Posted by: Whitney | June 27, 2014

An Archivist in Conservationland

On June 6th, I attended the Iowa Conservation and Preservation Consortium’s SOS (Save Our Stuff) conference with colleagues Hilary Seo, Head of Preservation, and Mindy Moeller, Conservation Technician. Mindy’s take on the conference can be found on the Preservation Department’s blog, as well as a feature by Hilary on the taxidermy session. I’m here to provide an archivist’s perspective on the conference. Being an archivist, I know a bit about preservation and conservation, but I am not trained in and therefore don’t perform the intensive preservation and conservation work that some records need, so I was interested in learning more about the view from the other side of the fence, so to speak.

The first session I attended was “Thinking Inside the Box” lead by Kären Mason, Curator, and Janet Weaver, Assistant Curator, of the Iowa Women’s Archives. All of the creativity and effort that goes into boxes made for storing items that require special housing is amazing. I imagine it would be a fun, but challenging, task. During the session, we got a brief tour of the archives and were given a chance to look at all of the different rehousing solutions that have been created for the IWA over the years. Some were quite intricate and highly specialized, and others were “make-do” solutions (for example, storing plaques in record center boxes or creating housing for a large, fragile photo from archival cardboard). In both cases, a great deal of creativity and resourcefulness was clearly involved. Below are some examples of the more intricate solutions created.

A box made to keep this geisha doll and her enclosure safe.

A box made to keep this geisha doll and her enclosure safe.

A box specially made for this pin.

A box specially made for this pin – note the piece created to stick the pin through.

Special housing created for a Daytime Emmy.

Special housing created for a Daytime Emmy.

The next session was “Taxidermy Care and Cleaning” with Cindy Opitz, Collections Manager of the UI Museum of Natural History. This one I attended out of sheer curiosity. I have never worked with taxidermy animals, and I suppose I’m not likely to unless I someday work in a museum. All the same, it was fascinating, and the best part was we got to do some hands-on work on cleaning some animals. We learned about equipment used, equipment and chemical solutions not to use, how to use equipment, and ideal and non-ideal conditions for storing taxidermy animals. Should taxidermy animals ever come into my possession, I now know how to care for them! Below are examples of the specimens we got to work with and the cleaning that was performed.

An attendee vacuuming a small mammal.

An attendee vacuuming a small mammal.

Bird feet ready for cleaning!

Bird feet ready for cleaning!

My attempt at cleaning dust from the eye of a bird.

My attempt at cleaning dust from the eye of a bird.

Finally, I attended a session entitled “Mold Incidents and Response” presented by Nancy Kraft, Head of Preservation and Conservation at the UI Libraries. This was particularly practical for me since mold is something I have come into contact with and likely will again. While I already knew a bit about mold in books and archival materials and how to handle them, I didn’t have a good grounding in how they are actually treated. Again, unless it’s something simple and not too risky, we outsource preservation work to conservators, as they are trained to deal with these things. It was interesting to learn a bit more about what actually goes on and how things should be handled. Some topics covered were the proper initial response to mold, identification of mold (for example, active or inactive), how to get rid of mold, how best to choose a vendor for treatment if needed, and some basic safety precautions. There were no examples of moldy items passed around – a bit of a health hazard – so a photo of mold found on library books in another university is featured below.

Moldy books found in Longwood University's Greenwood Library in 2013. Photo from

Moldy books found in Longwood University’s Greenwood Library in 2013. Photo from

Overall, I think the conference was valuable even though I don’t personally perform these duties, at least not to the extent conservators do. In our increasingly collaborative field, it’s important to know about and understand what the people we commonly work with do and their opinions on issues. This helps us to better communicate with each other and to prioritize issues to be resolved. Someday I may be the only archivist at a small institution with an even smaller budget, in which case I may find this information especially useful, for example in determining questions like the following: What can I reasonably do myself? To whom should I outsource things that I can’t do? What’s a creative and cost-effective way to solve this preservation problem? We archivists always have preservation in mind when we organize and make materials accessible, but conservators greatly help us to extend – and often save – the lives of our materials.

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