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Intern Mary Lawrence works on a text block at her bench.
Mary Lawrence completing preservation repairs at her bench in GCCS. Photo: Mary Lawrence, GCCS, 2023.

Nothing General About It: Ten Weeks in GCCS

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The following is a guest post by GCCS Intern Mary Lawrence. Mary recently earned her Master of Science in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she focused on coursework in librarianship and preservation.

After this internship, she will be moving to Ann Arbor, Michigan to be the Librarian for Western European Studies with Germanic Focus at the University of Michigan Library.

In the fall of 2022, I was enrolled in my third semester of graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and taking a survey course of book, paper, and photograph preservation. Towards the end of the semester, my instructor shared an email listing an internship in General Collections Conservation at the Library of Congress.

I had some experience with book mending from a stint at the Rochester (New York) Public Library’s Arts and Literature Division the year before I relocated to Illinois, but had entered my master’s program in Library and Information Science (LIS) hoping to learn more. To that end, I took every class offered in preservation and conservation for LIS students and put hand skills to use for exhibits through my University Library assistantships and at the Spurlock Museum of World Cultures. The opportunity to spend ten weeks developing further skills here at the Library of Congress was an exciting one!

During my interview this past February, Supervisory Librarian for the General Collections Conservation Section (GCCS) Carrie Beyer accurately described this internship as a “deep dive into general collections conservation.” Despite a slow start to the internship after an unexpected run-in with Covid, the past several weeks have been a constant hands-on learning experience. Under the tutelage of Leslie Long and with added support from the GCCS technicians, I have performed a variety of repairs on collections materials, created housing for particularly fragile items, assisted in collections surveys, and explored some artistic and binding techniques outside the usual scope of GCCS.

The main focus of this internship is on “bench work,” or performing physical book treatments. My schedule for the summer began with simple mends and foundational skills that do not require any invasive action. Some of these included adding new or existing materials in the form of pockets and tip-ins (reattaching loose pages) and making wheat starch paste, one of our most commonly used adhesives.

From there we moved onto minor treatments. Some of these included mending torn pages using heat-set tissue and a tacking iron, removing tape, and repairing outside hinges.

Two before and afters depict a paper repair and an outside hinge repair.
Left: a before and after of a torn page repair; right: a before and after of an outside hinge repair. Photos: Mary Lawrence, GCCS, 2023.

After a few weeks working up to it, we approached some intermediate repairs around the halfway point of the internship. These often involve breaking down or removing pieces of a book before treatment can begin, such as re-engineering or replacing a spine.

Around this time, we also covered a foundational step in further intermediate repairs: how to prepare a text block that has been separated from a case to be reunited with a case. This preparation is the same for most of the repairs we worked on for the remainder of my time in GCCS, and basically involves cleaning the spine and lining it with new Japanese tissue paper, sewing or attaching new endsheets, and providing extra layers of support to keep the text block strong in its new case.

Image progression depicting cleaning and lining the spine of a text block.
The progression of cleaning and lining the spine of a text block, called forwarding, to prepare it for casing. Photos: Mary Lawrence, GCCS, 2023.

There are a variety of treatments that pair with the prepared text block. They vary based on how damaged the book’s case is. Where possible, we salvage any parts of the case that are usable. Sometimes we can reuse the boards and just replace the book’s spine, and sometimes we need to create an entirely new case—and there are options in between! Each damaged book is unique, and the steps I learned throughout my time can be combined in many different ways to provide appropriate treatment.

Left image depicts a text block removed from its cover. Right image depicts a newly cased in text block.
In the recase new spine repair, Mary cleaned the spine and original case, cased the book back into its original case, and inserted a new spine piece. Photos: Mary Lawrence, GCCS, 2023.

In addition to working on treatments in GCCS, I had the opportunity to work on a couple projects with Rare Books Catalogers Jackie Coleburn and Barbara Dash, and some of my colleagues held workshops to highlight specific interests related to different treatments, bookbinding, and artistic skills.

In Rare Books Cataloging, I worked on covering a collection of books illustrated by or related to Maurice Sendak and rehousing a vast collection of artist’s books from Cuba and Mexico. Creating custom housing for these materials will allow them to be stored safely for years to come.

With GCCS colleagues, I learned how to make heat set tissue for repairing pages in comic books. We also had workshops on creating Asian style stab bindings and marbling paper using a traditional Japanese technique called Suminagashi.

Left: water, pigments, and brushes for paper marbling. Right: marbled paper.
Paper marbling supplies and results. Photos: Mary Lawrence, GCCS, 2023.

These ten weeks have flown by in the course of so much training and many activities. I’m grateful for having this time after graduating to focus more specifically on one aspect of what I studied at the University of Illinois. While the next step in my career will be more focused on research, instruction, and collection development, having an understanding of general collections conservation work will have an impact on the way I work with students and faculty as they use library materials, on the choices I make in collection development, and makes me an advocate for preservation and conservation among colleagues who may not be as familiar with the work that goes into it.


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  1. Beautiful!

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