Friday, November 26, 2010

Gifts of Preservation

Above:  Last year for Christmas, my wife and I gave my daughter two of the fashion illustration watercolors that were painted by June Anderson (my mother) during her years at Traphagen School of Fashion.  They were cleaned, matted, and framed.

Above:  I think my wife and I just treated ourselves to this one – no special occasion.  It was a large photographic print, nearly two feet in height.  It was taken in the early 1920s and shows my grandparents (Arthur N. and Ada Belle Price) visiting Ada Belle's grandmother in Orange, New Jersey.  We had the image cleaned, matted, and framed.

Above:  Well, this is technically from my wife’s family collection, but I'll include it here because I love the way it turned out.  These are wallpaper remnants that were rescued from the Shumate family homestead in Missouri.  I had them cleaned, matted, framed, and labeled for my wife’s birthday.

All conservation treatment, matting, and framing for the above projects was performed at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts.

© 2010 Lee Price

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Note of Frustration and Thanksgiving

(Cross-posted on the June and Art blog…)

Last summer, I returned home from Florida with twelve large boxes comprising our family collection.  So much history…  and yet there are still countless gaps in the record.

Art’s letters are missing for that nine-day stretch of correspondence between June’s return to school and Thanksgiving vacation.  At the very least, we know we are missing the letter that June refers to as the “shortest.. on record” and the one with the “long, low whistle.”

We have no pictures in our family collection of the Traphagen School of Fashion where June attended for two years.  I’d be happy with an interior or an exterior.  My sister and I have searched the internet, the New York Public Library, and the New York Historical Society.  We’ve found nothing.

There are no photographs of June’s apartments in the city.

We've found no pictures of Shirley Stahl, June’s roommate and close friend.  Perhaps June used her as a model for some of her fashion illustrations?  There’s no way to know.

I don’t know where Jack’s (where June would eat breakfast before class) was located.  We’ve found no pictures of Roulston’s on Main Street in Southampton or Partida’s where Art went for his art classes.  And I’d sure love to uncover a photo of Helen Darby’s house where June and Art met.

Nevertheless, frustrating as it is to acknowledge these gaps, I’m deeply thankful for all that we have – twelve gift boxes from the past for us to care for and pass forward into the future.

Our personal heritage is important.  We’re indeed fortunate to have so much.

© 2010 Lee Price

Friday, November 19, 2010

Preservation Strategies for Old Books

Custom-made boxes for book storage from the
Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts.

There’s a mass-produced biography of Paul Robeson, published in the 1960s, at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA) right now.  It’s getting top-of-the-line treatment.  The text has been disbound, the leaves will be washed, tears will be repaired, and the spine will be resewn.  That’s not the usual level of attention that an ordinary book of this period would receive, but this particular one has Robeson’s autograph signature on the title page.  The signature changes everything.

The family books that I brought in to be examined by Jim Hinz, CCAHA Director of Book Conservation, have no great associations with famous people and they don’t qualify as “rare” by any measure.  Sentimental value is the only value they have.  Conservation treatment is not recommended.

However, good care and proper storage is strongly recommended.  According to Jim, the most important thing is to keep the books in appropriate environmental conditions with low humidity and minimal light exposure.  When it comes to temperature and humidity, I should strive for moderation and consistency.

If I wanted to go a step further, Jim suggested that I look into custom-made boxes to store the books.  These boxes protect the books from light, help with humidity, provide some additional protection in the case of disaster, and are ideal for shipping.  For some standard-sized books, custom-fit boxes may be available through Gaylord or University Products.  For most books, custom-made boxes are more
appropriate and these require that very precise measurements be made.  They also look great on the shelf.  Very classy.

Special thanks to Jim Hinz for his consultations during the past week!

© 2010 Lee Price

Thursday, November 18, 2010

The Same Book

My Hamlet and Tarzan are the same.  Not the same character and not by the same author, but when looked at as physical objects, my family books of Tarzan of the Apes by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Best Loved Plays of Williams Shakespeare are essentially the same book.

