Printed word lives on, thanks to Etherington Conservation
Matt Johnson, associate rare book conservator, turns the brittle pages of a scrapbook kept by a University of Illinois sorority girl from 1905 to 1909. The thick volume, one of a pair, is barely held together by the fibers that remain after almost a century of deterioration. Pictures, programs, letters and even cigarettes crowd the yellowed paper.
The pictures reveal a sisterhood of modestly dressed young women, each with a head of meticulously pinned hair. On another page, a small felt pennant bears the Greek letters Gamma Phi Beta.
Johnson transports the scrapbooks on a wheeled cart he parks next to a worktable. In terms of girth, the volumes rival a standard two-volume set of the Oxford English Dictionary. Each item attests to an eventful life lived by a woman at the vanguard of higher coeducation.
‘“Sometimes you either grow to love or hate the person,’” Johnson says. ‘“You end up feeling like you know these people. It’s just unfortunate that so many [scrapbooks] involve bad brittle paper and scotch tape.’”
The scrapbook in question originally arrived at Etherington Conservation Services for a complete overhaul: new binding, stain removal and separate storage of food and cigarettes. Unfortunately the $14,000 per volume price tag estimated for the project caused the family to take another route ‘— digital reproduction. Once the process is complete, the family will have a digitally produced copy for their own use and the original will go into a protective box to prevent further decline.
For the family of the former sorority girl, what matters most is the story told by words and letters. But there is another story in each of the items that passes into this bunker-like building. It is told by the fading of the ink, darkening of the paper, the split of the spine and the spills and drips that mark the pages like melanoma.
It is the job of the 32 conservators and technicians at Etherington Conservation Services to halt or reverse the decomposition of paper documents, photographs, books and other items. If an item arrives irretrievably damaged, it is digitally documented to salvage the information. The business is one of the largest and most prominent private conservation practices in the world.
As such, the business boasts an impressive clientele list and a slate of big name projects. Johnson works on more than scrapbooks: his other projects have included Thomas Jefferson’s books from his Monticello estate.
Michael Lee, the director of conservation services, mentioned a series of 400 original Audubon prints worth millions currently on display at the NC Museum of Art in Raleigh. Some leaves of a Gutenberg Bible have been treated here, as well as original manuscripts of The Red Badge of Courage and Leaves of Grass.
The training required to undertake such delicate work is extensive.
‘“Usually after you receive your master’s you are expected to get fellowships,’” Lee said. ‘“Then you go through advanced training like a doctor.’”
Lee received his master’s at the Cooperstown Graduate Program in the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works in upstate New York, one of three such courses in the country. He has worked mostly as a paper and photograph conservator for the last 20 years and came to Etherington Conservation Services four years ago.
The business itself has been around 18 years, and was originally helmed by its namesake, Don Etherington. It is adjacent to ICI Binding Corporation, an assembly-line operation that specializes in large print runs.
Each staff member at Etherington Conservation Services specializes in one aspect of conservation. At the same time, each does a little bit of everything, from repairing binding to filling in ragged pages with new paper.
In one corner of the book room, long-handled metal tools rest on a heating element. Conservation technician Valissa All chooses one with a moon-shaped edge and presses the heated end to a book’s leather binding in a process called blank tooling. Next she cuts a piece of gold foil off a reel and stamps it into the channel with a hot rolling tool.
‘“When we’re working on leather everything has to be at a specific temperature,’” All says. ‘“You have to get to know the tools and the leather.’”
On the counter surrounding her island tooling station set several stamping machines. The machines can be set with cast type in lead or individual set type in brass, which is punched into leather covers and binding. All of the tooling here is done with real gold, either leaf or foil.
In another room separate from the crowded rows of workstations, Conservation technician Marc Bernstein leans over a sink where a tattered page sets under plastic honeycomb and inches of water. He is leaf-casting a first edition King James Bible from 1611, the version where God is referred to as ‘“she’” in the Book of Ruth, although those pages were stolen long ago. The page will eventually be rebound with the others, but first he will fill in some of the holes and tears with new paper matched to the original.
To do that he drops a measure of wood pulp mixed with formatic aid into the water and gently stirs it with his hand. Bernstein flips a toggle switch to drain the water, which pulls the pulp around the intact paper and into the holes and tears. This combination of new and old paper is moved from the sink to the suction table where gelatin sizing brushed from left to right binds it all together.
Unlike reading one, conserving a book is a back to front process; that method mitigates the damage done by a process miscalculation. This time the precaution is unnecessary.
‘“Now you have a new, strong piece of paper,’” Bernstein says as he finishes the leaf cast.
The same can’t be said of all parts of a 1475 Latin law book under the care of Bryan Draper, a senior conservation technician. Incunabulum refers to printed materials from the half century following Johannes Gutenberg’s 1450 invention of the printing press. It means ‘“from the cradle,’” and this book is one of those, one severely damaged by mold and fungi that have eaten through the center of some of the pages.
Draper’s goal is to clean the pages and reduce an oily stain that rises like an evil spirit from the bottom of the page. It might have been caused by a lamp spill, indicating that law students across the ages have pulled all-nighters.
A university bought the book in two pieces from different book dealers. After the conservation is complete, it will be unified and available for research.
‘“The lives these books lead,’” he says, ‘“there’s always a story there. Sometimes you can figure out part of it and sometimes there’s a mystery.’”
If a document cannot be saved, the information is salvaged through scanning and Photoshop manipulation. Such is the case with an 1882 land deed that still serves as a legally binding document. Ink and paper deterioration threatened to obscure the information forever until digital imaging specialist Dan Boulden used the computer program to draw out the ink colors for a legible copy.
‘“As the paper yellowed and the ink faded the colors came together,’” Boulden says.
He will also work on documenting those scrapbooks, turning and photographing each page of every program taped to its paper. He turns back to his computer screen.
Between the digital scanners, metal tools and peroxide-soaked Q-tips, the conservators have a range of technologies at their disposal. Tallying all the staff members, generations of experience practice their trade inside the secure concrete walls. What they have to fight against is nature: weather, sunlight, insects and time. These are the elements that at once appear on the pages of these historic documents in stories and pictures, and then threaten to take them away.
To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at firstname.lastname@example.org.