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Analyzing Paper Deterioration: The Experiences of Two Interns Working on the Ongoing ANC Project

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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. 

Photograph of Preservation Research and Testing Division's Interns, Kimberly Chancellor and Heidi Vance.
Pictures of Kimberly Chancellor (left) and Heidi Vance (right).

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!

Screenshot of the online database used in the ANC project.
The ANC database that we were working from. On the left is the beginning of the visual assessment section, tensile, and SEC (Size Exclusion Chromatography) results. The right shows the chromaticity diagrams, FTIR (Fourier Transform Infrared) spectra, and colorimetry swatches.
Photograph of four copies of the same book from four different institutions, each with different binding and different states of preservation.
Four examples of covers in different condition from the ANC database for The Political Shame of Mexico, one of the titles chosen for this project. These are from three different institutions, from left to right: University of Colorado Boulder Libraries (UCBL), Cornell University Library (CUL), and two Arizona State University Library (ASUL) copies. The ASUL copies appear to have original covers with varying degrees of wear, while UCBL and CUL have been rebound. Photo Credit: Amanda Carter

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.

Photograph of two books, which contain multiple paper types within each book.
The textblock edge color of Dred: a Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp volumes 1 (left, ASUL) and 2 (right, University of Miami Libraries, UML) from the ANC database. These are a great example of what books look like when they contain more than one paper type. The discoloration is an indicator of the differing rates of degradation experienced by the paper due to their composition. Photo Credit: Amanda Carter

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.

Comments (2)

  1. This sounds like interesting work, but are there no preliminary conclusions or at least observations that you can report? I would like to know what kinds of papers are more susceptible to deterioration and which are most resistant (under the same conditions).

    • “Thanks for your comment and we are happy you found the research interesting! You can learn more about the ANC project here: Because this is a multi-year project, research is still on-going, meaning we aren’t at a place yet to make definitive conclusions. Please continue to follow us for more details as the research continues!”

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