You are here

Library Conservation Labs Welcome Community at Annual Open House

Visitors learned about the processes and people behind preserving the Library’s materials.


May 6, 2014—During Preservation Week (April 27 – May 3), the Library’s Weissman Preservation Center and Collections Care unit welcomed over 75 visitors to learn more about methods, tools and materials.

Presses, cutters, solvents, brushes, needles and paper patches galore were on display at Weissman, as well as some of the materials being treated, such as 19th-century volumes riddled with miniscule holes from insect damage, antique letters with bleeding ink, daguerreotypes destabilized through the passage of time and Benedict Arnold’s papers. “There are a lot of spies and intrigue in this box,” said Livy Bailin, a conservation technican, of the latter.

Kai Fay, a library assistant at the Chemistry Library, is a repeat visitor. “I’ve always loved coming to these events and getting to see the incredible materials.” 

“We feel very fortunate to be able to work in a hands-on way with Harvard’s amazing special collections and the open house gives us a chance to share that experience with our library colleagues. This year was especially rich in lively and engaged conversations,” said Brenda Bernier, head of the Weissman Center. “I informally asked about 15 guests which object they liked best from the tour. To my surprise, they all said something different! That speaks volumes about the incredible breadth of the library collections.”

The Collections Care unit treats circulating volumes from several libraries–about 30,000 texts are in its stewardship each year. Collections Care treats everything from torn pages to bindings, and creates custom housing that protect volumes from wear and tear.

Items for repair can be submitted by anyone who notices a need, and curators, librarians and preservation specialists collaborate to determine treatment. A simple mend may address an issue, or a text may be so fragile that digitization is recommended. “I’m fresh out of library school and interested in learning about the collections and what other librarians do,” said Rebecca O’Brien, a library assistant. “This was a great way to do that.”


color stabilization on medieval text

Alan Puglia, senior rare book conservator, discusses stabilizing color in a medieval text. Preservation specialists focus on different fields but they share a common love of the materials they steward. Susi Barbarossa, a senior conservation technician, is working on 18th century illustrations. “Every time you turn the page it’s the most gorgeous thing you ever saw,” she said.

paper conservation

Weissman’s preservation specialists specialize by method and material, so a wide range of items might cross their workbenches. Here, Karen Walter, a senior conservation technician, shows visitors her work on papers.

manuscript to be rebound

Katherine Beaty, a book conservator, explains how to rebind a manuscript. 

visitors at workstations

Emily Lynch with a 16th century volume as visitors check out other workstations at the Weissman Center. Arnold Arboretum staffers made an outing of the event to acquaint a new team member, and Andover-Harvard librarians visited photos and drawings from their collection, which are being safely flattened. 

precut paper spines

 “We’re a production lab, we work in large batches,” explained Lauren Telepak, collections conservator at the Collections Care unit. They prepare certain materials in advance, like the pre-cut spines above, to expedite the process.

stacks of books being treated

Preservation specialists aim for their fixes to endure, yet also want to make sure that an item can be restored to its original condition. Japanese cotton or rice paper are often used with wheat starch paste. “You put it down and it just disappears,” explained Debra Cuoco, paper conservator.

book stands spine up in book press

In Collections Care, a book sits in a press as it receives a new spine covering. Volumes can also be flattened this way. Old vellum-bound covers can warp so badly they actually push themselves out of the stacks—rare cases of books literally flying off the shelves.