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New Optical Lab Brings LOC into 21st Century

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(The following is a guest article about new preservation capabilities at the LOC by my colleague Donna Urschel, which was recently published in the the Library’s staff newsletter, the Gazette.)

Library of Congress Optical Properties Lab
Preservation Research Chief Eric Hansen explains how equipment is used to capture sound from damaged audio recordings. (Abby Brack photo)

For many decades, details of the 1791 Pierre L’Enfant Plan of Washington, D.C.—one of the many treasures at the Library of Congress—had been obscured. A long-ago application of a varnish preservative had darkened the map’s surface. But today, thanks to special imaging techniques, the invisible streets and special locations, including the “President’s House” and “Congress’ House,” pop out.

Hyperspectral imaging, a process of taking digital photos of an object using distinct portions of the light spectrum, is revealing what previously could not be seen by the human eye.

In room 27 on the sub-basement level of the James Madison Building, fascinating details of our historical heritage are coming to light in the recently opened Optical Properties Laboratory. Operated by the Library’s Preservation Research and Testing Division (PRTD) in the Preservation Directorate, the lab contains a hyperspectral imaging system, an environmental scanning electron microscope (ESEM), equipment for optical disc quality testing and a Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) system.

The new lab enhances the Library’s capability to use nondestructive analytical techniques to track changes in optical properties of materials, helping conservators, curators and librarians extend the life of the collections. Along the way, many interesting details about the documents are revealed.

The Optical Properties Lab is one of three new labs in the Preservation Directorate. Two more will open in the Madison Building in 2010: the Chemical and Physical Properties laboratories. The new equipment and redesigned space will bring the 30-year-old science labs of the Preservation Directorate into the 21st century.

Stephen Hobaica in the Library’s Preservation, Research and Testing lab tests for chemical markers of degradation of magnetic media. (Abby Brack photo)

“Other libraries in the United States and around the world depend upon the cutting-edge capabilities of the Library of Congress preservation labs. I invested in updating the labs to continue Preservation’s important legacy,” said Deanna Marcum, associate librarian for Library Services. “Current analytical technology allows us to do more now with less. More sensitive analysis can now be undertaken with less sampling, less preparation, in less time and with less instrumentation and waste, making the entire research and development process more streamlined, sustainable, effective and cost-efficient.”

Marcum continued, “I’ve been gratified with the discoveries and advances the Optical Properties Lab has made in the few short months it has been open, revealing hidden writing and lost text, giving new insight into the Library’s top treasures.”

Recent imaging of the Library’s hand- written draft of the Gettysburg Address (the Nicolay copy) illuminated a thumbprint on the front and three fingerprints on the back, as if someone had been holding the document while reading it. Was it Abraham Lincoln?

Fenella France, a PRTD scientist who heads up the hyperspectral imaging, discussed the recent discovery. “We had noticed a darkened area on the document. We looked closer and the fingerprints came into focus. It was a goose-bump moment.”

Library of Congress Optical Properties Lab
Fenella France and Jennifer Wade, research chemists in the Library’s Preservation, Research and Testing Division point out detail on a map that can only be seen using the lab's hyperspectral imaging system. (Abby Brack photo)

France then tried to track down information on Lincoln’s fingerprints but could not find anything for comparison. She hopes someday to conduct hyperspectral imaging on other Lincoln documents.

Hyperspectral imaging looks at materials via narrow-wavelength-band regions of the light spectrum, from ultraviolet through visible to infrared. The images are captured and digitally combined with or subtracted from each other to reveal details invisible to the naked eye. The results inform scientists on how to better preserve treasured items.

The document detective work also enhances historical details. On the 1791 L’Enfant Plan of Washington, imaging reveals a traffic circle drawn at 16th and K Streets that had been erased. Did L’Enfant make a drawing mistake or was he seriously considering a circle there? On the 1516 Carta Marina World Map by Waldseemüller, imaging revealed the reverse side of a small section that was pasted down onto the map. Written on the reverse side was a list of errors that needed to be corrected on the map

The PRTD lab’s first service is to meet the needs of the Library’s conservators and curators, but occasionally the Library will use its imaging system to assist other agencies. The Library recently was part of a forensic document examination team for the National Archives and Records Administration that studied two pages of handwritten notes of H. R. Haldeman, chief of staff for President Richard M. Nixon. These were the notes taken on the day that Nixon lost more than 18 minutes of conversation on his office tapes. Results will be released in 2010.

Jennifer Wade, a scientist in the Library’s Preservation, Research and Testing Division, opens the chamber of the environmental scanning electron microscope (ESEM) in the new Optical Properties Laboratory of the Preservation Directorate.
Jennifer Wade, a scientist in the Library's Preservation Research and Testing Division, places a photograph in the chamber of the environmental scanning electron microscope (ESEM) in the new Optical Properties Laboratory of the Preservation Directorate.

The environmental scanning electron microscope (ESEM) is another system that reveals details invisible to the naked eye. The microscope produces images at a very high magnification, up to 100,000 times.

As with hyperspectral imaging, ESEM is a non-invasive method. An entire document can be placed in a chamber of the microscope, which maintains proper environmental temperatures, humidity and pressure. A high-energy beam of electrons scans the document and produces digital images and a chemical analysis reading.

Jennifer Wade, a PRTD scientist who oversees ESEM imaging, said the electron microscope yields a digital image with a three-dimensional appearance that reveals an item’s surface structure. In addition to an image, a spectrum is produced with peaks that represent the chemical elements. The higher the peak, the more that element is contained in the material.

The ESEM, like hyperspectral imaging and other new systems, can help identify chemical components through a colorization process sometimes referred to as “false color” or pseudocolor. Wade can identify elements by programming a “dot” map of colors assigned to elements. For example, she can assign pink for lead and orange for carbon. When the microscope creates an image and those colors are revealed, Wade knows those elements are present and can share that information with conservators and other scholars working with collections.

In a current project, Wade is using ESEM to analyze ungilded daguerreotypes. Daguerreotypes were the first form of photography, introduced in France in 1839. Until 1841, daguerreotype plates were not gold-coated or gilded, resulting in surfaces that are uniquely fragile and difficult to study or treat. The Library holds more than 725 daguerreotypes, eight of which are ungilded. One of the eight is the first American photographic self-portrait, an 1839 image of Robert Cornelius.

Library of Congress Optical Properties Lab
A series of the digital images that were captured by the hyperspectral imaging system are on display. (Abby Brack photo)

The Library commissioned a company to create four daguerreotype plates that mimic the ones created in 1839. With these model plates, Wade can use ESEM to learn how the plates are damaged and corroded and then work with conservators who develop treatment, storage and housing guidelines.

The Optical Imaging Lab also contains a Fourier Transform Infrared Spectroscopy (FTIR) system. Like ESEM, FTIR looks at objects at a microscopic level and reveals the chemistry. FTIR is best used for examining organic materials, such as plastic binders and coatings affecting, for example, longevity of audio and video tapes, and ESEM is best used for analyzing inorganic materials, such as minerals and pigments found in the text or images of manuscripts and prints.

“In order to ensure full access to all knowledge contained in our collections, we need to guarantee the longevity of the collections,” said Dianne van der Reyden, director of the Preservation Directorate. “We do this through understanding the materials science, understanding the effects of aging and use on the optical, chemical and mechanical properties of items. We redesigned the Library’s labs to be devoted to characterizing and identifying changes in these properties.”

Comments (4)

  1. Super-cool goings on down in the bowels of the Madison Bldg!

    Is Preservation Directorate doing open house sort of day thes Spring when you can bring in family treasures and get on- the -spot advice on how to preserve them?

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