Category Archives: Conservation

An Environmentalist Before Her Time


Rachel Carson was born on May 27th, 1907 in Springdale, Pennsylvania. Surprisingly, Carson was not born near an ocean! And why might we say that? Well, Carson would go on to become one of the foremost nature writers and ocean conservationists of the 20th century. However, before her foray into the ecological world, Carson spent her childhood exploring her family’s rural farm. She graduated high school in the neighboring Parnassus, Pennsylvania, at the top of her class.


Carson attended the Pennsylvania College for Women (today known as Chatham University). Though she first declared as an English major (having been an avid reader her whole life), she quickly switched her major to biology. After graduating magna cum laude, Carson began her graduate studies in zoology and genetics at John Hopkins University. In June, 1932, Carson earned her master’s degree in zoology. Though she had planned to continue her education and eventually receive her PhD, the world had other plans. The Great Depression hit her family hard, and Carson was forced to leave school and begin a full-time teaching position to help support them. A couple years later her father died suddenly, putting even more stress on Carson to be the sole caretaker of her mother.

carson1Carson eventually got a temporary position with the United States Bureau of Fisheries, a job which she had been on the fence about but was persuaded to take by one of her college mentors. She spent her time there writing radio copy for “weekly educational broadcasts entitled Romance Under the Waters.” With 52 programs in the series, Carson had her work cut out for her. The episodes focused on aquatic life and was meant to prompt interest in biology of fish and the work the Bureau did. During this time, Carson’s interest in marine life grew, and soon she was submitting articles on aquatic life in the Chesapeake Bay to local newspapers and magazines. She impressed her superiors with her dedication and knowledge to the point where they offered her the first full-time position that became available, as a junior aquatic biologist.

Carson continued to write, articles and journals, essays and copy – detailing marine life. Her writing career would be changed forever after the publishers at Simon & Schuster saw an article by Carson entitled “Undersea” that had been published in Atlantic Monthly. This journey along the sea floor impressed the publishers so much so that they contacted Carson and implored her to turn the essay into a book… one that they would publish. Carson not only wrote the book, but continued publishing in journals and magazines all over the country at this time.

carson2Over ten years at the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (as it was by then called) were good to Carson – she had become the chief editor of publications. Years after the first interest shown by publishers, Carson was once again on the book-publishing path. This time, Oxford University Press expressed interest in a life history of the ocean. Her completed work would eventually become The Sea Around Us. Several chapters were published serially in the Yale Review, Science Digest and The New Yorker, until it was finally published as a book in July 1951. It was an immediate bestseller, remaining at the top of the New York Times Bestseller List for 86 weeks straight. This success gave Carson the ability to give up her job at the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and focus on her writing full time.

carson6Her books on the ocean life continuing to be popular, best selling works across the country, Carson began focusing much of her research on pesticide use in the United States, something she had been interested in for over a decade, but finally had the time and space to work on it. By 1957, the USDA was proposing widespread pesticide spraying – to eradicate fire ants and other pests. Carson was suspicious of some of the toxic chemicals they were proposing using, including DDT – a now known carcinogen. She worried what kind of effect the runoff from this activity would have on coastal life, and for good reason. Carson would spend the rest of her life focusing her efforts on conservation, with a great emphasis on “the dangers of pesticide overuse.” In September 1962, Houghton Mifflin published what would become Carson’s best-known book, Silent Spring. This work described in detail the harmful effects of pesticides on the environment, and is credited worldwide with helping begin the modern environmental movement.  “Carson was not the first, or the only person to raise concerns about DDT, but her combination of “scientific knowledge and poetic writing” reached a broad audience and helped to focus opposition to DDT use.” She also poetically noted the dangers of human nature on the environment, a verifiable fact . Carson was, truly, ahead of her time. Unfortunately taken from us much too soon (passing away at the age of only 56 after a battle with breast cancer), Rachel Carson will live on with every moment that we choose to put the good of the planet above ease of our lives.



Happy 170th Anniversary to the Smithsonian Institution!

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By Margueritte Peterson

In 1829 an English chemist and mineralogist name James Smithson died. This, in and of itself, should not have influenced the United States in any grand way… but it did! This English chemist, born in Paris and the illegitimate song of the 1st Duke of Northumberland donated all of his lifetime of earnings and his own inheritance to Washington, D.C. and the United States… despite never having been there. What came of this scientists idea of “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men”? Less than 20 years later the Smithsonian Institution was founded in Washington D.C. as an establishment that promoted further knowledge and learning for all men. In his will, Smithson dictated that his funds be left to his nephew and the nephew’s family… or in the event that the nephew had no surviving heirs, to the United States of America for a very specific purpose. 

