Here at the Archives, we are accustomed to getting requests to treat collection items that researchers ask to consult or that our digital services team plans to image and make available online. Occasionally, however, we get requests from members of the media who want to take a closer look at our collections for special programs. One of these recent requests featured Constantine Rafinesque, a naturalist who was fooled by John James Audubon into believing in the existence of several fantastical species that Audubon fabricated as a joke. (You can read more about this story in a post by Archives staff member Kira Sobers and in an article from Smithsonian Magazine.) The media crew wanted to explore Rafinesque’s journal documenting these creatures and asked us to assist.
Senior Conservator Nora Lockshin and I had recently looked at Rafinesque’s journal for our field book research earlier in the year. It’s a memorable volume not just because of its contents, but also for the adaptations made to the notebook to accommodate Rafinesque’s field work, including loops meant to hold pencils that were attached to edges of the front and back covers of the book. It is hard to see when the book is closed, but the loops alternate between the covers, so that when a pencil is placed in the loops, it locks the book shut.
These delicate loops, along with the fragile nature of the volume and its leather cover, caused some handling concerns during the filming process. Even with careful attention, opening the book to find the relevant pages revealed that a partially cut page had begun to come loose from the binding, and the front cover broke away from the remainder of the volume. Ideally, we would like our collections to look their best when being shared with the public, so I chose to tackle these two issues to allow Rafinesque’s journal to put its best foot forward on camera.
I first attached small extensions of Japanese paper to the cut edge of the loose page. This allowed me to weave the paper extensions between the cords that form part of the binding structure, anchoring the page in its correct position. I then fully fixed the page in place by pasting down the ends of the paper extensions. The detached front cover was reattached with a similar procedure, where I placed a strip of Japanese paper beneath the leather of the cover and the spine, recreating the original attachment. These two interventions allowed us to more safely handle the book, since there were no longer any loose components that could be damaged. We presented an intact book to the audience, demonstrating that the Smithsonian is actively caring for its treasures.
Once this was complete, I worked with the media to prepare the book to be filmed. The crew wanted the supports to be invisible, and to see particular openings of the book so that certain pages were visible. I used corrugated board as a stable backing for the book, and cut strips of clear polythene to strap the book in an open position. On camera, the strapping was not visible and the book appeared to float on a black background. The media shot precisely what they were aiming for, and I had peace of mind that our collections were being safely and proudly represented to the world.
- Notebook kept by Rafinesque on a trip from Philadelphia to Kentucky, 1818, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Record Unit 7250, C. S. (Constantine Samuel) Rafinesque papers, 1815-1834
- "Audubon Pranked Fellow Naturalist by Making Up Fake Rodents," by Jason Daley, Smithsonian Magazine
- "A Close-up with Field Book 'Specimens,'" by William Bennett, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- "Conserving Harper's Three-for-One Field Book," by William Bennett, The Bigger Picture, Smithsonian Institution Archives
- "A Fishy Tale," by Kira Sobers, Field Book Project blog