in 1912 to E.J. Bailey, and arrived postage due. An Ithaca directory from 1912 corroborates Bailey’s address as Eddy Street.  E.J. Bailey (Elmer J) got his PhD from Cornell in 1909 and was a professor in English until his leave from the university in 1919. There are no records detailing how the map came to reside in the Maps Collection in Olin Library but it may have been donated by Professor Bailey.

The presence of the many labels and stamps directly on the map’s cloth backing indicate it may have been mailed from Exeter to Ithaca without additional packaging. The map was in good condition considering its age and history of being shipped overseas with just the cloth backing as protection. The map had significant surface dirt on both the recto and the verso. The lining of the map was loose in some areas and detaching from the paper support. The map had two small losses in which the cloth backing was torn completely through. The surface of the map was creased in many locations with several breaks in the paper support.  There is evidence of some fold lines, with one prominent fold through the vertical center, which bisects the mailing label.  On the bottom left corner of the recto, there was a small amount of glassine adhered to the map; its purpose is unknown. There are four ink Cornell Library ownership stamps on the map’s recto.

Several factors were considered in creating a treatment plan for the map, including: the map was in good condition with only minor issues, the cloth backing was not actively causing concern, and the mailing labels and stamps form an important part of its history.  Accordingly, the cloth lining was left intact and the treatment focused on stabilizing the minor condition concerns and providing a protective enclosure.

Stabilizing lifting paper with wheat starch paste and drying in place under weight.

The treatment consisted first of thorough surface cleaning. The recto was cleaned with cosmetic sponges and then three iterations of vinyl eraser crumbs. The recto was then carefully vacuumed with a HEPA vacuum. The cloth verso was cleaned with a sponge eraser while the labels and postage stamps were cleaned with cosmetic sponges. The verso was also vacuumed. Small areas of lifting of the labels on the verso were pasted down with wheat starch paste. The lifting areas of the paper support were reattached to the cloth backing with wheat starch paste. The glassine was removed using a methylcellulose poultice. The losses and frail areas were mended on the verso using acrylic toned Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste.  While the black engraving ink was stable in water, the Library ownership stamps were soluble.  So the map was gently humidified using felted Gore-Tex, which is a controlled method that did not disturb the ownership inks. After humidification, the map was dried and flattened between thick blotters and under weight to reduce surface creases and undulations. After treatment, it was sleeved in polyester to protect it in storage and during handling.

Recto and verso of the map in raking light, shown before treatment on the left and after treatment on the right.

This map has such an interesting history, from its assortment of mailing labels and postage stamps, to its connection to Cornell University faculty, and finally as part of the Maps Collection. After treatment that retained its historical evidence, the map is better preserved and available for study–perhaps for a future researcher to discover why Professor Bailey was interested in a hydrographic map of the coast of Cornwall!


Partial Leather Rebacks: A Case Study


Today’s blog describes a book conservation treatment informed by a resource from our Conservation Lab’s library of reference materials.  The Conservation Lab’s library has hundreds of resources on conservation and preservation topics (treatment, handling, environment, disaster planning and recovery), bookbinding, and artist’s materials and techniques. We add new resources to our library frequently and the collection is open to all users. This is the 2nd in our Preservation Week series highlighting Cornell University Library Conservation Lab’s continuing education to better preserve and protect our collections.

Caitlin Jochym


Books bound in leather are susceptible to a number of problems. Because of this, we see a lot of them in the lab. The leather can deteriorate over time, weakening the joints and causing boards to detach and spines to be lost. Part of our working philosophy is to do as little as we can in the way of treatment while stabilizing the item enough that it is not damaged by handling. The following treatment decision was made with that in mind.

A leather reback is called for in certain cases where a book bound in leather is in a condition that leaves it vulnerable to damage by handling. This often means the leather is deteriorating, the spine is partially detached or missing, the boards are detached, the sewing compromised, or any combination of these things. We “reback” a book by applying a new leather spine to strengthen the book structure while retaining as much of the original material as possible. In the case of this book from the Cornell Music Library, the board attachment was very strong and the spine was in great condition except for one detached section.