A young Smithson from his days at Oxford.

A young Smithson from his days at Oxford.

James Smithson was born Jacques Louis-Macie in Paris, secretly, on an unknown date. He eventually became a naturalized UK citizen, and even studied chemistry at Oxford’s Pembroke College. After graduating from Oxford, Smithson considered himself somewhat of a nomad – he traveled extensively throughout the UK and Europe and published many papers on his findings. His “findings” covering all manner of topics – from the art and science of coffee making to the use of the scientific substance calamine in making brass. He studied other scientific topics over his lifetime, more to do with his chosen field of chemistry (like the make-up of human tears and snake venom!) Smithson was independently wealthy from an inheritance from his mother, and though he stayed quite busy throughout his lifetime in his studies, never had a career or a paying job. However, his travels did not diminish his wealth and at his death he was still very well-off. Smithson died in Italy in 1829. Six years later, his one and only nephew, Henry Hungerford, died, leaving no heirs. In his will, Smithson dictated that in the event that his nephew died without heirs, [Smithson] then bequeath the whole of [his] property… to the United States of America, to found at Washington, under the name of the Smithsonian Institution, an Establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men.”

Screen Shot 2016-07-20 at 1.12.09 PMThe United States was unaware of Smithson’s plans until his nephew passed away in 1835. The news was sent to President Andrew Jackson, who informed Congress of their lucky gift. A committee was set up almost immediately to begin planning the Smithsonian Institution. The funds from Smithson’s estate over the next few decades eventually totaled up over $562,000 (the money arriving as gold sovereigns in almost a dozen boxes, alongside Smithson’s personal belongings and scientific findings) – a total almost equivalent to $15,400,000 today!

In February of 1847, the Board of Regents (those put in charge of overseeing the new “Smithsonian Institution”) approved the seal for the institution. The institution opened that year and has remained an unbelievably popular establishment for research and knowledge ever since. These days, taking young children on field trips to the Institution (which has since expanded into a combination of 19 museums and galleries – all but 3 of which are still located in Washington, D.C.) is a common practice, as the collections include over 138 million artworks, artifacts and specimens. The Smithsonian Institution Libraries hold 2 million library volumes – and their Archives hold 156,830 cubic feet of archival material! Talk about an impressive library… the Smithsonian is an American institution with a wonderful history. Happy 170th Anniversary to the Institution!

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Preserving Antiquarian Photographs and Photo Albums


Collectors of rare and antiquarian books are well aware that they must take specific measures to preserve and protect their collections. Condition directly impacts value, but perhaps more importantly, condition dictates how intimately you can experience the items in your collection; items that have deteriorated cannot be handled and studied with the same freedom as items that have been better protected.

Death_Valley_Floyd_EvansCommon enemies of antiquarian books include direct sunlight, humidity, and vermin, along with substances like adhesives–and even other paper. The same holds true for antiquarian photographs and photo albums. But due to their more complex composition, these items often require even more specialized care.

First and foremost, it’s important to store photographs and photo albums only in archival quality containers. These are made from chemically stable materials, so they won’t contaminate your collection. The picture frames available at most retail shops generally contain high-acid wood pulp, along with polyvinyl chloride. Both of these trigger deterioration, so it’s best to stick with metal frames when possible.

Individual Photographs

If you’re not planning to display your loose photographs, you can store them in polypropylene or polyester sleeves (the most common brand is Mylar), which are considered stable enough for long-term use. For smaller photographs such as cartes de visite, stereo views, or cabinet cards, it’s relatively easy to find the right size sleeves. The photographs should then be placed in an archival quality box.

Detroit_Aircraft_Development_Corporation_Trade_CatalogueLarger photographs can be placed into individual polyethylene bags. If you’d prefer to display them, the best approach is to attach each photograph (and the original mounting board, if present) to 100% rag acid-free mat board with a window-mat of the same material hinged to fold over it. You can use acid-free linen tape to hinge the two mats together. This way, the photograph won’t come in contact with the frame’s glass, and you’ll hide the imperfections of the original mat.

