This is a guest post by Kimberly Chancellor and Heidi Vance, two Junior Fellow summer interns in the Preservation Research and Testing Division. Kimberly is a recent graduate from Texas A&M University where she earned her BS in Anthropology. Heidi is a current paper conservation graduate student at Northumbria University.
This summer we had the delight of working in the Preservation Research and Testing Division (PRTD) for ten weeks on their ongoing project: Assessing the Physical Condition of the National Book Collection. As you can read on the website link, this research is an assessment of a stratified representative sample of actual books held within United States research libraries. The project is looking for both visual observable trends in the data, as well as what the physical and chemical conditions of the same “identical” books really are. Our mentors, Fenella France and Andrew Forsberg, were the best we could have ever asked for. They were our teachers, guides, advocates, and have led by example through the whole process. Our contribution to the project was to analyze data collected from books at several participating institutions across the country to determine connections between visible and inherent traits of the paper in those books. The big picture is to compare books of the same title, edition, and publisher to see what traits impact paper deterioration the most over time. This is really exciting because if we can learn more about how this paper ages, preservation standards can be updated and collections can be better cared for!
So how exactly could we work on this while our internship has been entirely virtual? An incredible team of PRTD staff has been performing tests in a lab for two years for this project. The data collected to date from these tests had been compiled into a database, which we accessed remotely to work on this summer. We definitely ran across our fair share of technology issues in these ten weeks, as a lot of people have experienced over the past year, but we were ultimately able to determine connections between visible and inherent traits of the books.
Our first couple of weeks were spent learning more about the background and methodology behind the tests, as well as becoming well-versed in current preservation research and standards. Once we had a good introduction to what exactly we were working with, our mentors sent us photo-documentation for sets of books and the associated linked data to look at. Each set usually contained five or six “identical” books that we compared against each other. It was really amazing to see how the tests we had learned about allowed us to understand the condition of each book.
In total, we looked at 72 individual books across 16 titles. While this might seem like a lot, especially for our ten-week internship, keep in mind that this project spans roughly 2500 books. We did get to see some really interesting things in our relatively short time, such as books containing more than one paper type, different repair decisions made at each institution, the qualities preservation professionals typically look for, and the varying degrees of wear, tear, and staining that many public collection books eventually go through.
We both have learned so much from this internship. It’s one thing to learn about these techniques in undergraduate labs and a completely other thing to see their applications and usefulness in real-world settings, especially within the cultural heritage sector. This opportunity has also given us an increased appreciation and understanding for everything that goes into preservation research. While we both already respected the critical role of collections care, we can see more of how an interdisciplinary team approach is essential to keep collections in the best condition possible, and to ensure the survival of cultural heritage materials for future generations. The Library of Congress has been an absolutely amazing place to work at and we cannot express how invaluable this internship has been to us.