The top portion of the spine is detached, exposing the original spine linings.

Rebacking is an invasive and complex treatment that should only be undertaken when absolutely necessary. Since the board attachment was sound and the shoulders of the book where the spine was intact were in great shape, I was reluctant to do a full reback. I knew there was a way the leather of the headcap could be replaced without going to the extreme of a full reback.  A full reback would have required cutting through the shoulder and removing the remaining spine to expose the back of the book.  Though I had never done this particular repair myself, I decided to do a little research and give it a try.

In our conservation library we have a copy of “The Restoration of Leather Bindings” by Bernard Middleton, who is considered to be one of the most skilled and influential bookbinders of our time. This book is an invaluable resource for all types of leather book repairs. It includes detailed instructions and wonderful illustrations on the various ways to repair books bound in leather (there are many). I’ve used this in the past and luckily it has a section on repairing headcaps!

middleton illustrations

Illustrations demonstrating the headcap repair technique I adapted. Middleton, Bernard C. The Restoration of Leather Bindings. Rev. ed., American Library Association, 1984.

In Middleton’s book he is working on a tightback, which means the leather is adhered directly to the spine. This can be more complicated because it’s often very hard to separate the leather from the back of the book without damaging it. The book I was working on had a hollowback which made things much simpler. With a hollowback, the leather is attached to a folded tube of paper adhered to the back of the book, which allows for a more flexible opening. It was fairly easy to adapt Middleton’s method to fit the structure I was working with.

I first removed the linings from the exposed part of the spine. Leaving original linings makes even adhesion of new linings difficult.  It adds bulk and stress to that section of the spine which can inhibit the opening. To remove the linings, I used a poultice of wheat starch paste. This softened the adhesive and allowed me to scrape off the residual paper linings with a dull knife.

lifting leather

Next, I lifted the original leather on the sides of the book and slightly underneath the intact part of the spine. I also lifted the paste downs on the inside corners of the boards where I would tuck the turned in leather.


I lined the exposed spine with Japanese kozo paper and attached a piece of cloth which was carried across the shoulders and adhered to the boards under the lifted leather. A new paper hollow of archival wrapping paper was attached to the spine on top of the cloth lining.


I prepared a new piece of leather (vegetable tanned goat) by paring it very thin around the edges so it could be tucked under the original leather without being too obvious and to minimize the thickness so the functionality of the opening would not be affected.

Normally when doing a leather reback, we would attach the leather to the back of the book and then turn it over to the inside to form the headcaps. What Middleton suggested was to actually adhere the leather “upside down” to the inner boards and back of the book and then turn it back onto the spine. I made two slits in the cloth and the hollow to allow for the new leather being turned over the boards. Using wheat starch paste I attached the new leather around the spine through the slit cloth and hollow and under the paste downs.

new leather

New pared leather inserted “upside down”.

turning in

I then folded it over the slit hollow carefully inserting it under the original leather. Using a bone folder I made sure the leather was stuck down and then formed the headcap.

I set the joint by opening the front and back board and applying a downward pressure while the leather was damp. Setting the joint coaxes the leather into a shape it will “remember” when it dries and allow a free and flexible opening. I used pieces of mylar (precut to size) between the old leather and the new to prevent moisture transferring to the old leather, which can cause discoloration. The book was then put between boards and left overnight to dry.

The next day, I cleaned up and reattached the original spine to the new leather with PVA (Poly Vinyl Acetate is a synthetic adhesive which is useful because it introduces very little moisture which can stain old leather.) The inside paper paste downs were readhered with wheat starch paste.

old spine

The original spine piece was readhered to the new leather.

kozo lining

Lastly, a strip of colored kozo was attached with wheat starch paste to protect the inner joint.

before and after

Before treatment on the left; after treatment on the right.