Some collectors prefer to place their antique photographs into period photo albums. While this will protect the photos from dust and fingerprints, it won’t protect them from deterioration. Furthermore, most such albums are relatively fragile in their own right, so they won’t stand up to frequent handling.

Gathering_Photographs_Orr_IslandAlbumen prints are a special case. They tend to curl when removed from deteriorating albums. To combat curling, you have a few different options. A number of institutions embrace the practice of hinging albumen prints on all four corners, and this is a perfectly viable option. But the American Photographic Museum uses a different approach: they slip each print into its own clear polyester envelope and attach the envelope to a mat board with a hinged over-mat. Treated this way, the photos can then be framed if desired. This technique can be used with virtually any fragile item, not only photographs but also prints, maps, and ephemera.

Daguerrotypes, ambrotypes, and tin types also necessitate special consideration. These kinds of photos were usually sold originally in folding cases, with glass to protect the delicate surface of the image. But even a seemingly impervious material like glass can succumb to age; it may crack, get dirty, or become cloudy. If you’re tempted to replace the glass, consult a professional! This process requires extreme care; one stray touch can permanently ruin the image. You may also want to think about the impact of replacing the glass on the photograph’s value; many collectors prefer that daguerrotypes have their original seal intact, so replacing the glass could decrease your photograph’s value to potential buyers.

Caring for Antique Photo Albums

While caring for individual photographs is relatively straightforward, preserving antique photo albums can be a bit more complicated. This is because the various materials used to assemble the album can interact and trigger deterioration. Often antique photo albums will already show signs of damage, but it isn’t always due to these chemical interactions. In fact, damage is more often than not caused by other factors, such as humidity, improper handling, or poor processing.

Therefore, removing individual photographs from an album for preservation should be your absolute last resort, as dismantling the album often means losing the inscriptions, order, and presentation of the album. And you may damage the photographs in your attempt to remove them from the album. Conservators often recommend interleaving photo albums, that is, placing leaves of acid-free paper or plastic sheets between the album’s pages to protect them from each other. The pitfall of interleaving, however, is that it can strain the album’s binding.


If an expert recommends that you go ahead and disassemble an album to protect the photographs, you can take color photocopies of individual pages to record the album’s order, layout, inscriptions, and captions. In most cases, an experienced conservator should perform the task of removing the photos. With old self-stick albums or those with plastic cover sheets, the adhesive dries up over time, so photographs may fall out on their own.

As with any attempt at conservation or preservation, it’s best to consult an expert before attempting anything on your own. Although the field of photograph conservation is relatively new, there are numerous consummate professionals who will be happy to consult you on the best approach for an item in your collection.


Collecting Antiquarian Diaries, Journals, and Correspondence

In this age of electronic communication, the practice of keeping a journal or diary has largely fallen by the wayside, as has the art of letter writing. But in past centuries, keeping a diary was the only means of creating a written record of one’s life, the only way to look back at one’s personal past. In bygone days, farmers may have recorded observations about crops, livestock, and weather in a journal. Soldiers recorded strife,while ordinary men and women simply recorded the simple details of their daily lives. And written correspondence was the primary method for maintaining long-distance relationships.

Looking back at these documents can give us tremendous insight into the aspects of life that history books often omit. They may reveal facts about the diet, customs, or etiquette of the time period. They sometimes shed light on genealogy and local history. Journals and correspondence may even reveal the real motivations behind historic events or explain the nuanced relationships among important individuals.

Tips for Collecting Diaries, Journals, and Correspondence

For many collectors, diaries and journals are appealing because each volume is an absolutely unique manuscript. Such a document is quite a treasure, indeed. Collectors should keep a few tips and hints in mind.

  • Look for complete sets, rather than individual volumes of journals and diaries. Faithful diarists will often have produced a number of volumes over the course of their lifetimes. Stay away from individual volumes that have most likely been removed from a set.
  • Decide whether you’ll digitize your collection. This will require the assistance of a skilled archivist or conservator. Digitizing these items is an investment, but it will enhance your ability to enjoy the content of your collection–and to share it with scholars if the content proves significant.
  • Be gentle! Old paper can be quite brittle, while covers may be fragile. Handle them with care, and consider professional conservation or preservation to extend the life of your collection.
  • Don’t overlook ephemera. Journals frequently contain extra items, which can range from dried flowers to vacation souvenirs. These items damage the pages on either side. A conservator may recommend carefully documenting each item’s location and storing it separately in an archival envelope.
  • If correspondence is still contained in the original envelopes, consult a conservator about the best means to preserve both the envelopes and the letters inside. Chemical interactions between materials–even between two sheets of the same or similar papers–can hasten breakdown.

