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Session 3: Caring for Collections


conservation treatment

1 Principles of Treatment | 2 Selecting Collections for Treatment |3 Professional Conservation Treatment | 4 Managing Treatment Projects


It is important to differentiate between conservation of general collections and conservation of special collections. The former refers to the repair and protective housing of general library collections that are shelved in open stacks, while the latter refers to treatment by a professional conservator of library materials that have been separated from the general collection because of their value as artifacts, as well as archival materials, scrapbooks, photographs, etc.

Collections conservation (also sometimes known as in-house repair when on a smaller scale) can be an important element of a systematic preservation program for academic and public libraries. For those institutions that are concerned primarily with special collections materials, however, in-house repair is usually not appropriate. In all cases, it is important to follow proper procedures for repair, since unintended damage can result from improper repairs. Book repair procedures for general circulating collections should never be used on historical volumes with artifactual or permanent research value.

1 Principles of Treatment

There are a number of procedures that are carried out as part of collections conservation, including preparing new materials for library use (binding pamphlets, attaching book pockets, etc.); preparing books for library binding; constructing protective enclosures; and carrying out basic book repair. Collections conservation is normally carried out by either a collections conservator (a professional conservator specializing in general library collections) or a conservation technician (someone with more limited training who is knowledgeable about specific techniques). In small institutions, in-house repair is often carried out by a regular staff member who has been sent to one or more workshops; this can be problematic, though, because the training is usually brief and ongoing supervision unavailable.

Special Collections Conservation

The primary goal of conservation treatment for special collections is twofold: to stabilize the item in the collection so that it survives over the long term and is available for use, while at the same time changing its physical characteristics as little as possible. All repairs should be obvious to the trained eye (although they should not clash aesthetically with the item). It is important not to mislead the researcher into thinking the item was never damaged.

Conservation treatment must maintain the integrity of the object to the extent possible; thus, conservators follow the principle of minimal intervention. Specifically:

  • Do no harm—Use stable materials, and, in the event that the treatment turns out to be damaging over time or improved treatment options become available in the future, use reversible treatments wherever possible. This caution arises in part because some conservation treatments used in the past (e.g., the use of silking, soluble nylon, and lamination to reinforce brittle paper) have caused unforeseen damage to collections.
  • Less is better—Consider the effect that treatment will have on the aesthetic and physical characteristics of the object. Sometimes limited treatment, or even no treatment, may be the best choice.

Ultimately, it is important to remember that compromise is unavoidable; a conservator must weigh all factors before making a treatment decision and then work with the institution to make the best choice.

General Collections Conservation

While collections conservation shares the goal of stabilizing an item so that it can be accessible in its original format, there is less emphasis on maintaining the integrity of the object and more emphasis on lengthening the useful life of the item (e.g., producing a durable item that will withstand heavy use). The need for relatively quick and low-cost treatments is a factor, as is the need for an organized workflow and the ability to treat materials in batches. Thus, compromises in treatment techniques are sometimes made that would not be acceptable in special collections conservation.

In the context of historical collections, "safe" in-house techniques are limited to rehousing objects in appropriate enclosures and simple cleaning of books and some paper using preservation-quality procedures and materials. Guidelines for rehousing various types of collections (e.g., boxing books, placing documents and manuscripts in archival folders and boxes) are provided elsewhere in this session, as well as in Session 4: Caring for Paper Collections.

2 Selecting Collections for Treatment

Treatment methods for individual items must be decided in consultation with a conservator experienced with paper collections (or books or photographs, as appropriate). The choice of a particular treatment will depend on the value of the object in its original form, the importance of the information it contains, the condition of the object, the potential for treatment to cause additional damage, and—realistically—the funds available for conservation. If you are unsure about setting priorities for treatment amongst your collections, consider conducting a collection condition survey; a conservator can examine a specific series or collection and provide recommendations for treatment. See Session 1: Introduction to Preservation for more information on surveys.

General Collections Conservation

All staff must have a role in identifying collections in need of treatment. Circulation staff, shelvers, and interlibrary loan staff should all be trained to identify damaged volumes (e.g., loose hinges, torn or detached pages, broken spines, damaged corners).

Considering whether the book is worth keeping (a bibliographer's opinion may be needed), whether the book is needed by patrons, whether there are other copies available, and whether the needed repair is simple or complex, will decide whether repair is the best option. Alternatives include ordering a replacement copy, sending the book for commercial binding, reformatting the book, and/or rehousing the volume. As books are flagged for repair, damaged items should be sorted into groups by type of repair (e.g., pamphlet binding, hinge tightening, page mending, etc.) for efficiency.