This isn’t a treatment we will use often, but it goes to show what a valuable resource a library can be, and how much can be learned from the countless years of experience gathered in a few books!

For more information on Bernard Middleton’s extraordinary career. See:

Exhibit Supports: Learning about Vivak®

Pat Fox

Today’s blog on working with Vivak® for constructing exhibition supports is the 1st in our Preservation Week series highlighting Cornell University Library Conservation Lab’s continuing educational efforts to better preserve and protect our collections.

Cornell University Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections creates several exhibitions annually, featuring the rich and varied materials in its collections.  Conservators play an essential role in these exhibitions, by evaluating the condition of collection materials, providing advice on light levels and handling, treating condition issues, and constructing cradles and mounts to support and safely display items.

In the current exhibit, World Picture: Travel Imagery Before and After Photography, there are several different types of our custom-made matboard cradles and supports in use. Matboard is easy to work with, versatile, and recyclable.

vertical and horizontal support

Shown here are the different types of matboard supports used in a vertical case and in a horizontal case.

In addition to matboard, there are other materials used for exhibit supports. I had the pleasure of attending the Ivy Plus Mount Making workshop on April 4th and 5th. Mark Pollei, Assistant Director for Library Conservation and Preservation at the Sheridan Libraries and Museums at Johns Hopkins University, hosted a group of professionals coming from seven different institutions. We came to learn how to construct supports made from Vivak®, a transparent thermoplastic, for library materials on exhibition.


library and support

Left: Milton S. Eisenhower Library; right: Vivak® support at the George Peabody Library

woman and support

Left: Yan Choi, a LACE fellow studying at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, drills holes in her support pieces; right: sample Vivak® support tilted at 20°

More frequent and larger exhibits are challenges facing the participants in the workshop. We talked about modular supports systems that have pieces that can be reused and reconfigured. We also discussed standardizing display angles and making cradles in three sizes; small, medium, and large. Alessandro Scola, Senior Book Conservator at Hopkins, spent two days sharing the system that he has developed. He uses Vivak®, metal brakes and cutters, drills, and lots of trigonometry to build supports that safely and elegantly display the unique materials that are in his care. He showed us his system in a detailed Powerpoint presentation. Then we had a chance to put his system to use, working with kits Alessandro had assembled to make several different kinds of supports.

man and math

Left: Alessandro Scola demonstrating the metal brake used to bend Vivak®; right: trigonometric plans for supports

I have had the opportunity to experiment with Vivak® a little here at Cornell. Vivak® is perfect for items that require transparent supports, like books with unusual formats and certain photographic materials. I’m still learning about Vivak®; I like how it holds its shape, and its transparency allows me to experiment with new display possibilities. Talking with other workshop participants gave me perspective about the exhibit responsibilities of my job. And now I have a group of people to consult when I encounter a challenge I cannot solve myself.

lantern slide and pop-up

Left: Vivak® supports for lantern slides that need light behind them to be visible, in the World Picture exhibit; right: matboard wedge and a Vivak® angle used to support an 1856 pop-up edition of Robinson Crusoe. This will appear in a single case display in the RMC Reference Room to commemorate the 300th anniversary of the publication of Robinson Crusoe on April 25th, 2019.

For more information on exhibitions, see:



Professional Development: Chemistry for Conservators


Each year I am given the opportunity to pursue professional development relevant to my position in Conservation. This support for continued growth is an invaluable benefit. This year, I decided to start working on one of my most challenging obstacles in Conservation (and Academia): Chemistry.

It is easy to get lost in the daily work – surface cleaning, stabilization, humidification, etc. that are familiar and routine – and lose sight of the underlying chemical principles that are ever present in our treatment decision making. I felt that getting a grasp of these principles was essential to my professional growth. I wanted to better understand why I was carrying out treatments and be able to apply that understanding to decision-making of items and materials that were not familiar and treatments that were not routine.

