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News Student Blog: University of Virginia

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​Left: Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum, 1626, before treatment. The book was missing the front cover, and the sewing was compromised and no longer holding the textblock together. (Photo: Harrison Small Special Collections Library) Right:  A detail of the spine of Sylva Sylvarum, before treatment, showing the broken sewing and sewing supports, as well as the damage to the exposed spine due to missing leather. (Photo: Emilie Duncan)

For my third year internship I have been lucky to be working at the University of Virginia (UVA) Library’s conservation lab. With only just under a month left, it is hard to believe I have accomplished so much in such a short time!

The conservation unit is responsible for treating and maintaining both the special collections and the general collections housed at the university. The library has been an important fixture at UVA since the time of founder Thomas Jefferson – although it has since outgrown its original home in the iconic Rotunda building. Today, the general collections consist of over 5 million volumes spread across 11 physical locations that serve both undergraduate and graduate students. The Robert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library holds over 325,000 rare books, as well as 13 million manuscripts and 3.6 million archives objects.

 As a book conservator with a historic preservation background, I have always been interested in historic objects which are functional, and are used on a regular basis. That is why I have been so excited to have been able to split my time here almost equally between working on special collections and circulating collections treatments. In doing so I am able to experience firsthand how treatment protocols and goals differ between books from different types of collections. While treatments done on books from special collections often focus on familiar tenets such as minimal intervention, retention of original material, and reversibility, treatments for circulating collections must modify some aspects of these ideas for the sake of structural strength, usability, and treatment time.

​WUDPAC Class of 2017 Fellow Emilie Duncan removing the bifolia of Sylva Sylvarum from an aqueous bath. The individual pieces of paper are supported on spun polyester webbing to aid in handling the paper while it is wet. (Photo: Eliza Gilligan)

One of the main projects I have been working on during my internship is the treatment of Francis Bacon’s Sylva Sylvarum, published in 1626. Due to the poor condition of the book, a relatively in depth treatment was necessary to restore the book to a readable state and protect it from further damage. The book was missing the front board, as well as most of the leather spine, and was shelved with a piece of binder’s board tied to it as a temporary fix to protect the front leaves. The sewing was also severely damaged, making it impossible to safely read through the book. To begin treatment, what little sewing remained was removed and the book was disbound into separate pairs of leaves (bifolia). The entire textblock was then put in an aqueous bath to draw out degradation products and restore hydrogen bonding between the cellulose fibers, ultimately improving flexibility, color, and strength. After bathing, all the leaves were mended in preparation for resewing. After the textblock was sewn onto alum tawed thongs, I sewed new endbands to further support the textblock and restore a bit of the original appearance. The colors of the endbands, blue and pink, were chosen based on fragments of original endband thread that was discovered while disbinding the textblock. The original back board, as well as a new front board crafted to match, were laced on using the sewing supports, adhering to the specific lacing pattern originally used to attach the back board. Finally, I covered the front board and spine in new leather to match the original leather seen on the back board. The leather was prepared by paring down the edges with a sharp knife. After the leather was on the book, its appearance was manipulated to more seamlessly blend in with the original material. This was done with traditional techniques which have been in use by bookbinders for centuries. First, the new leather was polished using a hot metal tool rubbed over the surface to suppress the grain texture, resulting in a slight sheen and deeper-looking color. The leather was then blind-tooled in a pattern to match that seen on the back board. Finally, the title was gold-tooled onto the spine with individual letters and gold leaf.

​ A new front board (right) was crafted and covered in leather to match the original right board (left, before treatment). (Photos:  Harrison Small Special Collections Library and Emilie Duncan)

Overall the treatment took nearly 75 hours. Because the project was so large, it introduced me to many new techniques and treatment procedures that I had never experienced before. I will be able to draw on much of this experience in future treatments, even if they do not require as thorough a treatment as the Sylva Sylvarum.

In addition to the treatment of the Sylva Sylvarum, I performed a number of smaller treatments on other volumes from special collections, including a 1787 copy of Thomas Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia, as well as many maps and broadsides, mostly from the universities strong Virginiana holdings. I have also treated dozens of books from the circulating collections, including several early twentieth-century copies of the UVA yearbook Corks and Curls.

It has been very rewarding working at an academic research library that focuses so much time and effort on using its collection for teaching and making it available for researchers. I have learned a great deal about the workings of a university library, and am able to contrast that with my experience treating objects from the Winterthur Museum library and from other museum collections during my preprogram work. When my internship wraps up at the end of the month, I will travel to Iowa to complete a two-month internship at the Iowa State University Library. I am excited to get to experience work in another university library lab and be able to how different institutions with similar goals and needs handle workflows and fit into the university as a whole. In October, I will begin at the Library of Congress as the Harper-Inglis Conservation Fellow. There I will get the opportunity not only to treat items from the LC collections, but also continue personal research on the treatment of darkened lead white pigment.

— Emilie Duncan, WUDPAC Class of 2017

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In this blog post, WUDPAC Class of 2017 Fellow Emilie Duncan shares her internship work with staff and historical collections at the University of Virginia Library’s conservation lab.

​In this blog post, WUDPAC Class of 2017 Fellow Emilie Duncan shares her internship work with staff and historical collections at the University of Virginia Library’s conservation lab.

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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489