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A Visit with Representative Mark Amodei to the Library of Congress Conservation Lab

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The following guest post is by Jacob Nadal, Director for Preservation

Dr. Carla Hayden, Rep. Amodei, and Elmer Eusman stand around historic map of western territories
Representative Mark Amodei, Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden and Chief of Conservation Elmer Eusman view the [Map of the upper Great Plains and Rocky Mountains region] in the Conservation Lab. Photo Credit: Jake Nadal
We were fortunate to host US Congressman Mark Amodei (R-Nevada 2nd) and Librarian of Congress Dr. Carla Hayden for a visit to the Conservation Lab this past month. Rep Amodei returned to a seat on the House Appropriations Committee this year and, after a few questions about preservation strategies in the FY22 Budget Hearing we offered to host Rep. Amodei to see our work first-hand.

Hosting visits to any of our preservation workspaces is always a treat–we get to show case a behind-the-scenes view of the Library’s work and how preservation staff interact with the collections in very special ways. Anyone who likes libraries tends to have a ball – and they can learn about how preservation activities support our rich history.

During the tour, we looked at work in progress on the first piece of secular music written in the colonies, by Francis Hopkinson, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In the 1930s or 1940s, the 18th century manuscript pages of the song “My Days Have Been So Wondrous Free” had been laminated with cellulose-acetate film, a sort of plastic.  The treatment to remove this lamination is complex and includes pre-testing all components including ink solubility followed by acetone baths to solubilize and remove the layers of cellulose acetate film and lens tissue. Each notated manuscript leaf was washed in an ethanol-modified calcinated wash to remove water-soluble degradation products while carefully preserving any water-soluble ink components. The chemically-active iron components in the ink were complexed with a chelating agent that has been used and tested extensively at the Library of Congress to slow the effects of iron gall ink degradation. Each leaf had new sizing applied and was mended as needed prior to re-binding.

Since we had the Congressman from Nevada coming, we took the opportunity to bring out a major treatment completed several years ago, an early hand-drawn map showing the Southwestern region of the country before present-day state boundaries were established.

The exceptionally complex treatment of a hand-drawn map has held up very well. The map outlining territories of various American Indian tribes was created in 1851 by the Jesuit missionary Pierre-Jean de Smet. Reviewing past treatments is an important part of conservation practice. As we saw with the cellulose acetate lamination of the Hopkinson manuscript, some treatments fare better than others over time.  The map was in extremely poor condition and took a team of seven conservators to jointly address the multitude of condition issues. The treatment included full immersion in water and the careful use of enzymes. The map had degraded into more than one hundred fragments before it was made whole again using various conservation techniques. Today, it is ready for exhibition and study.

photograph taken over the shoulder of Rep. Amodei looking toward the French Album
Representative Mark Amodei and Head of the Photographs Conservation Section Andrew Robb view the French Album. Photo: Sarah Boliek

A Congressional visit gave us a great reason to show the “French Album,” a work of particular interest to the history of the US Capitol, and a major project undertaken by a Senior Photo Conservator that has revealed a fascinating history. This 19th century photographic album was assembled by Benjamin B. French, who served as Commissioner of Public Buildings twice during his career in government and was Master of Ceremonies for both of President Lincoln’s Inaugurations.

The album includes photographs of the US Capitol Building under construction and images of Lincoln’s first Inauguration. It was likely assembled soon after the Civil War and is composed of images that date from 1856 to 1865, primarily representing the work of the first government photographer, John Wood.  Wood’s assignment was to document the construction of five major public works projects taking place at the time: the extensions of the U.S. Capitol, the Post Office, the Patent Office, construction of the Capitol Dome, and the Washington Aqueduct.

The album suffered insect and other damage from a poor storage environment before it arrived to the Library through various gifts from the French family to the Manuscripts Division and the Prints and Photographs Division. The album was disbound in the past, and the order of the pages is uncertain. Book Conservator John Bertonaschi and Photograph Conservator Adrienne Lundgren are working together to determine the page order. Ms. Lundgren is working with the LC Publications Office on a book devoted to John Wood.


Rep. Amodei and a conservator talking about the poster
Representative Mark Amodei and Paper Conservator Susan Peckham discuss the treatment of the “Five celebrated clowns attached to Sands, Nathans Co’s Circus.” Photo Credit: Jake Nadal

We finished up by showing a literally gigantic project the lab has been working on over the past year, the treatment of the 1856 “Poster of Five celebrated clowns attached to Sands, Nathan Co’s Circus.” This is the oldest poster in the Prints and Photographs Division, and one of the largest, too, at twelve feet across and seven feet tall. We wanted to show this for a couple reasons.

First, it is pretty hard to not be impressed by 84 square feet of brightly colored circus performers. “Five Celebrated Clowns” was originally printed on ten paper panels in four colors (red, blue, greyish-tan, and black) using 40 hand carved wood blocks, and this is the only known surviving copy. The item also demonstrates the value of the work of the Library, as this poster came into the collections through an early version of copyright deposit. This printing of the poster was deposited for copyright in the Clerk’s office of the US District Court for the Southern District of New York in June 1856, and later transferred to the Library. These functions are now administered by the U.S. Copyright Office, one of the Service Units that forms the modern Library of Congress.

It’s a distinct privilege to be able to talk about the care of the national collections with one of our Congressmen and the Librarian. Congress has shown an abiding interest in the Library’s preservation efforts and as Rep. Amodei said himself, “It’s always amazing to find out what you don’t know and to observe some phenomenal professionals doing great work for America’s history.”

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