I’d always assumed they were different.  The Burroughs book was a cheap pulp book, only a half-step up from the mass-market pulp magazines that originally published his work.  The Shakespeare book, however, was “the world’s greatest literature,” published by Spencer Press and in the introduction they promised:  “Mounteney in his careful designing has created books possessing rare beauty of design and exquisite good taste which view in appearance and handsomeness with the Spencer* masterpieces.”  All lies.  It’s a cheap book, no better than the Tarzan.

Jim Hinz, Director of Book Conservation at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts, placed the two books next to each other, pointing out one similarity after another.  According to Jim, they were both consistent with industry standards for mass-produced volumes…  but no better.

Their covers consist of a thin layer of buckram, a stiff cloth treated with a starch mixture, over
boards.  The spine linings were insufficient on both books, not capable of standing up to normal usage.  And the paper was virtually identical in both books, characteristic of the American wood pulp papers that dominated the industry from 1850 to 1950.  This paper puts out acetic acid which breaks down the paper fibers, resulting in the most brittle paper in the world.

My poor Shakespeare—it turns out it’s not much more than a “quintessence of dust,” not a paragon at all.

* William Augustus Spencer was a famous book collector who specialized in fine French bindings.

© 2010 Lee Price

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Professional Examination


This is how a conservator examines a book, explained Jim Hinz, Director of Book Conservation at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts.  There are three steps:

1.  The Cover:  What’s it made of?  How’s it holding up?  Is it clean or dirty?

2.  The Sewing:  How were the pages sewn together and how is the sewing holding up?  Anything detached?

3.  The Text Block:  What’s the paper and what’s the media?  (Wood pulp paper and common black printing ink in the case of my books.)  Does the paper retain flexibility or is it becoming brittle?  Are there other problems like tears, distortions, or surface dirt?

Detached Spine.
Considering the cheapness of their original production, the family books that I brought in for Jim to examine are in pretty good shape.  There’s some surface grime on their covers and minor losses on the slightly battered corners.  The spine linings were insufficient from the start, resulting in detached spines in the cloth layer on two of the books.  The pages are discolored but have not reached a point of severe brittleness yet (it’s just a matter of time with this highly acidic paper though...).

Of course I feel invested in my family books, so it's good to hear that--all things considered--they're in okay shape for typical books published during the greatest age (1850-1950) of bad bookmaking the world has ever seen.

© 2010 Lee Price

Monday, November 15, 2010

Mold and Books

Jim Hinz, Director of Book
Conservation at the
Conservation Center for
Art and Historic Artifacts.

Good news!  Our family books are clean.  There’s no sign of mildew or mold on them, according to Jim Hinz, Director of Book Conservation at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts.  I was concerned, as these books had been in a waterlogged house for approximately a week in September 2008 after a second floor toilet supply line broke, flooding our home.  Granted, the condition of these books is far from pristine (they’ve got surface grime, detached spines, and brittle paper), but clean of mold is reason to celebrate.

Mildew and mold are both fungi.  While there are technical botanical differences between them, the difference matters little to a conservator.  They’re both bad for books and bad for people.  You smell their musty odor because their spores release into the air around them as the molds search for new hosts.  But don’t take too deep a sniff.  Molds can trigger serious allergic reactions and aggravate asthma.

I asked Jim what his response would have been if he
Book with mold.
had opened the books and discovered mold.  “You always see a mold bloom,” Jim said.  “They can come in a rainbow of colors.  If left untreated, the mold will eat right through the pages and text.”  With an active mold, you can usually see a white fuzzy growth amid the color.  In situations where there’s a visible mold bloom, the best thing to do is to take the infected books to a conservator.  And until you get to the books to a conservator, you should isolate them.

In a case like mine, where the books had been exposed to some serious humidity and were at-risk for mildew, Jim would recommend setting any moist books upright, fanning out the pages, and drying them out with a hairdryer.  The downside to this is that the pages may cockle, but that’s preferable to the risk of mold.

