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Preserving Theodore Roosevelt: Collections Conservation in the Harvard College Library

The Conservation Services staff in the Harvard College Library (HCL) has completed the third in a series of summer projects to conserve and re-house 700 oversize pamphlets in the Theodore Roosevelt Collection—a unique collection of books, photographs, and manuscripts given to HCL by the Theodore Roosevelt Association in 1943. The pamphlets are shelved in the Widener stacks, as part of the Roosevelt class. (The rest of the collection is housed in the Houghton Library.) The project was a collaborative effort of the staff of the Theodore Roosevelt Collection and HCL Conservation Services.

Wallace Dailey, curator of the Theodore Roosevelt Collection, and the project supervisor sorted material into treatment categories so that items could be brought to the laboratory in batches according to level of difficulty. During treatment, fragile clippings, periodical extracts, memorabilia, and other ephemera were removed from brittle, acidic binders. Each item was dry cleaned with a natural rubber sponge or vinyl eraser, tapes were carefully removed, and any necessary repairs completed. Items with old acidic linings and/or adhesive stains were washed, and tattered edges and/or tears were mended with Japanese paper or heat-activated tissue. Creased and wrinkled items were humidified and flattened. Almost all items required reinforcement at the binding edge before they could be placed in protective end-sheets and sewn into new, archival quality binders.

The project entailed more than conservation treatment. Given a limited time to achieve a significant amount of work on a large collection, the Conservation Services staff treated the Roosevelt materials in production mode. This approach, in turn, required a high level of organization. Each batch of pamphlets was carefully collated upon receipt to prevent any disorder during re-assembly. Because no original material could be discarded in the lab, brittle housings and acidic endsheets also had to be maintained in treatment order until they could be returned to the curator with the completed work.

This approach toward treatment is known as "collections conservation," the programmatic application of conservation principles to general research collections, and underlies all work done in the HCL Collections Conservation Laboratory. The goal is to use permanent, durable materials and to provide a sound structure that will permit continued use by faculty and students. Whenever possible, the original formats and publishers' bindings are retained so that the user has a sense of each item as an artifact of its time. Efficient production is important because of the enormous number of items in need of attention. Work is done in batches, using pre-cut materials, whenever possible, and standardized techniques.

The 3,400 square foot, state-of-the-art laboratory on the lower level of Widener was designed for this collections conservation approach. Large workbenches allow batch treatment, and ample storage spaces provide ready access to material that is pre-cut on a large power cutter. Flexible space and mobile work tables in the larger room make it possible to host short-term projects. The laboratory opened in 1998 with a staff of two conservators and four technicians. Staffing has since grown by 4 FTEs, and the scope of the program has expanded accordingly. During FY 01, over 29,000 items were treated, including 13,000 enclosures for items relocated during the Widener Stacks Renovation or sent to the Harvard Depository.

Training is another goal of HCL's Conservation Services. The Roosevelt project provided opportunities for casuals working in the HCL Collections Conservation Laboratory to receive more experience in paper conservation. All three casuals have gone on to permanent positions at Harvard:

  • Kate Becker as conservation technician at Cabot Library;
  • Heather Hamilton as library assistant for collection care at the Schlesinger Library; and
  • Shokoofeh Haeri Kafi as conservation technician in the Widener Library Conservation Laboratory.

Examples of other projects that have been managed by Conservation Services in recent years include the systematic review and repair of heavily used reference collections in the Loker Reading Room of Widener Library, the Spaulding Room of the Loeb Music Library, and the Houghton Library Reading Room. Treatments ranged from a five-minute hinge-tightening, which is a preventative measure, to full rebinding-all done with a turnaround time of one week or less because of the need for ready access to reference materials.

Services to other Harvard libraries have also expanded. Nancy Schrock, chief collections conservator, has worked with HCL libraries to develop collections conservation programs appropriate to their collections. This includes training, disaster preparedness planning, advising on workbench design, product recommendations, and conservation treatment of materials that cannot be handled on site. HCL Conservation Services provides advice to all Harvard libraries, but treats only HCL materials.

There is close collaboration between Harvard College Library's Collections Conservation Laboratory and the Special Collections Conservation Laboratory for in Harvard University Library's Weissman Preservation Center. Staff share expertise and equipment, such as a fume hood and ultrasonic encapsulator-and they also collaborate on broad preservation initiatives, such as disaster planning, training in care and handling, and development of guidelines and standards of practice. The future holds more opportunities for the expansion of services as Harvard tackles the preservation challenges posed by its collections of media and its new digital programs.

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Last modified on Thursday, April 18, 2002.