With Chemistry being well beyond my comfort zone, diving into a college level Chemistry, 18 years after my last Chemistry course, was a little too ambitious. Instead, I chose to apply to the Chemistry for Conservators correspondence course offered through International Academic Projects.  It is designed for those of us who do not have a strong background in Chemistry, but who work closely with it every day.

The course distilled Chemistry down to the fundamental principles that directly impact conservation practices – and it took out “the math”.  It is divided into four blocks to be completed over 4 months, each block building upon the last as new topics are introduced. Block 1 introduced the physical world with focus on air and water; Block 2 covered basic chemical principles – atoms, electrons, compounds, reactions, molecular models; Block 3 began to link the principles introduced in Blocks 1 and 2 to deeper concepts – solutions, electrochemical principles, organic compounds, polymers; and Block 4 addressed the challenges conservators are presented with most often – the effects of water, cleaning –why, when, and how much; adhesives, and degradation. Each of these 4 Blocks was accompanied by readings from the textbook (Chemistry 2nd ed.), the Science for Conservators Series, Volumes 1-3, and supplemental course notes accompanying each block, as well as experiments (materials supplied) and review questions. The textbook provided a general introduction to the topics covered, the Science for Conservator Series and course notes provided a more technical explanation, the questions highlighted key concept, and the experiments provided a concrete visual example of the concepts discussed in the texts.

Though simple, I found the experiments required the most time and independent thought. They provided a means to practice those skills needed in conservation assessment and decision making: observation, organization of thought, ability to draw conclusions, and direct application of understanding gained from drawn conclusions.

This course was challenging, but manageable. It is noted that is a time intensive course and to plan for 10-12 hours/week to devote to the material. This is fairly accurate – less if you are a quick reader, and Chemistry comes naturally to you; more if you are a slow reader, like to take meticulous notes, need to re-read, and Chemistry is not you forte. The course covered topics across conservation – extending beyond the conditions found with paper and photographic collections with which I am most familiar. Metal, ceramic, glass, and textile materials, have been surfacing more and more often in the conservation lab from Cornell University Library Collections. Having some framework and resources will be helpful in understanding current conditions and guiding treatment needs. With this course, I am better equipped to take a more informed approach to the treatment of the materials I am responsible for preserving. And while there is more to learn, I left this course with a foundation to build upon. I gained greater awareness of the underlying chemical principles that explain current conditions and the potential options and outcomes of material choices and treatment methods.

Here are two examples:

Shown here is a tintype (silver image on black lacquered iron support) from the Loewentheil Family Photographic Collection in the Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections. It demonstrates how corrosion can occur if the tintype is exposed to poor environmental conditions. Rust is the slow oxidation of iron. It occurs as 2-part reaction when the iron support is exposed to BOTH air and water. First the iron is oxidized by the air to form iron oxide. The iron oxide then reacts with moisture in the air to produce hydrated iron oxide-more commonly known as rust. By minimizing one of the two factors causing rust to occur- exposure to air or water/moisture in the air- you can assist their preservation.

Late 19th and early 20th century newspapers provide excellent examples of cellulose deterioration caused by acid hydrolysis. Cellulose in a polymer of glucose which forms from condensation reactions that occur between the reactive -OH (hydroxyl) side groups.

One of the ways these cellulose chains are broken down is by acid hydrolysis. In the presence of moisture, acids from the environment (air pollution or poor quality enclosures) or from within the paper (raw materials, manufacturing processes) repeatedly cut the glucose chains into shorter lengths. This reaction also produces more acids – providing fuel for further reactions and continued degradation. This newspaper shows the affects of this deterioration–brittleness, loss of strength, crumbly edges, and darkening.  This course provided me with an excellent background to navigate the variety of approaches to mitigating these concerns–treatment, environment, and enclosures.