Most home remedies for mold (many of which are touted on the internet) are ineffective because they don’t stop the mold spores.  Beware of solutions that just cover up the mold smell with some mildly preferable aroma, like baking soda.  The mold will continue its relentless work.

Our books were in the house when it was thoroughly dried out (huge fans running in all the rooms) and this was probably good for them.  Then the books were packed up into boxes and shipped out for storage.  The storage building was kept at a low constant temperature--and that was in our favor, too.  Molds like humidity and high temperatures.  In the end our books lucked out, emerging unscathed from potential mold disaster.

© 2010 Lee Price

Friday, November 12, 2010

The Great Flood of 2008

Early September 2008:  A toilet supply line broke in a bathroom on our second floor, creating a geyser of water that spread through the house, soaking everything.  No one was home but our dog.  I returned home from work that evening to find water running down our staircase, ceiling tiles bulging and breaking in the kitchen, the floor inches deep in water, and one very unhappy dog. 

Our family books on the shelves basically survived.  They didn’t suffer any direct water exposure.  But they were in a soaking wet house for a week, only to be packed into boxes and shipped off to storage for a seven-month period of recovery.  When we finally moved back into the house, we unpacked the books and put them up on new shelves.

To be honest, I'm nervous about letting a conservator look at these books.  I'm not sure if I want to hear an honest opinion abou their condition.

Next week:  A conservator looks at the books.

© 2010 Lee Price

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Old Friends Among the Books

I grew up surrounded by books.  They lined the shelves in the family room, the most impressive looking were used as literary decorations in our living room, more books filled the shelves along the hallway, and my room was cluttered with them.  As my parents moved, first to Hampton Bays and then to Florida, they kept passing along more of the family books to me.  My mother figured that I’d take care of them.

I’m talking about books that have sentimental value – not genuine “rare book” value.  But for me, sentimental value is plenty real.  These are books that shaped who I am.

Here are some of the family books that I particularly value:

Tarzan and company:  Edgar Rice Burroughs!  Books by the prolific author of Tarzan of the Apes came at me from both sides of the family.  I found Burroughs’ At the Earth’s Core in my grandparents’ house (mother’s side) when I was around 10.  I loved it.  We found more Burroughs books in their wonderfully cluttered storage rooms, and then it turned out that there were even more Burroughs books left behind by my dad at my other grandparents’ house.  I claimed them all.  These books are early hardcover editions, mostly from the 1920s, but nothing overly valuable like the original pulp magazines would be.

The Spencer Press: World’s Greatest Literature:  I suspect that my mothers’ parents may have bought this 20-volume set of literature classics more for show than for actual reading.  But my mother loved them as she grew up, particularly the Best Loved Poems (now, unfortunately, lost) and Edgar Allen Poe’s Tales of Mystery and Imagination.  Their Spencer Press edition of Shakespeare plays is still the one
I reach for when looking for a fast quote.

The Story of Civilization:  Decades in the writing, Will and Ariel Durant’s magnificent 11-volume history of the world awakened a love of history in me at an early age.  I never read them through in order, but I’ve pored over great swathes of each of them.  Absorbed early, Will Durant’s approach to history and philosophy has profoundly influenced the way I view the world.

There are many others, too, but these are the books that I plan to focus on over the next 10 days.  If I can save these, I’ll be happy.

© 2010 Lee Price

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Cautionary Tales / 2 of 2

We’re leading up to the point where a professional book conservator will look at some books from our June and Art family collection, but first I’m preparing for the worst with a couple of cautionary tales.  This is the second.

A vibrant exploration of Armenian folk culture, poetry and history, Sergei Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates (1968) is an abstract masterpiece.  Just accept there’s no coherent plot, let the images flow and, like me, you may love it.  (Note:  Conversely, if this doesn’t sound like your kind of movie, you may hate it.)

One brief segment near the beginning is the single best “water damage” scene that I’ve discovered in a lifetime of watching weird and obscure movies.

The monastery’s books have been soaked in a storm.  The monks squeeze the water out of the books in a press.

A young poet boy, who will grow up to be our hero, is instructed in the power of the word.

He climbs to the roof of the monastery.

