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Preservation Research and Testing Division: What We Do!

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This is a guest post authored by Fenella France. Fenella has been the Chief of the Preservation Research and Testing Division since 2011. She has a Ph.D and a master’s degree in textile science and a master’s degree in business administration, with over 30 years’ experience in heritage preservation science.

In February 2020, the Preservation Research and Testing Division (PRTD) celebrated its 50th anniversary! The history of how PRTD came to be established is an interesting tale that ties us to international preservation challenges, as well as the development of preservation labs in the United States. In 1966, the devastating flood of the Arno River in Florence caused massive damage to cultural heritage, including thousands of books that had been housed in the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale Firenze (BNCF). These books were damaged by water, dirt and oil from the flood and their treatment fundamentally shaped book conservation and emergency mitigation on a global scale. Within six months, the Library of Congress established the Preservation Office, and, along with other cultural heritage institutions, began to establish protocols for emergency management. In 1971, the Library recruited Peter Waters (who led a massive preservation effort for the damaged books in Florence) as the Conservation Officer and Chief of the Conservation Division at the Library of Congress.

In February 1970, the Library announced the establishment of a Preservation Research laboratory to undertake basic research in the preservation of library materials. A grant from the Council on Library Resources (now Council on Library and Information Resources – CLIR) formed the basis of the scientific equipment for the new laboratory, which became PRTD. The LC press release 70-10 referred to pioneering research from the Barrow labs, a collection of 1000 characterized books from 1500-1900 that can be used for research testing to support preservation. The Barrow collection is now part of PRTD’s scientific reference samples and has greatly advanced the correlation of destructive and non-destructive test methods.

As we review the history of PRTD, it is fascinating to look at the early beginning of the preservation research labs and see how much instrumentation has changed in that time.

Photographs of laboratory spaces and analytical instruments.
Photographs of the Preservation Research and Testing Division’s lab spaces and analytical instruments in the 1970’s. Photo Credit: PRTD

But also, how some instrumentation is still being used – here is a 1970’s photograph of the MIT Fold Testers and a 2015 photo of staff using the same instruments to assess strength of paper for housing materials!

Two photographs showing the same analytical instruments from the past and in use today.
On the left is a photograph of MIT Fold Testers from the 1970’s, used as one of many tests for paper strength. On the right is a photograph from 2015 of the same fold testers in use by PRTD staff. Photo Credit: PRTD

The lab spaces have changed and grown a lot in the past fifty years; we have four lab areas – physical and chemical testing, optical properties (generally non-invasive instruments used to analyze collection items), aging chamber to predict lifetime of materials and treatments with humidity, temperature, light and pollutants, and a special area for scientific reference collections.

Photograph of a laboratory.
The Chemical and Physical Properties Lab on the Madison ground floor. This lab holds a variety of micro-analytical instruments. Photo Credit: Eric Monroe
A digital photograph of a laboratory.
The Optical Properties Lab in the Madison sub-basement. This lab contains a range of non-invasive spectroscopic techniques, used for working directly with collection items. Photo Credit: Eric Monroe

Many of these areas, initiatives, and techniques will be the focus of future blog posts. Some of the major developments within our division have been towards expanding our capabilities for non-invasive and portable techniques, and the integration of new innovations and techniques from other scientific disciplines. As non-invasive capabilities for examination and retrieving hidden text expanded, there has been a new exploration of collections through scholarly questions. Further initiatives include assessing degradation to best identify at-risk collection materials and the impact of environment and treatments to best preserve our collections.

There are three main programmatic areas in PRTD. Firstly, we undertake long-term research for collections. These are research programs that relate to large scale challenges for preservation, usually more in-depth projects that either investigate issues of material degradation of importance to the Library collections or aim to improve methods for analysis and preservation of the collections. A subset of preservation research is what we refer to as analytical requests. These requests are object-based and include analysis of specific materials found in or on individual items, including identification of degraded and non-original materials. Analytical methods, either by non-invasive and/or micro-analytical techniques, are chosen to yield results that will best inform our understanding of the object’s condition and historical context. The third area relates to the testing in our division title – this is the quality assurance and materials testing program. This program includes testing materials used for housing, storage, and in conservation treatments, materials used in the construction of exhibition cases and storage areas, as well as evaluation, definition and dissemination of standards for the use of these materials. Quality assurance testing is closely related to the development of specifications for housing and storage materials.

As part of these programs, we work extensively with conservation staff, curators, and researchers to the library, as well as on collaborative ventures with national and international colleagues. We look forward to sharing more about our activities in the forthcoming months. Let us know what you’d like to hear more about!

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