A Selection of Diaries and Journals

Journal Across the Atlantic

Journal_Across_AtlanticOriginal mss journals such as this are quite rare in commerce. An unidentified male passenger recorded the details of his 1785 transatlantic journey from London to Philadelphia. He records the names and nationalities of the crew and passengers, along with the daily minutiae of life aboard the ship. Events include the sighting of a “grampus whale,” an encounter with a Spanish ship, and a lively debate over how moths and butterflies came to be aboard the ship. Details>>

Notes from Lectures of Professor Alonzo Clarke for 1848-1849

Almon Mitchell Orcutt attended the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York. The first 136 pages of his journal consist of notes he took during the lectures of Alonzo Clarke, a noted physician and professor at the college. Clarke was often quoted in medical journals and association reports. He famously said, “All of our curative agents are poisons; and, as a consequence, every dose diminishes the vitality.” He was correct, indeed, given the “medicines” and treatments commonly used at the time. John Harvey Kellogg quotes Clarke in his Home Hand-Book of Domestic Hygiene (volume 2, 1880) in a discussion of the smallpox vaccination. Orcutt’s notes include the semester’s lectures, while the last 68 pages contain financial records. Details>>

Department of the Interior, US Geological Survey

US_Geological_Survey_Notes_JournalThis workbook started out as a record of levels and other data, kept by Allen T Paine, the survey crew levelman. But Paine also used the book as a photo journal. Many of the photographs are captioned. While many show family, friends, and colleagues, a good number also document the buildings of Concord, New Hampshire, along with the survey crew’s work and environs. Details>>

Family Trip Photo Diary/Journal

This period photo journal of a visit to the 1915 Panama Pacific Exposition in San Francisco begins in Albuquerque, New Mexico. It includes 45 images, eight of which clearly depict portions of the journey to San Francisco. One image, for example, shows part of the Salt Lake; another, the Grand Canyon. Fourteen of the images have handwritten captions. Details>>

 Archive of Shuman Family Letter Correspondence, August 1862-September 1866

Shuman_Family_Correspondence_Civil_WarJohn Shuman was in his early twenties when he volunteered for service in the 88th Regiment of the Indiana Volunteers to fight for the Union in the American Civil War. His letters illustrate his confidence in the decision and that he believed the war would be short-lived. It lasted longer than Shuman expected, and he lost his life in battle, not due to wounds, but due to dysentery. The Shumans’ correspondence offers a unique snapshot of a soldier’s life during the war. Details>>

Eleven Manuscript Diaries

Manuscript_DiariesThe author of these diaries, William Antrim Flowers, was born on March 21, 1832 in Champaign County, Ohio. He begins his memoir with his birth and then goes back to the birth of his father in 1804. The memoir is a rich storehouse of family genealogy and history, following his family and relatives as they moved abou tthe Midwest in the early nineteenth century. Flowers also documents his own life, during which he worked variously as a teamster, a wagon driver, a teacher, and a dairy farmer. He saw the first McCormick reaper in 1855 and enlisted to serve in the Civil War. Flowers records descriptions of his own experiences in the war, along with a description of the 114th Colored Regiment Infantry and the 44th Colored Regiment; and the death of Abraham Lincoln. Details>>

Related Posts:
Flights of Fancy: Collecting Vintage Airline Posters
Of Sammelbands and Sheet Music
A Brief History of Broadsides


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Meet Dr. Erin Blake, Curator of Art & Special Collections at the Folger!


Dr. Blake examines the backside of a broadside, where we often find clues about the document that we can’t glean from the text. This item, which the Folger acquired from Tavistock Books, is the Edinburg edition of the “Regicides” broadside (1660), wherein Charles II commands those involved in the death of Charles I to present themselves, “being deeply guilty of that detestable and bloody Treason.”

This week we’re pleased to welcome our friend and colleague from Rare Book School, Dr. Erin Blake. Dr. Blake is the Curator of Art and Special Collections at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. She was kind enough to sit down with us to talk about her journey to the Folger and her evolving role as the curator of “anything that’s not a book or a manuscript.”

