Further Research in the Conservation and Preservation of Letterpress Copybooks

Detail of severe ink corrosion on RU 53, vol.32, p. 369, 09/23/2015. Courtesy of Laura Dellapiana Between September-December 2015 I had the opportunity to undertake a research project on the conservation of eighty letterpress copying books of Spencer Fullerton Baird (1823-1887), preserved in the collections of the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA) RU000053, under the supervision of Senior Conservator Nora Lockshin.

The Baird volumes are currently restricted for use (although greatly desired by researchers) because the collection is affected by a severe iron-gall ink corrosion and ink fading. Microfilm is available,  but is not entirely legible.

In 2011, Smithsonian Postgraduate Fellow Beth Antoine analyzed the Baird’s letterpress copying books, and investigated conservation treatment using antioxidant tetrabutyl ammonium bromide (TBABr) and raised new research questions in her conclusion. My project proposed to design experiments for the new research questions : to compare two non-aqueous conservation treatments; and to develop risk assessment and practical workflow guidelines, in order to stabilize and digitize the collection in the future.  I took into consideration the further developments in the conservation of iron gall inks since Antoine’s publication, so I designed a study to investigate three major new research questions related to the conservation of letterpress copying books.

First of all, I further analyzed the effects of TBABr on the paper and compared also treatments with another similar antioxidant:  1-ethyl-3-methyl imidazolium bromide (EMiMBr). Secondly, in the meanwhile, I experimented with different sizing agents and repair tissues both commonly used in conservation or recently developed, such as an Avanse/Plextol heat-set tissue studied by the National Archives and Records Administration. Finally, I investigated the application of the best materials on the volumes with the use of a book suction machine, to minimize risks for the collections and the conservator during conservation treatments.

Application of Bookkeeper on mockups using a book suction machine, 12/28/2015. Courtesy of Laura De

Different combination of materials were tested on paper strips sacrificed from one of the Baird volumes from unused sheets at the back of volume 4. Moreover, I created mockups with a gampi paper, which is similar to the original types of tissues that were used to create copying books, and three different inks (with different solubility characteristics ) that simulate inks that were used in writing letters copied into letterpress copybooks.

Creation of original paper strips with added inks (left) and mockups (right) to test different mate

Examination of adhesives and sizing agents under UV light, 12/28/2015. Courtesy of Laura DellapianaTo check the results of the treatment and predict their behavior over time, I put the mockups through artifical aging studies, measuring the following factors: the acidity or alkalinity levels (pH), color change using a colorimeter (in CIEL*a*b* colorspace),  migration of iron (II) ions,  tensile strength of the samples, and visual examination under ultraviolet light.

The tests were conducted in two different locations: the conservation laboratory of the Smithsonian Institution Archives and the Mecklenburg Materials Archive facility at the Smithsonian’s Museum Conservation Institute.

At the end of the tests, we discovered that, if combined with deacidification, Bookkeeper (a proprietary deacidification solution), and either of two possible sizing agents, the antioxidants TBABr and EMiMBr are effective in stabilizing degraded inks of letterpress copybooks, and the behavior of the two is very similar. However, it is necessary to test the solubility of the inks extensively before planning any treatment.  Concerning repair tissues, we selected three possible heat set/solvent set tissues that may be used to stabilize tears and losses. By using a suction table and turning the pages gently with Mylar/Melinex sheets, it is possible to effectively stabilize pages of letterpress copybooks that are affected by severe tears and losses. The results of this research project will help the conservators of the Smithsonian Institution Archives in planning a stabilization and digitization project for the Baird letterpress copybooks over the following years. Moreover, the findings will help archivists and conservators of other institutions in the United States and abroad in preserving this kind of archival collection. A poster of the project will be presented at the American Institute for Conservation 2016 joint annual meeting in Canada.

Tensile strength test equipment at the Mecklenburg Materials Archive - Museum Conservation Institute

I wish to thank the Anne Van Camp, Director of the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Nora Lockshin, Senior Conservator at the Smithsonian Institution Archives, Eric Woodard, Director of the Office of Fellowships and Internships, and Dawn V. Rogala, Paintings Conservator of the Museum Conservation Institute for their support of this project. As an emerging Italian paper conservator, completing this research was an extraordinary opportunity to grow professionally and personally, in a rich and stimulating environment!

Related Collections

Record Unit 000053 - Spencer Fullerton Baird, Smithsonian Institution Assistant Secretary in charge of the United States National Museum, Correspondence and Memoranda, 1850-1877

Related Resources 

"The Conservation of Letterpress Copying Books: a Study of the Baird Collection." Antoine, Beth, Mecklenburg, Marion F., Speakman, Robert J. and Wachowiak, Melvin J. 2011.The Book & Paper Group Annual, 30: 9-27

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