He looks at the images of the illuminated manuscripts then lies down among the books, as they dry in the sun and the breeze.

Please note:  This is no longer recommended conservation treatment procedure for water-damaged books.

© 2010 Lee Price

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Cautionary Tales / 1 of 2

We’re leading up to the point where a professional book conservator looks at some books from my family collection, but first I’m preparing for the worst with a couple of cautionary tales.

Producer George Pal filmed H.G. Wells The Time Machine in 1960 with stars Rod Taylor and Yvette Mimieux.

In yesterday's entry, I mentioned how William Blades, author of The Enemies of Books, identified dust and neglect as particularly pernicious.  Well, The Time Machine has the classic “dust and neglect” scene.

Far in the future, the Time Traveler enjoys a lunch with the peaceful Eloi people.  He asks them about their culture.  “Don’t you have books?  You must have books.”

“Books?” answers one of the Eloi.  “Yes, we have books.”  He offers to take the Time Traveler to see their books.

He leads the Time Traveler to a small museum room.

The Time Traveler takes a book off the shelf.

And it crumbles to dust in his hands.

Dust and neglect.

Postscript:  I love the way the books crumble to dust.  And the message is that they've deteriorated because of neglect.  However...  those pages that he's cracking with his fingers constitute brittle paper.  It looks like the pages were highly acidic and became embrittled over time.  In that case, the problem wasn't so much neglect but the way the book was made in the first place.
© 2010 Lee Price

Monday, November 8, 2010

The Enemies of Books

“The surest way to preserve your books in health is to treat them as you would your own children, who are sure to sicken if confined in an atmosphere which is impure, too hot, too cold, too damp, or too dry. It is just the same with the progeny of literature.”
                           William Blades
                           The Enemies of Books

In his classic work The Enemies of Books, William Blades (1824-1890) identifies nine arch-enemies of book collections.  Some aren’t really relevant to this blog, but others remain on the mark.

Here are the four that I'm especially conscious of as I consider the preservation of our family books:

Fire:  “There are many of the forces of Nature which tend to injure Books; but among them all not one has been half so destructive as Fire.”

Water:  “Next to Fire we must rank Water in its two forms, liquid and vapour, as the greatest destroyer of books.”

Dust and Neglect:  “Dust upon Books to any extent points to neglect, and neglect means more or less slow Decay.”

The Bookworm and Other Vermin:  “There are several kinds of caterpillar and grub, which eat into books, those with legs are the larvae of moths; those without legs, or rather with rudimentary legs, are grubs and turn to beetles.”

The following five enemies aren’t as serious concerns for me, at least when it comes to preserving our family books:

Ignorance and Bigotry:  There’s still plenty of these to go around, but let’s hope the books in our house are safe from them.

Drawing of open book by Art Price, circa 1949.
Gas and Heat:  Granted, heat is not good for books, but Blades’ major concern is with the fumes from the 1880s gas lights.

Bookbinders:  Malicious and/or incompe-tent bookbinders shave off margins when rebinding.

Collectors:  Namely the villains who cut books apart to sell the prints, woodcuts, and other artwork piecemeal.

Servants and Children:  “Children, with all their innocence, are often guilty of book-murder.”  So true…

© 2010 Lee Price

Friday, November 5, 2010

What's a Love Letter Worth?

Along with the condition reports and treatment plans, my sister and I received cost estimates for the proposed treatments on a handful of historic photos, some selected artwork, and a love letter.  It looks like a lot of

What’s a love letter from 1949 worth?  If you mean, what can it fetch on eBay, the answer is probably not much.  In the case of the June and Art letters, the paper was cheap in the first place and has deteriorated since.  There was nothing special about the ink either.  There’s no association with famous people.  Just a set of ordinary 1949 love letters.

You can’t calculate the value of a family item in the usual way.  It’s not a question of what it’s made of or how high it could go at auction.  There’s a different calculus involved.  The paper and the ink are tied in with lives that in some way have touched yours, either directly or down through the generations.  There are echoes of passion, work, relaxation, mistakes, regrets, joy, and despair.  We’ll never fathom all the long chains of cause and effect, but this yellowed paper is a reminder that the links between then and now are real.

