Contract Conservation at the Smithsonian

Author's Note: This post originally appeared on the Smithsonian Libraries' blog and has been re-posted here, featuring revisions geared towards the West Dean blog audience, with the generous consent of the Institution. Since this post was originally written and published, the project has progressed further, which will be discussed toward the end of this entry.

Greetings from America! It's been a while since I last contributed to the West Dean Conservation blog, and in the interim I've completed my MA at West Dean, returned home to the States, and found employment as a contract conservator for an e-learning company. Gale, a part of Cengage Learning, my employer, is spearheading a digitization project in cooperation with the Smithsonian Institution to scan and make available digitally a selection of the materials in their collections. (For those unfamiliar with the Smithsonian-the world's largest museum and research complex-you can learn more about it here.) The Smithsonian is providing the materials and workspace, Gale provides the funding, and Innovative Document Imaging (IDI) is the company contracted to complete the scanning process. This project has required an immense amount of cooperation and coordination to get off the ground, and a portion of my time is spent in liaising with everyone involved as questions arise or obstacles are encountered. The project includes the review, treatment, and scanning of all items as required. I was hired specifically to handle review and treatment.

Working as a contractor has been a new and interesting experience. In addition to lacking some of the benefits of a permanent position like paid time off, I am responsible for invoicing my employer on a regular basis as well as paying my own taxes, administrative details which I have never needed to take care of but that would be commonplace in private conservation practice. However, being so closely involved in the organization and implementation of a many-faceted project has provided valuable experience to my professional development. The networking opportunities alone have been inestimably worthwhile, as has the chance to work alongside the conservators and curators at the Smithsonian.

The Process of the Project

Before the collections we are working with can be digitized, they are reviewed to ensure that the items in question can stand up to the rigors of scanning. The books and pamphlets are approved for scanning, earmarked for conservation treatment so they can be scanned or, in a few instances, they are rejected. Materials may be rejected if they are too fragile or if there is a better copy of the same item available to scan.

This project is drawing initially from five sources: collections from the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Library in New York City; from the National Museum of American History Archives Center; from the American History Library's body of trade literature, both bound and unbound; and from the Dibner Library of the History of Science and Technology. Scanning operations began first with the trade literature, housed here in Washington, DC, and the World's Fair collections from the Cooper-Hewitt Library, both of which are catalogued as general collections items. The trade literature covers a variety of mechanical industries but also includes charming catalogs of pre-fabricated homes from the early twentieth-century. The Cooper-Hewitt items are naturally fascinating, and run the gamut from specialty tourist guides to souvenir booklets and photo albums. The materials also draw from a variety of celebrations, including the London Great Exhibition of 1851, the Paris Expositions Universelles of 1889 and 1900, and the St. Louis World's Fair of 1904, to name a few.

Choosing Treatments to Enable Scanning

Due to the large volume of materials being reviewed and scanned, treatment options are limited and chosen accordingly. Much of the trade literature consists of stapled pamphlet catalogs, and these frequently have abraded and broken spinefolds, leaving covers split in half and detached, and the staples are often rusted and even disintegrating. These require removing the staples, repairing the broken spinefolds with Japanese paper and wheat starch paste, and securing the whole with pamphlet stitching.

The World's Fair material is incredibly varied, not just in content but in structure. The collectors' items tend to be of superior quality and have maintained their integrity, whereas some of the souvenir items are printed on embrittled paper and quite literally falling apart at the seams. These are frequently not up to the tasks they were designed for, like this souvenir booklet (see photos below) from the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London, printed on an accordion fold pasted to the inside of a folder. The heavy paper the photographs are printed in was not up to the folding and unfolding necessary and split along the folds as a consequence, requiring reinforcement or reattachment with Japanese paper and wheat starch paste.

Once materials have been reviewed and treated if necessary, they are digitized by one of the team of scanners. Depending on the structure of the material, they are scanned on one of two types of machine: one, the Kirtas, was designed specifically to accommodate bound volumes, with a cradle holding the book open at an acceptable angle so images can be captured by high-resolution cameras positioned above. The Kirtas also has a pneumatic feature that allows pages to be turned by suction, which works well with modern, strong materials but is not in use with this project. Flat material is scanned on Minolta machines that have a central portion of the scanning platform that can adjust to accommodate spines of scrapbooks or other flat-opening volumes, in addition to flat materials like pamphlets and catalogs. At full capacity and under ideal conditions, scanners on the Kirtas can complete over 12,000 pages a day. Much of the Smithsonian material being scanned, however, requires special handling due to large formats or brittle and fragile conditions, which slows the process somewhat.

Reviewing Progress and Looking to the Future

After the first two months (end of February and beginning of March), the team involved with this project from all three organizations-Gale Cengage, the Smithsonian, and IDI-reviewed how things were progressing and agreed on changes for the remainder of the initial phase. The scanning team was augmented by an additional two operators on the weekday schedule and an entirely new group was hired to come in on weekends and further the digitization of the collections. This ramping-up of the scanning side necessitated some changes on the conservation end as well. A second contract conservator was hired to help me keep up with the pace of the project, and I was asked to help coordinate between the scanners and the conservation team to ensure that handling practices remained up to par with the increased scope of production. I am now available more regularly to assist with difficult-to-handle collections and to answer any questions that might arise in the scanning process. This is particularly important since we have also taken delivery of another collection for scanning: World's Fair items from the Dibner Library. In contrast to the trade literature and Cooper-Hewitt general collections items, these are catalogued as rare material and require more oversight from the Smithsonian Libraries conservation staff on the scanning and conservation side, and also require more complete documentation of treatments undertaken.

The collections currently being digitized form an irreplaceable snapshot of an important period of cultural history. The benefit of this scanning is two-fold: first, digitization is a method of preservation in and of itself, creating a digital version that is not subject to the same deterioration as the physical object; second, where access to tangible items may be limited by handling concerns or distance, the digital version is an excellent substitute. Once scanning is complete, the data will be processed and eventually made available as part of Gale/Cengage's e-learning offerings, as well as made part of the Smithsonian's digital collections. It's exciting to think that these unique primary source documents may be a focal point of a future classroom or research experience.