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Conservation at the Library: What We Do!

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The Library of Congress stewards hundreds of thousands of paper-based and special format materials, and the Conservation Division at the Library employs a diverse staff of conservators, preservation specialists and technicians to treat and care for the incredible range of collections. Special collections materials, as well as the expansive general collection, are cared for according to our mission statement:

“The Conservation Division (CD) is responsible for treatment and preventive care for the Library’s physical collections, so that they remain continuously available to users in their original format. Staff provide expert conservation treatment for drawings, manuscripts, maps, photographs, prints, rare books, sheet music, and other items from the Library’s custodial divisions, so that they are available to user in reading rooms and through exhibitions and loans. In addition, staff members monitor, analyze, evaluate, and optimize the Library storage environments, assist with design of Library storage spaces, and respond to emergencies that threaten the collections.”

Before treatment images showing tears and losses. Photo by Samantha Schireson

As a technician my work contributes to our mission in many ways. I primarily treat general collections materials from the African and Middle Eastern Division and the Music Division. As you may imagine, I get to treat and house an incredible variety of paper-based materials. The best part of my job is that I am constantly being challenged by new projects. I could be doing a sample survey of German pamphlets from the Second World War one day and completing a complicated board reattachment on an 18th century book the next!

On my bench this week is a colorful Afghan magazine from the early 1970’s, editions of Zhvandun (from 1972-1982) have been recently digitized by the Library of Congress. Zhvandun was a popular cultural and current affairs magazine published during the last half of the 20th century. During preparation for digitization each issue had to be disbound causing small tears and losses along the spine of the item. I will be repairing these pages with very thin Japanese tissue paper which will stabilize the item for long-term storage.

Assessment and Survey

Preservation assessment is a critical part of our work. The initial stage of evaluating library materials allow staff to make long-term preservation goals based on current condition, location, and environment. This preliminary evaluation will inform every subsequent decision regarding the care of materials.

Once a collection or individual item is referred for treatment a detailed condition survey is conducted. This survey includes descriptions of the item’s history, current condition, proposed treatment plan, and previous conservation treatment information. Assessment and condition surveys will be conducted at the item-level for materials that are very fragile, rare or destined for exhibition. For ongoing maintenance of an entire collection, which could range from 10 to 1,000+ items, sample surveys are conducted by selecting a few items to consider which represent the collection as whole. Prioritizing both strategies for survey conservation staff can provide a high level of stewardship to the Library’s massive holdings. The Conservation Division performs over 250,000 assessments and surveys over the course of a year.

Reference materials are key to developing a treatment plan from an individual item survey. Conservation staff keep extensive documentation about each type of treatment, building upon prior knowledge. The Digital Imaging Workflow for Treatment Documentation is an internal instructional manual for conservation photo documentation used in the Conservation Division. The Digital Imaging Workflow is based on the AIC Guide to Digital Photography and Conservation Documentation, emerging research from conservation graduate programs and consultants


Conservator Jennifer Evers paints in damaged areas of the Howland Album cover, November 1, 2017. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Treatment decisions are made in consultation with collection curators. Every item in a Rare or Special Collection has a liaison that will discuss goals for access or intended use. Treatments can range from light cleaning to more invasive treatments when a more complicated repair is necessary. Typical treatments for bound materials include reattaching loose boards; mending or reattachment of loose leaves; joint repair; spine reinforcement; repair of torn paper, removal of previous repairs, and sewing repair and replacement.

More involved treatments include construction of entirely new bindings; in painting and/or loss compensation and consolidation of flaking or powdering leather. Treatment decisions also adjust based on the chemical composition of individual parts of an item such as the type of ink used to print a book or the variety of leather that covers a book.

Housing and Environmental Storage

Fort Meade storage facility, November 16, 2016. Photo by Shawn Miller.

Physically and chemically appropriate storage allows for the attainment of successful long-term preservation of goals. Conservation staff are tasked with rehousing or creating custom housings for individual items and/or entire collections. Appropriate housings will significantly slow deterioration of an item by shielding materials from environmental agents, pests, and potential disasters. Saving space and cost effective construction are also primary concerns taken into careful consideration when housing decisions are made.

High density storage units are the destination for most individually housed items. Both massive storage facilities and smaller units need to be monitored to ensure proper environmental conditions. Conservation staff monitor conditions such as temperature, humidity, and air flow. The most delicate materials like manuscripts, maps, and photographs, require cold storage for optimal long term preservation. These materials contain inks, pigments and emulsions that are extremely vulnerable to changes in temperature, light and exposure to water vapor. Cold storage, with a room temperature between 50o and 35o degrees Fahrenheit (10-3oC) dramatically slow the decomposition of these fragile items. The Library has multiple large units for this purpose.


Conservation staff perform a variety of outreach responsibilities which include conference attendance; presentation of research; conservation documentation for the public; as well as sponsoring internship and education initiatives with local high schools and universities.

Future posts on the Preservation Directorate blog will provide insight into the people, places, and work we do at the Library each day. For even more information or to get in touch, check out our website. We look forward to connecting with you!


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