TavBooks: Tell us a bit about your career path. What drew you to art history? And what brought you to the Folger?
Dr. Blake: I started out as a history major and discovered that I really liked studying objects as part of history, as evidence. And art history is where you actually get to delve into that, so I did a double major in history in art history. When I got my PhD, I didn’t want to do that typical art history thing where you pick an artist no one else has “done” before. Instead I ended up studying topographical views designed for the zograscope, which was a viewing device that gained popularity around 1750 in England. You look through a lens and mirror arrangement to get a three-dimensional view of a scene.


This colored print, from the University of Exeter, shows a zograscope in use.

Although these images were often topographical, they weren’t really maps. Nor were they really art. But when the British Museum split into the British Museum and the British Library, the zograscope images went to the map library. The art people didn’t study them because they weren’t art, and the map people didn’t study them because they weren’t maps. So here I was, this art person looking at pictures in a map library!

It was only a matter of time before I began exploring the world of special collections libraries. I always knew that I’d wanted to work in a library, rather than a museum, and that I didn’t want to be an art history professor. When the Folger advertised for a curator, it seemed like the perfect opportunity.

TavBooks: Your original title was Curator of Art, and that has been expanded to include special collections. What are your responsibilities now? And how has your position evolved since you began?
Dr. Blake: My job here is to make the items in our collection available to scholars as primary sources and to acquire new items that complement the research needs of the collection. Our interests in that regard are unusual for art. Museums want rare, pristine, first state prints, but we’d rather have the more common ones. The version of an item most seen and used by people is of most use to researchers. When Mr. and Mrs. Folger were building their collection, they were also interested in things that had been written in, written on, things that had been used. When people come to study the history of readership, that record helps us determine what was important to people as they looked at books and prints.

When I started at the Folger, I was in charge of art. The objective definition of art is “anything that isn’t a book or manuscript.” And special collections is lots of stuff that isn’t really art by other people’s definition. Here, for instance, that includes ephemera like playbills, scrapbooks, and even strange objects.

TavBooks: What’s your favorite item in the collection? Have you discovered anything that inspired you to do more in-depth research for yourself?
Dr. Blake: It’s interesting to explore the degree to which there are fetish objects associated with Shakespeare. For example, there are items made out of Shakespeare’s mulberry tree. The tree grew in his garden, and he supposedly planted it. During the eighteenth century, people would make pilgrimages to Shakespeare’s home. They’d take slips of the tree and use them to grow their own at home.

This tea caddy, wrongly attributed to Thomas Sharp, bears Shakespeare's bust and coat of arms.

A 1905 auction catalogue featured a photograph of this “tea-caddy made from the mulberry tree planted by Shakespeare” and called it “an undoubted genuine relic, having Sharp’s own stamp on it.” Thomas Sharp was the most recognized maker of mulberry souvenirs, stamping his products with “Shakespeare’s wood.” This box has no stamp, but rather a place where a stamp appears to have been scraped away.

Eventually the man who owned the property grew tired of the constant stream of visitors, so he cut down the tree and sold it for firewood. But the people who bought it didn’t use it for firewood. Instead, it was made into a wide variety of souvenirs and talismans, such as bookmarks and figurines. We obviously can’t definitively determine whether each of these items actually originated from the tree in Shakespeare’s yard–at least not without destroying the objects themselves–but what’s important is that the people believed these items were associated with Shakespeare.

But my favorite items are the unexpected ones. One is a book of caricatures by the artist Sem. Because of the way the Folger collection was unpacked in 1932, items were sorted into books and manuscripts, or prints and drawings. This volume is more like a scrapbook. The pages have really detailed watercolor caricatures of people from the theater scene, along with handwriting samples from each person, often letters written to the collector who created the book. There’s also a Shakespeare quote with each character. The book was marked “A.L.S.” — autograph letters, signed — and placed with the manuscripts because of the handwriting samples, so it ended up being catalogued as about 60 separate manuscripts. People never knew significant art was there, but this year a summer intern is making preliminary records for the drawings.

TavBooks: How has our perception of art changed since Shakespeare’s time?
Dr. Blake: The status of artists has changed quite a bit, a shift which really started around Shakespeare’s time. There was a movement to elevate artists to the status of intellectuals; art was not a craft, and not a trade. But for a long time art sat astride two worlds. The people who did theater scenery might also show at the Royal Academy.