I am grateful to Cornell University Library, Tre Berney, Director Digitization and Conservation Services and Michele Hamill, Paper and Photograph Conservator, for their continued support and encouragement of my professional development, and the rather generous amount of time I was given to spend on this coursework.


Pigmeat’s Laugh Hepcats

Jill Iacchei and Michele Hamill

Cornell University Library features a growing number of archives documenting contemporary, musically based cultures such as punk, Hip Hop, black metal, and Latin salsa. Working in the Conservation Lab, I have had the privilege of working with many of these collections, which often contain a fascinating mix of photographs, flyers, artwork, and LPs. A recent addition is the poster shown below promoting the 1947 film short “Pigmeat’s Laugh Hepcats” starring Dewy ‘Pigmeat’ Markham (1904-1981).

Before treatment

This poster recently arrived in Cornell Library’s Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections (RMC) as part of their efforts to document 20th century music and culture. It advertises a 1947 film featuring Pigmeat Markam, whose popular 1968 single “Here Comes the Judge” is frequently cited as a precursor to Hip Hop.

Before arriving at CUL, the poster had been folded multiple times, resulting in deep folds, some splitting and torn.  Rubber-based and acrylic pressure sensitive tapes had been used to reinforce these areas that had split or torn. Tape may go on clear at first, but deteriorated rubber-based tapes stain the paper a disfiguring amber color.  The edges of the poster had many small losses and tears and the lower right corner was fully detached. Overall, the poster had yellowed in appearance and had some surface dirt.

Left: discoloration and staining resulting from tape deterioration. Right: Edge tears and losses.

The poster was brought to the Conservation Lab to fill and stabilize the numerous edge tears and losses, reduce the dark staining caused by rubber-based tape residue, to slow deterioration of the support with aqueous treatment, and to be housed in a way that would offer support, prevent further damage, and facilitate access.

The poster was first surface cleaned with smooth sponges to reduce dirt—this step is necessary before any aqueous or chemical treatment so surface dirt isn’t trapped in the paper support. The plastic carriers of the tape were removed and adhesive residue was reduced mechanically. Discreet testing of the inks and paper support was then performed to determine what aqueous or chemical treatments may be possible.  Testing showed the red and black lithograph printing inks were stable in water and that the paper support would absorb water readily, indicating that the poster would respond well to aqueous treatment. Testing also indicated that the tape adhesive residue and staining could be solubilized and reduced from the paper support using a polar organic solvent.

Stain reduction in process

Shown above is this stain reduction in process to a corner that had separated from the remainder of the paper support. Areas of the poster with adhesive staining were placed on the suction table and masked off. The solvent was painted over these areas so the residue and staining would be pulled through the poster support onto the absorbent blotter below, thereby reducing the residue and associated discoloration. This improves the paper condition and brings your eye back to the poster design and away from condition concerns.

Next, the poster was treated aqueously to remove soluble degradation products within the support, in effect slowing further embrittlement and discoloration that these degradation products cause. The drying and flattening of the poster after the aqueous treatment reduced the deep folds, giving the poster back some of its intended original appearance—a smooth surface that showcases the striking design.  The areas of loss and tears were stabilized with Japanese tissue toned to blend with the support, unifying the appearance of the poster. A polyester sleeve allows the poster to be stored and handled safely and securely.

Aqueous treatment removes soluble degradation products within the support.

Poster treatments can run the gamut of basic stabilization to more complex treatments such as this one, depending on condition, use, and importance.  After treatment, this poster now joins the rest of RMC’s deep and growing collections documenting 20th century music and culture.

After treatment

You can listen to Markham’s Here Comes the Judge here.



