Conservation Conversation — Gillian Marcus talks book preservation on Ask a Conservator Day

 Kelly Banks

Gillian Marcus works on a Chinese manuscript written on a silk garment. Photo Credit: Kelly Banks

Have you ever wondered how well-worn, in some cases ancient, books are restored for use by scholars and readers? Or maybe you’ve questioned how to store the heirloom text that has been passed down through your family for generations.

On Thursday, November 4, Princeton University Library (PUL) participated in Ask a Conservator Day, an international celebration held each year in remembrance of the flooding of Florence in 1966, which killed 101 people and damaged or destroyed millions of pieces of art and rare books. 

Preventive Conservator Gillian Marcus took to PUL’s social media accounts to answer questions about conservation, including topics like caring for items stored at home, fixing smudged writing, and preparing items for gallery exhibitions.

Marcus has worked in conservation for nine years, with stops at Documentary Heritage and Preservation Services for New York and ​​the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, before arriving at PUL at the start of 2020. 

“I got into conservation starting with an interest in art,” Marcus said. “I went to art school and I studied photography, and while I was there, I realized I cared more for other people's art than I did for my own work.” That interest led to internships at museums and archives before pursuing conservation school.

Throughout the day, Marcus gave a glimpse into how she and the rest of the Conservation staff operate. The lab is located behind locked doors in Firestone Library, but Marcus and the team regularly jump at the chance to teach people about how to best care for materials. 

One viewer asked about the best way to preserve their home book collection, which includes some items that are over 100 years old.

“Avoid direct sunlight, which can fade bindings and text,” Marcus advised. “Keep them stored upright on a shelf and fully supported so that they don’t slump, which can damage the textblock. Gently dust books every few months using a soft, clean cloth.”

She added that if a book is particularly rare, owners might consider having a conservator design an enclosure designed especially for the item.

 Victoria Wong.

A cockroach nymph that Marcus found in one of PUL’s Arabic manuscripts. Photo Credit: Victoria Wong.

As Preventive Conservator, Marcus also has the occasional run-in with pests that infiltrate collection items.

“Luckily, bugs haven’t appeared too often in our collections at PUL — and we hope to keep it that way — but it does happen,” Marcus explained. “Items that have an insect infestation can be frozen or heated to kill any active insects or larvae. They can also be given an anoxic treatment, where we create a sealed enclosure and reduce the oxygen around an object to kill pests. We try to avoid pesticides at all costs to avoid damaging the materials and making them unsafe for researchers.”

The question and answer session was informative, and it won’t be the last chance to learn about conservation. Members of the Princeton University community can register for “Integrating Preservation Into Art Practice,” a Wintersession workshop run jointly by Marcus and Bart Devolder of the Princeton University Art Museum.

“I love having the opportunity to get close enough to objects to understand why and how they were made, and what that can tell us about our culture,” Marcus said. “Conserving this cultural heritage makes it available for research, study, and appreciation into the future.”

Related story:

Inside PUL: Preservation and Conservation gives new life to well-worn items

Published on November 15, 2021

Written by Brandon Johnson, Communications Specialist

Media Contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Library Communications