The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Posts tagged with: Conservation
There they were, tucked between the pages of a catalog of Alaskan bird skins, and eggs by Edward William Nelson , but . . . what were they? They certainly didn’t look like they belonged to a bird. About five inches long, wavy and coarse, with brown and white banding, the mystery hairs presented themselves as a question and an opportunity. Being a pre-program conservation intern at the Smithsonian Institution Archives on the Field Book Project has been such a pleasure and the path to discovering the answer to this hairy problem is exactly the kind of thing I love about working with cultural heritage items.
Just looking at the hairs with an unaided eye, my first guess was that they were the guard hairs of a porcupine. The first step to find out if I was right was to head to the microscope. Working first with a stereo microscope and then with a polarized light microscope, I set to work learning more about the hairs. The animated GIF below illustrates how polarized light microscopy works (click on the picture below to see it). As the microscope stage is turned, the hairs change appearance. When viewed through a transmitted light analyzer (a type of filter,) the polarized light allows us to observe different features based on how light is refracted or transmitted through structures differently. The first image in the GIF is the hair under unfiltered polarized light.
The microscopy yielded lots of important information, for instance you can see the striations and the empty space known as the medulla, rather than a central shaft. Along with the scale pattern, this verified that these were not feathers. The particular scale and medulla patterns seen above, when compared to a known example indicated that it wasn’t quite a porcupine. On to the next guess. A deer, perhaps? Nope! The unique ribs on the hairs meant it probably couldn’t be a deer, despite a lot of similarities. What other animals were there in Alaska that might have this type of hair structure?
I was officially stumped, so I turned to the experts. Luckily, being an intern with the Smithsonian has its perks and the experts were right across the National Mall at the National Museum of Natural History. I met with Suzanne Peurach, a Collection Manager on the U. S. Geological Survey staff (a descendent of the same organization Edward William Nelson worked for), in the Division of Mammals. In no time, she and her colleague, Al Gardner, deduced that it was not in fact a deer hair, nor was it that of a porcupine. It turns out I had been looking at animals in the wrong part of the world. Edward William Nelson didn’t just spend time in Alaska, though the book I was working with detailed an Alaskan collection. For nearly a decade, Nelson was a field researcher in Mexico. It was here that he would have picked up the two hairs which had spent so much time puzzling me, not in the cold of Alaska. The hairs turned out to be those of a javelina, a.k.a. collared peccary! Using existing slides to compare, Suzanne found the same ribs that I couldn’t find in any other specimen I had looked at. Furthermore, she pointed to a clue I had not even seen (that’s why she’s the expert). The split ends of the hair, which I had not thought of as special, were the key indicator that it belonged to a member of the family Tayassuidae, which includes the javelina.
As I said, being a conservation intern at the Smithsonian Archives has been a wonderful experience, and the best part of it by far is the opportunity to meet and work with the people who make up the staff and volunteer corps of the Smithsonian. Microscopy had given me a lot of clues, but it was the access to and the spirit of collaboration among experts at the Smithsonian that ultimately guided me to the answer of the mystery hairs.
- Record Unit 7364 - Edward William Nelson and Edward Alphonso Goldman Collection, circa 1873-1946 and undated, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Accession 12-320 - Edward William Nelson Field Notes, 1869-1886, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- Now on view at the National Archives is the exhibition, Discovery and Recovery: Preserving Iraqi Jewish Heritage, which presents the story of the dramatic recovery of 2,700 books and tens of thousands of documents from a flooded basement in the headquarters of the Mukhabarat, Saddam Hussein’s secret police. [via AOTUS blog, NARA]
- We hope you are ready for it, Innovation is coming to the Arts and Industries Building !!!
- Advice on how to do family history research, part 1. [via New York Times]
- Historic costumes are on exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library, historic smell and all. [via The Collation blog, Folger Shakespeare Library]
- A warm welcome to Folklife Today, the new blog of the Library of Congress' American Folklife Center.
- May the WARC be with you, searching for the true meaning of web archiving. [via The Signal: Digital Preservation, LOC]
- By now most of us are familiar with the variety of memes that can spread across the web like a virus, however this same type of spread of information can also be found in the 19th century albeit through different channels. [via MapLab, Wired]
- For more about the Iraqi Jewish Archive, check out the video below.
Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blogathon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.
It Creeps! It Sticks! It Lurks! It Smells! It silently and terribly feasts on whatever is in its damp path! It dies . . . or does it? It may rise from the dormant state to live AGAIN!!! What is this all-powerful horror?