Workshop Summary: The Use and Creation of Pre-Coated Repair Materials

Michele Hamill

Increasingly in libraries and archives conservation there is a need for practical, safe, and efficient repair materials that address diverse collections and priorities, and can be used by a variety of practitioners (conservation staff, interns, and supervised students and volunteers). Pre-coated repair materials can fill some of this need with their versatility, convenience, and ease of use.   Pre-coated repair materials (usually Japanese tissue coated with an adhesive and then dried) supplement traditional conservation mending techniques like wet wheat starch paste applied to tissue.  At the point of use, the adhesive on the pre-coated tissue is reactivated with water, solvent, a combination of water and solvent, or heat.  A low amount of water, or no water at all, make them very useful in a variety of treatment scenarios with sensitive media, coated papers, easily stained papers, and in prepping collections for digitization, in production projects, and off-site work.  There is time and effort in preparing the pre-coated tissues, but once made, they can last a long time which adds to their convenience.

The conservation community is highly interested in these pre-coated materials and how they may benefit their collections, as evidenced by the over 150 conservators, technicians, and students who have taken this workshop.  I was interested to learn how these pre-coated materials may be used with Cornell Library’s paper and photograph collections, particularly modern archives collections (often with brittle paper and modern media), iron gall ink documents, architectural drawings, newspapers, and resin-coated photographs.  The workshop was a great learning experience which increased my knowledge and familiarity with these repair materials and techniques.

The beautiful Indiana Historical Society served as host for this recent workshop on the use and creation of pre-coated repair materials, sponsored by FAIC.

The workshop was organized by IHS book conservator Kathy Lechuga, with assistance during the workshop by IHS conservators Stephanie Gowler and Ramona Duncan-Hines. The IHS conservators did an outstanding job preparing the vast amount of materials for the workshop and generously opening their lab for our use.

The IHS was a fantastic site for a workshop with convenient lecture facilities and their wonderfully outfitted conservation lab, large enough to accommodate 18 conservators working there over 3 days.

The workshop instructor, Sarah Reidell, Head of Conservation at University of Pennsylvania Libraries, has deep expertise in the subject of pre-coated repair materials and her website is a great resource with a bibliography and photo galleries of previous workshops.  Sarah was an outstanding instructor, knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and encouraging.  Encouragement played a key role in the workshop as the techniques and materials involved were many, and skill levels and prior experience were diverse.  Using a combination of informative lectures, instructor-led demonstrations, and group discussions, Sarah presented information on a variety of adhesives and techniques to apply them successfully to tissue, and then how to reactivate the pre-coated tissue for use on a wide variety of collection materials.

Sarah is shown here demonstrating preparing pre-coated tissue using a mix of wheat starch paste and methyl cellulose.

One of the best parts of the workshop was being guided by Sarah to experiment, critique, engage with other participants, and move outside your usual pattern when approaching repair, in a supportive, collegial environment.

The advantages of pre-coated repair materials are many and include versatility, increased choice (type of paper, adhesive, reactivation method), more control, customization, ease, speed, portability, consistency, and production.  Disadvantages can include “hand” (your skill level) in making and using the tissues, possible solvent sensitivity of conservator and object, and inadequate reactivation which could lead to adhesive failure.  Through the workshop, we learned many techniques for applying the adhesive(s) onto very thin Japanese paper and reactivation methods to optimize adhesion success.

The first afternoon of the workshop was spent making tissues with starch and cellulose ether adhesives.  These are easier to make than the acrylics so we were able to hone our application techniques (drop, brush, screen) and application direction (left to right, Union Jack) and then adding the tissue (top edge laid down first, or bias drop—my favorite), or applying the adhesive directly to the tissue (Tricky! A light hand and mindfulness help a lot).  For me, applying a layer of adhesive to the polyester and then dropping the tissue onto the adhesive created a nice adhesive layer, without roughing up the paper fibers which can happen with the brush-through method. We experimented with applying the adhesives to the polyester support in a variety of ways (Hake or synthetic brushes (easier to clean!), rollers, foam brushes, and stipple brushes).  Helpful tips include humidifying thicker papers in advance and adding a spritz of water to the applied adhesive layer to encourage capillary action.  But resist the urge to “fix” the tissue (a strong inclination in a conservator!) once it is down.  Practice and patience are key.

