Preserve It While You Use It: Collections Care in Action

An attendee at Close-up look at a heavy book with proper support, Smithsonian Institution Archives, 2014. Every year, the American Library Association (ALA) organizes events and initiatives designed to promote preservation-minded activities amongst the general public, known as Preservation Week. According to ALA's website as of 2005, nearly 5 billion items are stored in U.S. museums, archives, and libraries, and while many of them have staff to care for them and are provided for in disaster planning, all are susceptible to damage. In addition to simply advocating for preservation, ALA further "encourages libraries and other institutions to use Preservation Week to connect our communities through events, activities, and resources that highlight what we can do, individually and together, to preserve our personal and shared collections."

As a small contribution to Preservation Week, the conservation staff at the Smithsonian Institution Archives wants to share some of our recent forays into practical applications of preservation-mindedness.

Innovations for Safe Display of Collections

At the beginning of April 2015, Archive conservation staff attended a symposium presented by the Folger Shakespeare Library entitled "Don't Rock the Cradle: Books in Exhibitions - Mounts, Materials, and Economy." The importance of safely displaying any museum or archive collection cannot be overstated. When exhibitions are planned, much thought is put into the environmental controls, the duration of the display to account for possible light damage, and security. With books, it is exceptionally important that its structures be properly supported.

Born from a German master's student research, "Don't Rock the Cradle" was a sequel to a similar conference held in Berlin in 2013 that presented and evaluated strengths and weaknesses of various types of exhibition-appropriate book supports, focusing mainly on the cradle format. Leading conservators and exhibition experts from institutions in the United States, United Kingdom, and Germany, among others, were invited to present their methods of supporting and displaying books with the goal of sharing expertise and inspiring innovation, with an added emphasis on improvements that could be beneficial to the wider preservation community. A "marketplace" was also set up to demonstrate solutions presented during the conference, and proved a fruitful opportunity to exchange ideas. Postprints describing the contributions are forthcoming, including that of Archive's own Nora Lockshin, whose development of collapsible magnetic book cradles and magnetic strapping was of great interest to the attendees. Nora's work will also be uploaded to the American Institute for Conservation (AIC)’s Book and Paper Group Wiki during AIC's annual conference in May 2015 - look for it in the exhibition section and gallery.

Initiatives to Promote Safe Handling

Lisa Fthenakis, Institutional History Division intern, demonstrating proper use of book supports in

With the innovations of others fresh in our minds from "Don't Rock the Cradle," we wanted to carry forward this momentum and take a look at collections care in action in our own space - specifically that of our reading room, where patrons come and use our materials. We plan to refresh demonstrations for staff and patrons in order to successfully promulgate the best conditions for our documents and build awareness among our researchers of the importance of safe handling. With the steady stream of researchers making use of our collections, it can be difficult to ensure that all who consult our materials do so with the highest standards of handling. In addition to providing basic reading room guidelines that patrons must agree to follow, we encourage staff to speak to patrons who can use a gentle reminder of best practices, and speak up when appropriate based on observation. Alongside refreshed in-person training and demonstrations, we plan to prepare visual reminders and tip sheets to reinforce best practice and act as a resource for visiting researchers. We are also considering creating video demonstrations of our handling practices, like this one from Harvard on handling special collections, or Duke University Libraries' video demo of a book futon.

With the right training and tools - like adequate book supports - researchers and staff contribute to our mission to preserve the records of the Smithsonian for the future. We hope this inspires you to take part in Preservation Week! Have a look at the links below for ideas, tips, and events near you.

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