For some time, book illustrators were excluded. Illustrations were not seen as fine art. But we find a whole lot of primary source information in book illustrations. But there’s been a shift in the past ten to fifteen years. Researchers used to come to the Folger and say, “I’ve written a book. Now I need illustrations to go with it.” Now it’s the other way around. They say, “I’m writing a book, and I need to examine the visual evidence.” We’ve learned that evidence can also be visual, not just verbal.


The collection includes many drawings and sketches of costumes and scenery, such as this one. Charles Hamilton Smith and his daughter, Emma drew these watercolor drawings and tracings of theatrical costumes, banners, shields, and arms especially for Charles Kean’s productions at the Princess and Haymarket theaters.

TavBooks: What do you love about working at the Folger Shakespeare Library?
Dr. Blake: One of the great things about working here is the flexibility for people to do things they particularly enjoy. I’ve become much more involved in descriptive cataloguing. I’ve been helping to develop a new edition of guidelines for libraries to catalogue pictures. The manual, Descriptive Cataloguing of Rare Materials (Graphics), will be published later this year.

TavBooks: Why are you particularly interested in descriptive cataloguing?
Dr. Blake: That goes back to why I was so interested in working in a library. When I was doing dissertation research in the 1990s, web-based online catalogues were brand new. I was doing research at Northwestern when they got their new online system, and I noticed that one of the tabs on the search results was “Staff View.” I wondered what that was, so I clicked on it. It was an encoded version of all the information displayed elsewhere in the record. All this information was hidden from scholars, but it meant much more sophisticated searching strategies for those who knew.

I’ve always been interested in systems, how they’re constructed, and how they work. What I enjoyed was building a database, seeing how things broke down, and figuring out how to make the data accessible to the people who needed to use it. The methodology of descriptive cataloguing certainly fits into that. And I wanted to help create a system for something that’s often perceived as subjective.

TavBooks: You’ve also done some interesting work in the field of preservation. Tell us a little bit about your discoveries.
Dr. Blake: We received an NEH grant for developing a sustainable preservation environment with the help of the Image Permanence Institute. The long-received wisdom was that the best way to maintain your library was a straight-line temperature and relative humidity: 70 degrees Fahrenheit and 50% RH. It turns out that this guideline, which had long been the convention, was actually a provisional guideline that wasn’t meant to be widely applied. In most cases cooler and dryer is actually better. But there’s also a greater range of acceptable conditions. As an analogy, think of flexing a piece of cardboard: it has quite a bit of give; it’s only if it’s bent past a certain point that it gets permanently creased.

For libraries, maintaining an absolute flat line at 70 degrees and 50% RH is expensive. It’s also damaging to the environment. So our goal was to define more flexible parameters and make preservation more sustainable. If we’re preserving a collection, but destroying the environment, then why bother? Ultimately we upgraded key air handlers to maintain a cooler, dryer environment while consuming less energy. We also now shut off air handlers for underground spaces at night; the conditions are relatively stable, and books don’t require constant air circulation. We did face a problem with humidity in the summer, but have figured out how to handle that.

TavBooks: You’re responsible for items that are made of basically everything except paper–and probably some paper, too. What preservation challenges do you face as a result?
Dr. Blake: The most difficult things are objects that aren’t entirely one material or another, but that are made of multiple materials. A painting on wood in a metal frame…these materials expand and contract at different rates, the frame could rust, etc.

TavBooks: As a curator, you’re responsible for deciding the direction and scope of an extensive collection. Individual book collectors are also curators, albeit on a smaller scale. What advice would you offer them?
Dr. Blake: Be sure to collect something that interests you. Don’t collect because you think it will be worth money in the future. And come up with a clear theme for your collection–and stick to it! You build a strong collection around a core idea. There’s a phrase in libraries, “build to strength.” We don’t want a few random things, but the best collection of X, whatever X may be. Consider your collection as something you’re building for the future, and that you’re telling a story with your collection. What you choose to collect illustrates what’s important to you and to someone of your era.

It’s also important to document your collection and why it’s particularly interesting to you. Record when and where you got each object, and why you chose to acquire it. Otherwise, that object dies because its story isn’t being told. Ask yourself, “What else can this object tell us about people in the 21st century?”

A terrific example of a large and meaningful collection is the Babette Craven Theatrical Memorabilia collection. Mrs. Craven collected objects across all media from late eighteenth-century to early nineteenth-century England. The way she collected reflected her intention that the collection would be a legacy. It included not only prints and playbills, but also figurines and other memorabilia. Most institutions wanted only one category of items, rather than the collection as a whole. But we saw the value in the whole body of work, and our enthusiasm for the collection has inspired others to build similar legacies.