Special Collections Treatment

Deciding which special collections merit treatment by a conservator can be challenging. There may be a variety of reasons for undertaking conservation treatment: if an item is fragile and must be frequently handled; if a reproduction cannot substitute for the original deteriorated item (e.g., when physical characteristics of the item such as the binding or ink may have meaning for researchers); if the item has special characteristics such as color illustrations or foldouts that preclude reformatting; and/or if it is necessary to repair the effects of past damaging treatments.

For any item, there are usually several possible levels of treatment. When a conservator examines an object, he or she will provide a treatment proposal that sets out these options and their varying costs. See NEDCC Preservation Leaflet 7.7 Choosing and Working with a Conservator for more information on managing conservation treatment projects.

3 Professional Conservation Treatment

Professional conservation treatment, while not appropriate for every deteriorated item, should be considered by any institution with deteriorated materials that possess significant artifactual, historic, associational, legal, aesthetic, or financial value as artifacts. A conservator's goal is to chemically stabilize and physically strengthen the item(s) being treated. Conservation treatment by a professional conservator is time-consuming and costly, so materials that are the most valuable and the most deteriorated should be prioritized.

Professional Processes

There are a number of treatments typically carried out by professional paper, book, and photographs conservators. These might include surface cleaning of paper, removal of damaging backings or mounts, removal of adhesive tape, washing in water, alkalization, mending or backing weakened items, bleaching to reduce stains, retouching areas of loss, re-sewing book pages, re-backing books with damaged covers or spines, and full rebinding of damaged volumes. See NEDCC Preservation Leaflet 7.5 Conservation Treatment for Works of Art and Unbound Artifacts on Paper and 7.6 Conservation Treatment for Bound Materials of Value for more detailed information on typical conservation treatments.

Selecting a Conservator

Since professional conservators usually specialize in a particular type of collection (e.g., photographs, books, art on paper, paintings, furniture), and because qualified conservators may have been trained in various ways, it can sometimes be difficult to find the right conservator for your treatment project. When choosing a conservator, you will want to get information about the conservator's training, experience, and professional involvement.

Conservators receive their training through graduate-level degree programs (two to three years of coursework, plus an additional year of hands-on experience) or through lengthy apprenticeships. Apprenticeship is particularly common in book conservation, since formal educational programs in that field are limited.

Locating a Conservator

There are a number of respected professional organizations for conservators, including the American Institute for Conservation (AIC), the International Institute for Conservation (IIC), and various regional organizations. You can consult the American Institute for Conservation's online guide to conservation services and their online Find a Conservator directory. This resource does not endorse specific conservators, but will provide you with a list of professional conservators in your area, along with their specialties. There are also a number of regional conservation centers that provide conservation services. See the Regional Alliance for Preservation for information about regional centers. Getting recommendations from other institutions with similar collections is also a good idea.

If you are located in an isolated area, you may need to get referrals from a broad geographic area. Regional centers and many conservators have experience in packing, shipping, and transporting fragile collections and can provide advice.

6 Managing Treatment Projects

Managing conservation treatment of paper-based collections begins by identifying collections in need of treatment, and setting priorities among those collections. Once you have selected a conservator, you must discuss use and preservation needs for the item(s) to be treated, and find funding for the project. Interacting with the conservator or technician during the treatment process is a crucial aspect. The final aspect of the treatment process is integrating the treated item back into the collections, and perhaps following up with funders or partners in the project. 

Planning a Collections Conservation Program

Because of the complexities of planning such a program, management issues can only be touched on here (see Additional Resources for more information). Issues to address include the following: where in the institutional structure the collections conservation program will be located; what staff will perform collections conservation activities; how staff will be trained; what space and equipment will be provided; what repair procedures will be performed (simple or complex?); and how damaged collections will be identified. The answers to these questions will depend in large part on the size and financial resources of your institution.

Planning Special Collections Treatment

As with other reformatting and treatment options, organization and funding are crucial. Who will plan and manage treatment projects? A cooperative relationship between the project manager and the conservator will be very important. How will you fund the project(s)? Will you apply for grants? Do you need a collections survey to determine treatment needs?

If you are applying for a grant, items will have to be taken or sent to a conservator for a detailed examination; in some instances, a conservator may be willing to come to your institution. The conservator will produce treatment proposals, perhaps with options, which you will incorporate into your grant application.

Once you have funding, you will sign and return the treatment proposal. As treatment proceeds, unexpected changes in the treatment plan are sometimes needed (for example, if the object does not respond as expected to the proposed treatment). The conservator will consult the project manager if changes are required. When the material is returned, the conservator will provide a treatment report describing what was done to the item(s), which should be retained permanently.