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Opening the Doors to Harvard Library Conservation Labs

April 30, 2013—Members of the community recently flocked to the Weissman Preservation Center and the Collections Conservation Lab for their Open House tours, held in celebration of the American Library Association's Preservation Week 2013. The informal tours gave visitors a glimpse into the dedication, precision, and level of care provided to Harvard’s millions of books, photographs, artifacts and other items.

At the Weissman Preservation Center, Brenda Bernier, head of the Center and the Paul M. and Harriet L. Weissman Senior Photograph Conservator, greeted visitors and gave them an overview of the center’s efforts.

“We’ve had a lot of questions from the library community about the work we do, and we wanted to share that experience with them and help them understand the breadth of services that we have and help us celebrate our fantastic collections,” she said.

Weissman’s conservators and technicians work with rare books, works on paper and photographs, stabilizing and mending damaged items—and sometimes analyzing the elemental status of a piece to determine the best and safest course of treatment for a damaged item.

One challenge, Bernier said, is that these items are often scattered throughout Harvard’s library system and "grew up" organically in different ways. "As a result, these collections have different needs. We address some needs through item-level treatment. For other collections, we strive to provide a more comprehensive support system to prevent damage. So we offer preservation advice about environmental monitoring and storage, care and handling and emergency preparedness." 

Over at the Collections Conservation Lab, located in Widener Library, Library Assistant Humberto Oliveira showed visitors the process for mending books and returning them to the stacks for their continued use.

“We literally fix the books,” Oliveira said, walking a group of visitors through his process of mending a book so that it could be returned to circulation. Whether mending a ripped page with Japanese tissue paper, creating new end pages to line the inside of the cover or creating a new case for a book, “if any part is still in good condition, then we save that part.”

The lab mends materials from libraries all across Harvard, and professionals such as Oliveira strive to leave as little trace as possible in their work. If a book needs a new spine, for example, a strip of thick, resilient cloth will be dyed to match the original binding. When a spine is intact but the binding is damaged, technicians will save the spine and create new book covers by hand that match closely to the original work. A book may require just a few minutes of attention, or several hours.