In what has become a joyously ghoulish tradition around here, we are proud to present this year's Horrid Hallowe'en Creature Feature, starring the terrible, creeping . . . MOLD. Well, it might be mold, or then again, maybe not. It might be alive, but maybe it is just dormant, or maybe its really quite dead, but can still hurt you. How do you know what it is? Is it black? Is it green? Is it purple, brown, or orangey-red?! This is a frequently asked question in our Collections Care Forum: whether a musty or "old" smell in their book or paper collections is a sign of mold, mildew, or foxing, how are they different, and most importantly, how can it be gotten under control or removed? Happily, supplementing our Forum answer, more and more resources are now available online to help you identify mold in your collections. While in the past, many of these have been written up in lengthy fact sheets, the web now allows us to share terrific images that characterize mold species typical to books and papers. Some of these sites show you how to safely use your senses and observations so that you may contact the right professional, or take steps to remediate the problem yourself - within proper safety guidelines.
In this slideshow, we present new additions to our Gallery of Horrors. We've taken the liberty of using the annoying movie franchise naming convention to name them in serial fashion, Mold I, II, etc. To see any of these in larger detail, simply click on the set to go through to the Flickr site, and do look for the mouseover notes and description - a director's commentary track, if you will.
In the related resources below, we point to some of our favorite sites for visual identification and learning more about safely dealing with mold in your collection. It is particularly thrilling that one is made possible through the auspices of the Stephen and Tabitha King Foundation. Yes, that Stephen King. And he knows a thing or two about books and horror!
- Connecting to Collections Online Community - Mold! A 90-minute webinar featuring expertise on identification, images and resources for recovery
- Books Gone Bad: Mold in Library Collections (Images are found in the Case Studies section)
- The Cornell Mushroom Blog
- Preserving the Iraqi Jewish Archive, National Archives and Records Administration' excellent short documentary on the preservation of severely mold-affected collections which presents some of the processes of recovery.
Even in the conservation lab of the Smithsonian Institution Archives, land of acid-free bookmarks and conservation-grade adhesives, I recently found myself looking high and low for a practical Post-it note. It was the perfect way to temporarily label a jar of adhesive for one day's use, instead of cutting out a small piece of paper and taping it to the jar. So much extra work! Created around 1960 by Art Fry and Silver Spencer (legend has it that they were trying to create a strong, durable adhesive but kept making this weak low-tack adhesive by accident), the humble Post-it note is now a fixture of office culture. So simple and easy to use, what is there not to love about them?!
Well…unfortunately, this bright and useful invention has a darker side for librarians and archivists around the world. Not too long ago, conservation scientists at the National Archives and Records Administration conducted a battery of tests on Post-it notes and their competitors (hereafter referred to as a sticky note), and concluded that all sticky notes leave behind a harmful residual adhesive that attracts dirt and sticks to other papers or objects, no matter if you remove it immediately or leave it on for years, and the dyes in some sticky notes will run if wet. Additionally, removing a sticky note from a fragile book can easily lift ink and tear pages, and the notes are often made of poor quality, acidic paper which will cause damage over time. Although the original Post-it note developed for the 3M Company uses an acrylic adhesive which will not stain paper, other sticky notes are often made with a butyrate adhesive that will discolor paper over time, so users beware! Consequently, most libraries and archives enforce a strict “NO POST-IT NOTES” rule.
So, if you will, imagine my joy tinged with horror when an unusual document, bearing some seventeen feet worth of sticky notes neatly tacked onto a seemingly endless scroll, came into the lab to be conserved!
Cordelia Rose, former registrar of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum, created this lengthy blue, pink, green and yellow flow chart to describe how the registrar process worked in 1986-1987 and to explain the database system they were using at the time. But as you can see, the sticky notes had become most ill-fated! Having already come loose and been readhered with a deteriorating double-sided tape, they were stained, attracting dirt, curling at the edges and beginning to fall off, leaving a disordered sticky mess.
After discussion with my colleagues, it was decided to readhere the notes in-situ, making it safe for digitization and for researchers to use. To do so, each note was carefully detached with a heated scalpel, while any residual adhesive was removed with a crepe eraser and methyl cellulose crumbs. Once the surface areas were clean, the sticky notes were carefully reattached in the same position with small drops of Lascaux 360HV, a permanent yet reversible adhesive. The Lascaux 360HV remains slightly tacky at room temperature, which allows the sticky notes to remain slightly flexible as the scroll is rolled and unrolled. Finally, a custom scroll box was made following instructions from our good friends at the Freer-Sackler, who handle scrolls far more often than we do at the Archives.
Stay tuned for a follow-up post by my colleague, archivist Jennifer Wright, who will explain why we are preserving and archiving the sticky note thoughts of Cordelia Rose!
- Suited for Space exhibition, guest notes on what they would bring to space sketched on sticky notes, Smithsonian Traveling Exhibition Service
- Art Fry: Post-it Note Inventor, podcast, Lemelson Center
- Record Unit 540: Cooper-Hewitt Museum, Office of the Registrar, Subject Files, circa 1937-1992, Smithsonian Institution Archives