Three items from the Craven collection: Bilston enamel bodkin case of Dorothy Jordan and the Duke of Clarence (ca. 1795) (verso); enamel patch box of Dorothy Jordan and the Duke of Clarence( late 18th century); turned wooden box with a Bilston enamel portrait medallion of Dorothy Jordan(ca. 1790).

TavBooks: It seems like eventually the Folger would own a pretty comprehensive and complete collection. Has it become more difficult to find and acquire new, unique objects over time?
Dr. Blake: It seems that there’s always some private collection that’s been unexplored and no one’s paid attention to. So things are constantly coming to the market. We’re sometimes amazed that they haven’t been discovered before, but no one was looking for it!

We thank Dr. Blake for her time! If you’re in Washington,DC we also encourage you to stop by the Folger Shakespeare Library. Currently on exhibit is “A Book behind Bars: The Robben Island Shakespeare.” Nelson Mandela served eighteen years as a political prisoner at Robben Island. A fellow prisoner smuggled in a copy of the complete works of Shakespeare, and prisoners–including Mandela–signed and dated their favorite passages. The book is on display along with a series of sketches Mandela made reflecting his life in prison. 


Meet Art Conservator Extraordinaire, Karen Zukor!


Karen Zukor, Senior Conservator at Zukor Art Conservation. Photo courtesy of SF Gate.

This week we welcome special guest Karen Zukor to our blog! Zukor is the senior conservator at Zukor Art Conservation. She’s been a professional paper conservator for more than thirty years and is a Fellow of the American Institute for Conservation. She’s been responsible for many collections, both public and private, trains both pre- and post-program interns, and offers lectures and workshops to the public. This week she was kind enough to sit down with us to discuss her career path, how conservation has evolved, and how rare book collectors can preserve and protect their collections.

Tav Books: You’ve been in conservation for over thirty years. How did you decide on this career?
Zukor:Initially I was teaching Art History on the East coast, but when I moved out to California in 1974 with my husband, I couldn’t find a teaching position. My interest in art & history also included a curiosity about materials and techniques, so conservation seemed like a good fit. However, I didn’t know really what it entailed or whether I’d have aptitude for it. So I apprenticed with two different conservators and took many courses in related fields. When those apprenticeships were over, I continued to work in the studio with the conservator who initially trained me; that was great because I always had a more senior person there to help me over rough spots. I opened my business four years after those apprenticeships began and worked out of his studio. Eventually, about two or three years later, I moved out on my own.

Tav Books: How have conservation techniques changed since you began your career?
Zukor: I would say that chemical research, particularly in paper conservation, has advanced quite a bit. We’ve gotten a lot more information about the processes that were in place for many decades and also potential treatments in the future. In some ways it’s been a subtractive rather than a cumulative process; long-term research has shown that many conservation techniques are simply not as successful as we’d like them to be–and in some ways can be detrimental. We know more, but we do less. The attitude has changed quite a bit.

Conservators these days are more conservative and practice more restraint. In this field, you’re always implementing some kind of intervention, no matter how subtle. But in the last 25 years, I’ve seen more conservators choose the most minimal treatment and opt for housing an object properly, to slow down the deterioration, rather than to reverse its damage. I think this is my approach, but we also do more full treatments. We have a great deal of experience, though! Right now about seventy percent of our projects are art on paper. The rest is archival material, manuscripts, maps, documents, and books.

Tav Books: Explain the differences among preservation, conservation, and restoration.
Zukor: Restoration usually involves removing as much of the damage as possible, returning the object to a condition that most closely resembles the way it looked when it was originally manufactured. When you conserve an item, you try to remove damage–ravages of time, stains and soil…but you acknowledge that the piece can really not be returned to its original appearance. The focus is instead on trying to stabilize the object both physically and chemically, while acknowledging that the object will continue to deteriorate. There’s less emphasis on cosmetic appearance.

Preservation is about finding the best long-term care and storage for an object, so that deterioration is minimal or at least slowed down as much as possible. When we preserve something, we often ask, “What kind of enclosure or package will give the most protection?” For a book, that would be a box–it keeps out light, dust, and should made out of good quality archival material.

