Gall-ways and forever: PUL’s Preservation and Conservation department hosts love letter workshop

The Princeton University Library (PUL) Makerspace received a Valentine’s Day makeover featuring gleaming red decorations on Monday, Feb. 14 as visitors used feather quills and ink to pen love letters at the Happy Gall-entine’s Day event. 

Hosted by the Library’s Preservation and Conservation Lab, the event allowed visitors to try their hands at writing with iron gall ink, a writing pigment that was used for much of the 5th through 19th centuries for everything from journaling to record keeping. The event was conceptualized by Book Conservator Victoria Wong with assistance from Conservation Technician Ashley Baker, Conservation Technician Margaret Canfield, and Preventive Conservator Gillian Marcus.

Two visitors write letters using feather quill pens at the Happy Gall-entine’s Day event.

“Over in P&C, we’ve formed an outreach working group,” said Wong. We began meeting last summer and early on we’d put together a calendar of established events that would make sense for us to plan activities around. Our department head, Brenna Campbell, noticed that there is a large gap between Ask A Conservator Day in November and Preservation Week in April and suggested that we put together some small events focused around holidays in this gap.

With Valentine’s Day right in the middle of that stretch, Wong suggested Gall-entine’s Day, a love letter writing event focused on iron gall ink. A variety of PUL collection items were penned in the ink, including a diary entry from a cattle driver addressed to his wife in 1851, the musical score to a sonata for piano in F major, and “Zakicoxol,” the manuscript of the Guatemalan version of the Dance of the Conquest of Mexico from the 1800s.

Part of the ink’s popularity stems from how simple it is to make. The version made by the Preservation and Conservation staff for the event was a four-ingredient solution of gall nuts, ferrous sulfate, water, and gum arabic. 

“There’s so much in our collection that is written in iron gall ink!” exclaimed Wong when asked about her favorite example of the medium. “It’s hard to narrow down, but we do have a music sketchbook from Beethoven that is really interesting to me.”

The Gall-entine’s event saw steady foot traffic over the course of three and a half hours, with visitors adorning their hand-written letters with thematic decorations. Wong also made use of the Makerspace’s custom button maker to create pins with fitting phrases like, “gall-ways and forever.”

“It was wonderful working with Ariel [Ackerly] and having the event at Makerspace,” said Wong. “Ariel was super accommodating and helpful throughout the entire process. The Makerspace is a great resource for hands-on events.”  

When the Library’s Preservation and Conservation Department is not hosting events like Gall-entine’s Day, its staff members are hard at work repairing and conserving items from PUL’s collections. To learn more about the daily work of the department, check out our Inside PUL series.

Published on March 07, 2022

Written by Brandon Johnson, Communications Specialist

Media Contact: Barbara Valenza, Director of Communications