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News Student Blog: Library of Congress

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WUDPAC Class of 2020 Fellow Karissa Muratore sewing early 17th c. Persian manuscript using a traditional Islamic method and some conservation adaptions. Image taken by Katherine Parks.

​Probably like many of you, I have been working from home for the last few months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Though I am anxious to get back to my work and colleagues at the Library of Congress Book Conservation lab, quarantine has given me time to do a lot of thinking (sometimes too much thinking). As I use my ample time to work on reports and personal professional development, questions I have been mulling over since the beginning of my training as a conservator of cultural heritage have begun to crystalize and resonate with our current predicament—maybe some of the things that are most important to preserve are intangible. 

Being a conservator, I usually work on stabilizing and preserving physical objects, and at the beginning of my training I was taught to pay special attention to the materiality of those objects. However, being an object's advocate is another big part of our job which forces us to answer the question, "Why is this object worth saving?" My focus is in Library and Archives conservation, so a quick and easy answer is "informational value," whether that means the words on a page or the image on a photograph. In addition, objects can be mined for their "artifactual value"—the materials and techniques that reflect a particular culture or tradition.   

WUDPAC Class of 2020 Fellow Karissa Muratore opening one of the foldout maps from the 1825 Tanner Atlas. Image taken by Katherine Parks. 

Though important, are these the only two types of value objects possess? I do not believe so, and I am not alone in this opinion. The concept of "intangible value" has been discussed in the field of cultural heritage conservation for some time, but it is has become no less difficult to describe. It is often discussed in combination with "intangible cultural heritage" which refers to a tradition or expression that has no physical form such as ritual performances or oral history storytelling. By their very nature, these kinds of traditions or expressions do not rely on physical objects to communicate their message, which makes them difficult to preserve. They could be digitally recorded, but, without access to the people of that culture, a true understanding of the dance or story can quickly be lost. 

Obviously, intangible cultural heritage is a large and complicated topic, so, if you would like to know more, the UNESCO webpage provides a more comprehensive explanation and wonderfully interactive concept maps. But what does intangible cultural heritage have to do with the conservation of physical objects? What I have come to understand is most objects also have intangible qualities that are intertwined with their materiality.

​WUDPAC Class of 2020 Fellow Karissa Muratore and Katherine Kelly, Senior Book Conservator at the Library of Congress, discussing how to handle small losses in large foldout map of North America from the 1825 Tanner Atlas. Image taken by Katherine Parks.  

​During my time at the Library of Congress, I have worked on two good examples of the intrinsic relationship between a tangible object and its intangible value—an early 17th c. Persian manuscript and an oversized, 1825, Tanner atlas. As I spent hours upon hours trying to save every possible bit of original material, I meditated on what I was preserving. Were the pea-sized map fragments vital enough to put back in place, or was the repair of pest damage located only in the margins of the Persian manuscript truly necessary? One could argue that they were not. The information was still legible, even if the object was difficult to handle, and there was plenty of physical material to inform future researchers. Additionally, the Persian manuscript had already been digitized and was freely available to everyone. However, there is so much more to these objects. 

Through research, I initially came to understand the informational and artifactual values of Tanner’s New American Atlas. It is a pivotal accomplishment in the history of U.S. commercial cartography due to the quality and consistency of its materials, techniques, scale, and data sources. But there is another side to this story, one that looks at the atlas’ societal ramifications. It is a prime example of how American cartographers legitimized the appropriation of North American territories from other imperial and American Indian nations. For example, Tanner chose to identify approximately 450,000 square miles of land between the Rocky Mountains and the Pacific Ocean as “Oregon Terry,” before it was ever legally occupied or owned. The actual Oregon Treaty between Great Britain and the United States wasn’t signed until 1846, and at the time the map was first published, 1823, the land was occupied by about three hundred British and French-Canadians and a countless number of American Indians, but not one American. By reflecting and visually shaping the manifest intentions of the current political conversation, with what was considered scientific authority, Tanner heavily influenced how Americans and the U.S. government perceived what their nation’s geographical identity should be. This perception promoted actions, such as the map’s explicit use in informing negotiations between the United States and Great Britain, and potentially influenced policies like President Monroe’s proposal to remove all Native Americans from the territory. This might not be the American underdog origin story we have been taught, but it is a complex and important aspect of our country’s development we must not forget. As a result, recognizing the atlas as more than just a collection of maps is a crucial part of my job because it will affect how this evocative object will be preserved and its message transmitted to future generations. 

​After treatment photographic documentation of early 17th c. Persian manuscript exhibiting pest damage. Right page has a black background behind it to better see the extent of damage and repair. Image taken by Karissa Muratore.  

​As for the Persian manuscript, I felt incredible fulfillment when a Muslim singer, currently living in India, came through the lab on a tour. Due to the current persecution of Muslims in India today, he is banned from singing his songs and lives under constant threat. Even though the Persian text I was working on was not religious or musical in nature, he was overwhelmed and expressed intense gratitude in seeing an aspect of his culture being so respectfully preserved at the Library of Congress. We were both moved close to tears, and in that moment, I knew that the hours I had spent stabilizing and preserving that manuscript was good and valuable work. 

We cannot know all the intangible value an object may hold, partially because it will mean different things to different people across different times. However, we can be aware that those invisible qualities are there, and I suspect that it might be the intangible stories an object represents that we, as conservators, are truly trying to save. An object is, in fact, just a physical reminder, like a message in a bottle, filled with information regarding the stories of all those who interacted with it before us. This is what we are so desperate to save because that is what people connect to, are inspired by, and get meaning from. If an object loses all trace of its cultural context, then it is just a thing that bears no legible message. It is like technology that has become obsolete—useless without its purpose. Similarly, many of us are feeling useless without our purpose, but we must remember that we are more than just our work and that it is the intangible things—our health, safety, and relationships with loved ones—that are truly important to our lives. 

Group image of Library of Congress graduate interns in Book and Paper conservation taken during the Holiday party. (From Left to Right: Grace Walters, Karissa Muratore, Tamia Anaya, and Katherine Parks). 

​You may or may not be tired of hearing “we are in this together,” but I am especially thankful for my community of family, friends, and colleagues right now. Not being able to get too close does not change the intangible but real love I feel for all of them. They are the ones keeping me grounded and sane during these uncertain times. I believe that conservation is, at its core, an attempt to maintain a sense of community across time and space, so we must all be conservators right now and preserve what is precious to us, even if it is intangible.

— Karissa Muratore, WUDPAC Class of 2020

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In this blog post, WUDPAC Class of 2020 Fellow Karissa Muratore reflects on her graduate internship at the Library of Congress, and on the value of preserving material culture in a changing world.

​In this blog post, WUDPAC Class of 2020 Fellow Karissa Muratore reflects on her graduate internship at the Library of Congress, and on the value of preserving material culture in a changing world. 

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