The only times we do restoration is when we fill losses with paper that’s as close as possible to the original. If it’s not a terribly valuable object, we’ll draw in the missing image or tone the paper. For preservation we sometimes do enclosures, especially boxes, for clients so that we know the piece will be properly housed for long-term storage.

One of Zukor’s more unusual commissions: to open a time capsule from 1896! Check out what she finds inside. 

Tav Books: What are the most common issues you address?
Zukor: We work on a lot of prints, drawings, and watercolors, and the most common problem is that they come in having been mounted to a board of poor quality. So they were either at some point glued down to a rigid support (because people always seem to think the piece looks better flat). Unless those supports are really good quality, they’ll transfer their properties to whatever’s attached–if you mount something onto an acidic board, that acidity will migrate to the piece. And you also change the nature of the piece; that print attached to a board is no longer a print; it’s a board with an image on it.

A second mistake we address on a regular basis is the use of pressure sensitive tapes. These are usually either used to make repairs or to attach a work of art to a mat. Paper conservation is relatively new. It’s only about sixty years old. And people only started studying paper chemistry and the factors that caused paper to deteriorate in the 1930’s and 1940’s. Research about pressure sensitive tapes is even more recent than that. And formulas for manufacture change periodically–masking tape from 50 years ago is a completely different product, so it will age differently than masking tape manufactured today.

Tav Books: What’s the most challenging or interesting project you’ve tackled?
Zukor: Oh, there are too many to single out! But probably the most challenging was a project in India with a very large, extremely damaged book, all hand written and illustrated in water-sensitive colors. The volume was close to 1,000 pages. It took three people six months, spread out over five years, to do the text. It was very difficult because we were working in an extremely remote location, so we had to bring everything we needed with us, which also led to some instances of interesting improvisation!

Tav Books: Any favorite materials to work with?
Zukor: The first thing that comes to mind is really Japanese papers. We do all of our repair, mending, and backing with very good quality Japanese papers because they’re thin, strong, and flexible. They are wonderful to work with! They’re much better quality than what we could get in the West. It’s pretty much all paper conservators work with. Most of them are handmade, and not dyed. They’re made of different kinds of fibers than they have here in the West. Japan makes the best paper without a doubt, and it’s certainly an arduous process. The conservation community has been partly responsible for keeping Japanese paper manufacture a viable craft.

Tav Books: Tell us a little bit about the kinds of works on paper that are most durable. What about the ones that are most delicate or fragile?
Zukor: Older papers are made from better quality fiber, such as cotton or linen. They also don’t contain a lot of additives or bleaches that would contribute to their deterioration. Later papers had sizings, bleaches, brighteners…all kinds of components that made paper less durable than the earlier ones. The absolute worst quality is newsprint, which is ground wood pulp.

Tav Books: To what extent does the material impact the way it should be stored and preserved? Zukor: The poorer quality the paper, the more likely it is to become brittle and darkened with exposure in just ordinary conditions. Pages made from low-quality paper need more protection from light, heat, humidity, and one another. They often need interleaving material. This can present a problem with antiquarian books, because you can’t interleave the entire book. That would put too much stress on the binding. But owners can definitely put acid-free tissue over the illustrations.

Tav Books: What’s the biggest mistake that private collectors make in caring for/storing their collections?
Zukor: Neglect. Not paying enough attention, not investing in the right materials, and ignoring the need to provide protection with the right kind of materials. Not only to slow aging in the individual item, but to protect different items from influencing and damaging one another. Collectors also tend to handle their items with less than very clean hands. I’m a hand washer because I think that white gloves, no matter how well fitted, give you a less secure grip on the item. There are some instances where gloves are imperative, but most of the time we recommend that people just wash really thoroughly.

The other thing I would emphasize is that collectors should not try to do their own repairs. If they don’t want to take something to a conservator, the best course of action is to leave the piece alone. Don’t attempt to do any repairs or add any material that you think will work! We spend a lot of time undoing work done by people with good intentions.

Karen Zukor and her team specialize in the repair and preservation of art and artifacts on paper, from prints and drawings, to documents, maps, manuscripts, and rare books. Their field of expertise covers a broad spectrum, from small repairs to the treatment of severely damaged and deteriorated objects. Zukor Art Conservation is equipped to handle large-scale works on paper, and can host on-site workshops for up to twenty people. Their lab is designed to provide conservation treatment for both single artifacts and larger collections. Whether of artistic, historic, or personal significance, every item is viewed in context, with consideration for how it will be used.