Inside PUL: Preservation and Conservation gives new life to well-worn items
Behind the Scenes: Inside PUL is a series of articles that journeys into seldom-seen, non-public Library places where essential work is underway in support of PUL's vision, mission and North Star statements.
Tucked away on the A Floor of Firestone Library, the Preservation & Conservation Department and its tight-knit staff are hard at work on repairing and conserving the various items that live in Princeton University Library’s (PUL) collections. While some of the staff are gingerly removing old glue from bindings, others are mending tears in pages, all in the name of ensuring PUL items are stable and accessible for years to come.
“The fields of preservation and conservation overlap and influence one another,” explained Preventive Conservator Gillian Marcus. “But generally speaking ‘preservation’ refers to a holistic approach to preventing deterioration and promoting healthy collections through collection maintenance, environment and pest management, housing and storage, emergency preparedness and response, and collection security.”
Conservation, on the other hand, involves physically treating objects to keep them in tip-top shape for use by Library patrons. “Conservators aim to use materials that are reversible so that as best practices change over time, future conservators can improve or change previous conservation work,” said Marcus.
Determining which among the Library’s millions of items require treatment is one of the department’s primary concerns. Though priority is given to items that are needed for time sensitive use – like the massive Piranesi volumes that will be on display during an upcoming exhibition – Marcus noted that the team also tries to preemptively repair items whenever possible.
“This year, the emphasis on remote learning and teaching has meant that we’ve had an increase in materials that have been requested for digitization by patrons, students, and staff, and as a result the P&C department has had a steady flow of objects that are evaluated for treatment based on this workflow,” Marcus said.
In addition to the challenge of managing the lab’s usual workflow and keeping up with the influx of item requests over the last year, Brenna Campbell, assistant University librarian for preservation and conservation, said that physical distancing requirements posed another hurdle to a department that typically operates in close quarters.
“We’re a department of 10 people who are responsible for caring for millions of items in PUL’s collection,” Campbell said. “We’re really fortunate to have a wonderful team of colleagues who have collaborated with us to come up with creative ways to get our work done while still keeping everyone safe. We have many different materials, many spaces, and involvement in many different programs and initiatives. And while that’s an exciting spot to be in, it can take some juggling.”
Occasionally, the lab gets some extra help by way of student staff members. But while the full-time staff members are experienced in their respective areas, Conservation Technician Ashley Baker insisted that students only need an interest in working with their hands and an attention to detail.
“Our student employees typically work on tasks such as designing spine labels for rebound books, creating pockets for loose ephemera, repairing loose pages, and helping department staff create boxes for fragile books,” Baker said. “It’s a fun environment with a tangible product at the end of your day, which is very satisfying.”
Just as the Preservation & Conservation Department repairs years-old items for circulation, the PUL Exhibition Services Unit within the lab has a similar, long-range perspective when it comes to presenting collection pieces for public exhibits. According to Exhibitions Registrar & Gallery Operations Manager Stephanie Wiener, Preservation & Conservation begins planning years in advance for PUL exhibitions.
“All collection items going on exhibit are reviewed by conservators for damage or other vulnerabilities that could prevent them from being on display,” Wiener said. “Prior to the exhibition, I will coordinate all of the planning logistics, and conservators and conservation technicians carry out conservation treatments where necessary to make each item safe to exhibit. John Walako, the coordinator of exhibition services, prepares all materials for exhibit, including framing and making book cradles, installing the items in the gallery, and setting gallery lighting.”
Then, Wiener will help install the artifacts and set gallery lighting.
If all of this seems like a lot of work, anyone from the lab will assure you it is. Though the department only works on PUL-owned items, the sheer size of Princeton’s collections, along with the University’s diversity of topics researched, means just about any item can end up on a Preservation & Conservation lab table. But in addition to keeping a watchful eye on which items need repair, Campbell notes that the department works with PUL’s circulation desks to pinpoint any needy pieces.
“If an item a patron has checked out looks like it could use some TLC, they can bring it to any Circulation desk and let the staff know that it should go to conservation. They can also contact us with concerns about library materials directly at firstname.lastname@example.org,” Campbell said.
Even with a regular workflow, Preservation & Conservation is steadily planning improvements to its services for 2021 and beyond.
“We’re working to expand our analytical capabilities in the lab and increase our outreach activities. At some point this year we will be launching an assessment of PUL’s at-risk media collections, and a project to survey 1700 items from the Library’s Muslim-world manuscript collection is underway,” Campbell said.
“The past year has forced us to innovate and streamline many of our ways of working, and we’re hoping to continue this as the Library returns to something closer to normal!”
Published on April 30, 2021
Written by: Brandon Johnson, Communications Specialist
Media Contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications