Preserving pages

Staff works behind the scenes to keep library materials on the shelves

Ruth Stevens


*Library preservation office staff members (from left) Ted Stanley, Robert Milevski and Scott Husby use everything from these 1950s book presses to the latest polarized microscope to keep Princeton's collections in good physical condition.

Princeton NJ -- Beneath the stacks in Firestone Library is a well-lit 4,200-square foot room containing everything from 1950s book presses to the latest polarized microscope.

They're all tools of the trade for the staff of the library preservation office. The 10-member staff is responsible for the physical care of the library's collections, which include more than 5 million books and 36,000 linear feet of manuscripts.

Each year, the preservation office staff handles some 15,000 volumes -- most of which are repaired and returned to the shelves. On any given day, one would find staff members at various stations throughout the large open space quietly going about their business while listening to classical music. Their work involves tasks as simple as repairing a binding on a 19th century novel or as complicated as filling in illustrations on a 17th century Persian manuscript.

"The people here like to work with their hands and have a high degree of hand-eye coordination," said Robert Milevski, preservation librarian and head of the office. "Our conservators have an extensive background in the physical treatment of library materials."

The office is made up of two units: collections conservation and special collections conservation.

The collections conservation unit repairs heavily used and damaged books from the circulating, reference and reserve collections in Firestone and in the 16 subject libraries around campus. Material is identified for preservation as it returns from circulation or use in the library.

"The library staff sends us the material and we decide what to do with it," Milevski said. "If there's a question about what is the best preservation solution, we involve the librarians."

Preserving aesthetic and function

Milevski said the staff's work goes beyond simply repairing the volumes.

"We get a lot 18th and 19th century books from the general stacks," he said. "Part of the philosophy of what we do is to try and save as much of the bindings as we possibly can so that we don't change the character of the book. The aesthetic is as important as the functionality of a book. We try not to change how it looks or feels."

Milevski is careful to point out that the preservation office work is "conservation" rather than "restoration."

"Restoration has to do with art," he said. "Books in the general collection are not art -- and we don't try to bring them back to their original state. We try to bring back their functionality and a certain aesthetic so that they will be usable and pleasing to use."

Although Milevski doesn't consider the work "art," some of the techniques his staff members have mastered are utterly artful in the way they transform the damaged books. Covers are replaced with materials that almost identically match the old bindings. Spines are reconstructed through color photocopying. Computer-generated labels are printed on dyed or toned Japanese papers or dyed linen cloth to match or contrast.

"Using the same typeface and size on the label can bring back the whole feel of the book," Milevski said.

Vanessa Haight, exhibits preparator in the library preservation office, helps Daniel Linke, assistant archivist in the Mudd Manuscript Library, with some materials for an exhibit.


The use of computers in the work is as common as the use of 50-year-old book presses that hold together newly glued bindings. When the bindings are beyond repair, the staff creates labeled boxes to hold the volumes. As a last resort, the book is photocopied on acid-free paper and the original is stored in a library annex.

"Most materials in the library's collections are slowly deteriorating because of past paper manufacturing processes," Milevski said. "Many books, photographs, maps and prints published between 1850 and 1970 contain acidic paper made from wood pulp. The paper self-destructs, chemically burning itself up, turning weak, discolored and brittle over time."

Of the 5 million books in the library's collections, only 15 percent contain strong and flexible paper -- and much of that will become acidic over time, Milevski said. Nearly 3 million volumes -- 60 percent of the collections -- were made with acidic paper that is already weak but not yet brittle. Most of it will become brittle and practically unusable within 50 years. The remainder of the collections -- 1,250,000 volumes -- contains paper that is brittle, fragile and easily damaged.

"The information in these volumes is at risk of loss without substantial, coordinated, long-term and costly preservation efforts," he said.

Working with valuable materials

The special collections conservation unit treats endangered, damaged and deteriorating rare and special materials in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, the Gest Oriental Library and East Asian Collections, the Geosciences and Map Library and other subject libraries. Staff members work on rare books, including bound manuscripts, and non-book paper-based materials such as manuscripts, posters, prints, broadsides, maps, photographs, newspapers and works of art.

Projects usually are identified by curators of the special collections. Staff members examine the materials and work with the curators to determine a course of action. Typical processes include washing documents in calcium-enriched filtered water to neutralize the acid, reducing stains on the paper, using an ethanol and water solution to painstakingly work off adhesive, and repairing tears and losses using Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste.


Family heirlooms workshop set

Staff members from the Princeton University Library's preservation office will participate with other experts in a workshop on the care and preservation of family heirlooms Saturday, March 24.

The event will begin with coffee at 8:30 a.m. The workshop will run from 9 a.m. to noon at Firestone Library. It is being sponsored by the Friends of the Princeton University Library and the Historical Society of Princeton.

Topics to be covered include:

· "Book Care: Dos and Don'ts," Scott Husby, rare books conservator in the library's preservation office.

· "Preserving Your Paper Treasures," Ted Stanley, special collections paper conservator in the library's preservation office.

· "Preserving Memories Made of Cloth," Gail Alterman, historic costume consultant.

· "Conserving Furniture: Basics in Brief," Elizabeth Bates, adjunct associate professor, Parsons/New School University and Fashion Institute of Technology/SUNY.

· "Preservation of Photographic Materials," Melissa Johnson, special projects archivist in Princeton's Mudd Manuscript Library.

· "Caring for Coins, Old and New," Brooks Levy, curator of coins in the library.

Each leader will give a brief overview. Those attending then will break into six groups to focus on one of the preservation areas.

There is a $15 registration fee. For more information, call the Historical Society of Princeton at 921-6748.


On a recent afternoon, Ted Stanley, special collections paper conservator, was working on some 17th century Persian manuscripts. The original artist had used copper-acetate pigments in the illustrations that had eaten through the paper. The illustrations were subsequently repaired badly by a restorer. Stanley had corrected the mistakes of the restorer and stabilized the paper, and now was filling in the illustrations with minute pieces of colored Japanese paper under a microscope.

Colleague Scott Husby, rare books conservator, was finishing work on a 1544 book with a damaged binding. From his research, Husby knew that the book originally had been issued in a laced parchment binding, but it had a beat-up paper binding when it came to him. He fashioned a new laced parchment binding so that the book now appears more like it did nearly 500 years ago.

Taking on other projects

The preservation office staff also gets involved in preparing materials for exhibit in the Department of Rare Books and Special Collections and in the Mudd Manuscript Library. Staff members work with exhibit curators to design and construct mattes, frames, book cradles and placards to best show off the collection.

"The exhibits put a face on the collection," Milevski said. "They show people what we have and that's very important. We have to design exhibits that draw in people. A lot of thought goes into determining how to display the items."

Recently, the preservation office staff has been involved in digitization projects and posting materials on the World Wide Web. For example, the staff assisted Near Eastern studies Professor Jerry Clinton in photographing and digitizing a set of 400 miniature paintings for a Web site. The miniatures originally were created to illustrate scenes from five manuscript copies of the Persian national epic, the "Shahnama," or "Book of Kings," that are housed in the library's special collections. Milevski expects this type of work to expand as it improves access to the collections and reduces the use of original items.


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