The Bigger Picture: Visual Archives and the Smithsonian
Taking Care of Our Own
It was brilliant to work at the Smithsonian Institution Archives (SIA) this past summer as a conservation intern helping to restore damaged books from SIA’s Reference Room. This primary research library includes many histories and annals published by the Smithsonian from the 1880s through the 20th century, and in the process of learning different ways to conserve some of them, the summer just whirled by. This book is one of the Archive’s original research volumes, containing 19th century scientific reports, gathered from national exploration projects. Unfortunately, it was in shoddy shape: a combination of heavy use and poor construction caused both covers and the spine cloth to fall away. The inside was left to fend for itself until the spine cracked, the sewing thread tore, and the brittle paper cracked away from the spine, leaving many little pieces behind. This book was just crumbling away. We wanted to conserve it because of its historic and research value, and because of its potentially gorgeous appearance; fortunately, we could. To repair the book, the pages needed to be mended first. Here, they are shown under a weight which was used to flatten them and straighten their edges before they could be mended with a Japanese paper called Tengujo (which has very thin and strong properties) and suitable adhesive. After drying, the pages were re-folded, and then resewn together to form the textblock; it’s a book again! Here is the book, fixed. It has been resewn and re-inserted back into its case, the spine of which was restored with new, stronger cloth, as the old was too frail to actually support the book anymore. The original spine pieces were pieced together like a jigsaw puzzle and mounted on another slightly thicker Japanese paper. This strengthened piece was glued to the spine and then areas of missing original spine fragments were carefully colored in with chalk pastels to make the bright new repair material not stand out from the old (a process we call visual or aesthetic integration). It was a big challenge; due to light exposure, the green dyed cloth had faded to gold and brown on the spine, turning color matching into a smeary challenge. But, it came out well. This book is a classic example of why we’re conserving the books for the reading room; while it could be looked at carefully before, if it were damaged, its information would have become inaccessible for SIA researchers. Though it is still fragile, now the book’s contents are better protected, it looks much better and, most importantly, it is available for use again by researchers who no longer need to feel nervous about handling it.
Michal Long is the Conservation Intern of the Smithsonian Institution Archives.