Sarah is seen here showing the “top edge down first” method of dropping very thin Japanese tissue onto adhesive. Her preference (and mine as I practiced) is to drop the tissue on the bias, center first.

The adhesives covered in the workshop included wheat starch paste (the staple adhesive of many conservation labs), cellulose ethers (like methyl cellulose), proteins (including gelatin and isinglass) and synthetic adhesives (including those used to prepare your own heat-set tissues). Great tip: Soak wheat starch paste in water (in whatever proportion your lab uses) for 20 minutes prior to cooking. This soaking promotes swelling of the starch granules which makes for a shorter cook time (since they are already swelled) and a velvety smooth paste.

Included in the outstanding workshop handouts were detailed descriptions of the adhesives (shown here taped to the wall near the adhesive) noting concentration, common preparation, application and reactivation methods.

The application techniques included drop, brush, foaming, screen, and squeegee. The self-leveling effects of paste and cellulose ethers eased many a tissue that was a bit wrinkled during application but dried into useful sheets. Here, Sarah is foaming adhesive with a stiff brush through a screen to create a light adhesive layer.

Throughout the workshop Sarah created visual and descriptive summaries of observations and critiques. The “vertical tideline” illustrated how water evaporates from the coated tissue, creating the adhesive film layer.

The practical information shared during the workshop was really helpful—like keeping dedicated brushes for this purpose; prewetting brushes to aid cleanup; preparing the tissues over a darker surface (like Kraft paper) helps visibility during the coating; which polyester (regular or silicone coated) would allow the prepared tissue to release (hint: use silicone release polyester for the acrylics OR peel them off of regular polyester when almost dry, otherwise they will be stuck); tips to avoid contaminating adhesive stock (chop clean mat board scraps into disposable sticks or get a cheap bag of craft sticks); labeling techniques (the future usefulness of the pre-coated papers depends on good labeling including date, adhesive, concentration, and paper type, and application technique); move and dry the newly made tissues flat (or the adhesive will pool down to one edge); smaller sheets are easier to make (yes, yes, they are!); and how to store the prepared tissue (use the creation polyester as a support for thin tissues; and label folders by adhesive and paper type).

The second day of the workshop was spent working with the acrylic adhesives.  The advantage of acrylic adhesives is they can be reactivated with solvent or heat.  Concern of heat applied to collection materials is mitigated by keeping the temperature controlled with a rheostat and using small tips (no home irons here!) on the tool to deliver the necessary activation heat over only the affected area, limiting heat exposure to the surrounding area.  Weighting the treated area allows the reheated adhesive to cool and become solid which helps secure the mend. My comfort zone is very much in starch, protein, and cellulose ether adhesives so I really valued this opportunity to work with a variety of synthetic adhesives.  Sarah’s bibliography (on her website) includes some great articles describing synthetic adhesives. While there are some commercially available heat set tissues, there is a distinct advantage to creating your own tissue which allows for full control over the type of adhesive, type and weight of paper, and tone.

Pre-coated repair materials can be prepared on a variety of weights of Japanese tissue.  Very thin Japanese tissue (like tengujo, Berlin tissue, or RK-00) have the advantage of translucency so text or image is still visible through the repair. For convenience in the workshop we used untoned Tengujo tissue (5 g/m2) but the tissue can be toned with acrylics in advance to better match the item being treated.  The thinness of the tissue helps mitigate one of the disadvantages of pre-coated materials –that you can’t tear a feathered edge but instead have to cut, score, or prick the tissue.  Thin tissues don’t have the undesirable hard edge of straight-cut, thicker repair tissue and are visually unobtrusive.

The white tengujo tissue is visible on this example but would be less obvious if toned.