A frequent question that conservators hear is:  Any idea what it’s worth?  Ethically, the conservator isn’t supposed to respond.  That’s a question for an appraiser, not a conservator.  But when you’re dealing with family items, it’s not really even an appropriate question for an appraiser.

I know my parents treasured these letters.  They kept them safe through the years, knowing they were so much more than just paper and ink bought at a five and dime store.

My sister and I have the condition reports, the treatment plans, and the cost estimates.  Technically the money will be going to stabilize the paper and ink but the real value will be in its preservation of our family story.  It starts looking like a bargain from that perspective.

© 2010 Lee Price

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Translating the Treatment Plans

The condition reports on our family collection items were a bit scary.  The artwork, period photos, and letters from the June and Art collection were—to varying degrees—soiled, discolored, stained, warped, rippled, and torn.

But these are problems with solutions, and the solutions are provided in the treatment plan sections.  As with the condition report, the language of the treatment plan is highly technical.  I’ll hazard a few interpretations here, pulled from the many steps involved in each treatment:

From the treatment plan for a love letter:
-- Test the support and media for stability and sensitivity prior to treatment.
The support is the paper.  The media is the ink.  So this is a test to make absolutely sure that the ink isn’t going to dissolve and spread when exposed to any water or chemicals involved in the proposed treatment.  The conservators will cautiously test first before starting the treatment.  I appreciate the caution!

Art Price with monkey on his shoulder.
 From the treatment plan for a photograph:
-- Consolidate lifting edges and areas of cracking emulsion with a gelatin solution.
-- Mend the tears and re-attach fragments with wheat starch paste and mulberry paper.
This poor beat-up photograph is obviously in need of some loving care.  The picture is cracking up and there are tears breaking the image into fragmentary pieces.  While gelatin, wheat starch, and mulberry may sound like the ingredients of a snack food, these are important tools found in the arsenals of all paper conservators.  Mulberry paper is a particular favorite among conservators—it's strong and lightweight.   Wheat starch paste does the job of scotch tape, attaching one thing to another but without the inevitable long-term damage of the tape.

Fabric textures by
June Anderson.
From the treatment plan for a drawing of fabric textures by June:
-- Realign tears and mend from the verso with wheat starch paste and narrow, torn strips of Japanese paper.
The verso is the back of the paper, so the conservator is flipping the piece over and lining up the pieces like puzzle.  The Japanese paper has extra long fibers that hold everything together for a strong repair, plus it doesn’t discolor.  Only the best for our family artwork!

© 2010 Lee Price

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Translating the Condition Reports

Earlier I wrote about the accession process, where I brought in approximately 80 family collection items to the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts for preliminary examination.  At the end of the session, I left 20 items at the Conservation Center to receive condition reports, treatment plans, and cost estimates.

I got the reports last week – over 50 pages of detailed information, including (gulp!) the cost estimates.

The condition reports are amazingly thorough and filled with lots of impressively technical sounding terms.  Here are a few rough and unprofessional translations to help those who may not be fluent in “conservator-speak”:

Recto = front side of the paper
Verso = back side
Planar distortions = curved or warped paper (it doesn't lie flat)
Cockles = ripples or crimping on the paper surface
Media loss = it’s missing some of the writing or artwork
Friable media = pastels, charcoal, and soft pencil (the stuff that rubs off)
Brittle paper = the paper threatens to flake or crumble when touched
Pressure sensitive tape = probably scotch tape, sometimes masking tape
Soiled, grime = dirty paper

Apparently, my collection items exhibit the full range of these bad things:  planar distortions, cockles, media loss, and brittle paper.  There's acidic pressure-sensitive tape on some pieces, and the paper is often soiled and grimy.  And then there are easier to understand (yet still ominous) terms like tears, folds, discoloration, and staining.

Fortunately, there are treatment plans which address nearly every problem listed.  We'll turn to the proposed solutions in the next entry.