The needs of the object to be stabilized determine which pre-coated tissue may work.  There is no one solution to fit every problem.  Instead the workshop gave us options that could be part of the solution while factoring the extent and degree of conservation concerns; the object’s reaction to water, solvent, or heat; the surface (texture, gloss) of the object; and need of the object to flex, fold or move.  The usual steps that may be needed for preparing an item for mending, like surface cleaning, and humidification and flattening, hold for pre-coated repair materials as well.  Surface dirt in particular could present a barrier to adhesion.

The third day of the workshop was dedicated to reactivation methods on a variety of sample collection materials—coated paper, brittle paper, newspaper, tracing paper, and photographs.  We were encouraged to create tears and add problematic media like marker and ball point pen.  Straight tears (whose edges align) respond well to pre-coated repair materials.  Scarfed tears (where the edges overlap) may need reinforcement on both sides or additional adhesive fed into the overlap areas. I had some great success with a heat-set adhesive mix used at NARA on several of the practice samples.

The IHS generously donated deaccessioned envelopes with iron gall ink (which has water sensitivity and so is an ideal candidate for pre-coated repair tissue) as practice samples. There were also lots of lignin-containing papers, waxy tracing papers, coated paper, parchment, and photographs to experiment with.

I left the workshop excited about the possibilities for using pre-coated repair materials for the paper and photograph collections at Cornell Library.  So far, we’ve prepped toned pre-coated repair tissue for a large collection of iron gall ink documents and a newspaper project.  Thanks to Sarah, Kathy, Stephanie, Ramona, and all the workshop participants for a great experience.



Conservators in Action

Michele HamillDuring a recent visit to the beautiful conservation lab of the Indiana Historical Society (IHS) for a workshop on pre-coated repair materials, we had the opportunity to tour their History Lab .  The History Lab is dedicated to advancing the public’s knowledge about conservation and preservation.Be still my conservator’s heart!  An entire exhibit space and teaching facility encouraging the exploration of how IHS collections are preserved, what visitors of all ages can do to extend the life of their family collections, and learn about the different processes involved in making photographs, books, and paper artifacts.

An engaging and fun interactive display lets visitors explore a variety of artifacts and manufacturing processes in depth.

The components of this cased photograph, a tintype (a unique photographic image on a lacquered iron base), are displayed to illustrate the complex, composite nature these artifacts.

The History Lab offers a view of the state-of-the-art IHS conservation lab where visitors can see conservation in action; hands-on activities, like stabilizing paper documents; and many displays –good vs. bad paper; a recent conservation treatment, and a touchable array of materials used to make artifacts.

The visible effect of all that touching is striking. The white sheet on the far right– with the hole –is paper!

The touch display is paired with an explanation about why conservators don’t generally wear gloves during treatment. Gloves make sense in some reading room situations and with some types of vulnerable collection materials.

A detailed explanation of this conservation project was accompanied by water samples showing the discolored, acidic, degradation products that are released during careful aqueous treatment.

An impressive display illustrating how enclosures impact collection materials.

The “Unfortunate Mr. Foster” helps to illustrate how to avoid damage in home collections.

On the left is the instruction space in the History Lab for walk-in visitors, groups, and families to learn about paper conservation stabilization techniques. On the right, is the larger teaching space where the IHS hosts students from colleges and high schools, volunteers, and members from surrounding cultural institutions. The IHS store also sells archival storage boxes and basic mending kits (with instructions) to promote care of collections to its visitors.

The tools and technology used in conservation are also evident in the History Lab—on the left is a view of the IHS conservation lab and, on the right, the digital microscope exploration station showing a detail of the red watercolor used in the flower illustration.

The History Lab is welcoming, engaging, and instructive. What a wonderful way to promote how conservation benefits collections, and as a powerful teaching tool about the material culture in our everyday lives. It was also a good prompt to share what we do here at Cornell so stay tuned for a recap on the pre-coated repair materials workshop held at IHS and how we may use those techniques on our collections, and a fascinating look at squeezes (paper cast impressions) from the Parthenon.  Conservators in action!