Posts Tagged ‘archives’

Since conservators work to prolong the life of physical things, they think a lot about artifactual value, or the information held in the material and craft of a physical object.  This thinking can be puzzling for lab visitors and the general public, who sometimes conceptualize books and archival materials simply as information carriers.  Bridging the conceptual gap between these two methods of thinking is one of the fundamental challenges of conservation outreach.  After all, the casual observer often notes, why not just digitize collections and be done with them?

The many significant complexities of digitization aside, it’s good to have some concrete examples of artifactual value in hand for cases like this.  I accidentally stumbled across one such example recently while reading Erik Larson’s portrait of late 19th century Chicago, Devil in the White City.  In a brief afterword, Larson described his research methods and his portrayal of the mentally unstable assassin Patrick Prendergast:

I do not employ researchers, nor did I conduct any primary research using the Internet.  I need physical contact with my sources, and there’s only one way to get it.  To me every trip to a library or archive is like a small detective story.  There are always little moments on such trips when the past flares to life, like a match in the darkness.  On one visit to the Chicago Historical Society, I found the actual notes that Prendergast sent to Alfred Trude.  I saw how deeply the pencil dug into the paper.

-Erik Larson, Devil in the White City, Notes and Sources, pp 395-96.

Prendergast’s notes to prosecutor Trude were made during a period of increasing delusion, during which Prendergast murdered Chicago Mayor Carter Harrison.  They offer an immediate, tangible example of artifactual value, the deep pencil marks enhancing our understanding of Prendergast’s increasingly paranoid state.  Larson’s remarks also demonstrate the impact of artifactual value on researchers and library patrons, who make discoveries in person that are likely not possible online or via reproduction.  His statement powerfully endorses primary research and the value of physical artifacts in libraries and archives.


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This week, a delegation of archivists from the Shandong (China) Provincial Archives visited the lab as part of a broader TSLAC tour.  In the lab, the archivists viewed Texas historical documents and several examples of typical book and paper treatments.  Working through a translator added new complexity to a brief discussion of reattaching spine coverings and deacidifying paper.  We hope this group enjoyed their visit, and we appreciated their international perspective.

Shandong (China) Provincial Archives Tour

Shandong (China) Provincial Archives Tour Group

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In July, I’ve been treating a hand-drawn Civil War map from the Sam Houston Research Center in Liberty, TX.  The document was glued to a backing board with historical annotations describing Burr’s Ferry, a site where Texas anticipated that Union forces would attempt to enter from Louisiana.

The hand-written annotations on the backing board raise several perplexing issues about the map.  First, the annotations indicate that a battle took place at Burr’s Ferry in September 1863.  However, other historical resources indicate that while a Burr’s Ferry invasion was expected, it never actually materialized.  Of further interest, the map itself seems not to depict Burr’s Ferry at all; it shows a region about 80 miles to the southeast, near modern day Melville, LA.  Though informative in their own way, historical labels and descriptions can sometimes raise more questions than they answer.

The darkened, brittle map was spot-glued to its backing board.  Over time, it had fractured around the glued regions and large sections had been lost.  Subsequent caretakers had responded by applying tape extensively across the front of the map and enclosing the item in Mylar.  Accordingly, this treatment offered many opportunities for physical and aesthetic improvement.

The first priority was to remove the map from its acidic backing board, which was exacerbating discoloration and brittleness.  The first step toward this was to remove the tape.  Fortunately, the tape was commercial Filmoplast of relatively recent application, and it was able to be removed mechanically.

Tape Removal

Removing Filmoplast tape

The glue holding the map to the board was water-soluble, and likely animal-based.  Local humidification through a vapor membrane was partially successful, but proved too prone to leave board fibers attached to the map.  Greater success was achieved with direct application of deionized water in a fine, aerosol mist.  Very slow, careful work was necessary to avoid damaging the map and to minimize disturbance to the backing board.

Backing Board Removal

Removing map from backing board.

Next, the map was washed and deacidified to reduce brittleness and discoloration, and to add a pH buffer to guard against ongoing deterioration.  Because the map was severely fractured, I used a flat, controlled washing method called blotter washing that relies on capillary action to pull degradation components into thick, dampened paper.

Fractured Pieces

The brittle, fractured map required careful blotter washing to avoid further damage.

After drying, the map was lined with an opaque Japanese tissue to hold the pieces together and fill the losses.  The tissue was toned with diluted acrylic paint to approximate the color of the map after washing.  The variety of shades in the mottled paper necessitated simply aiming for a neutral middle color.  I adhered the lining to the map with a reversible, water soluble wheat starch paste, working on a light table to align the many tiny, fractured pieces.


Preparing the map for lining on the light table. Losses seen here will be filled with the toned Japanese tissue lining.

The archivists and I agree that it’s worth keeping the backing board with its puzzling annotations.  Next week, I will surface clean the board and apply a deacidification spray to help control future brittleness and breaking.  I will also create a mat to support the map and assist in future exhibition.  Now that the map is more secure and stable, perhaps a future researcher can shed additional light on this document.

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In the lab this month are three architectural drawings from 1910 – 1912, made in preparation for the construction of the Medina Dam near San Antonio.  Like many oversize materials, these drawings were rolled and required humidification and flattening for archival storage.

Two of the maps are hand-drawn on starch-coated linen.  The largest of these maps is 34” x 70”, making good use of the lab’s custom-made tables.

Medina Dam Plans - Linen

Hand-drafted plans for the Medina Dam on linen after flattening.


The third map, a 33” x 60” blueprint, required some additional work to remove previous tape repairs and mend numerous tears.

Medina Dam Blueprint

Blueprint of Medina Dam after flattening, tape removal, and mending tears.

The Medina Dam was built to control flooding and provide farmland irrigation in the Texas Hill Country, where water rights continue as a major issue in the present day (see the exhibit “Water in Texas,” currently on display in TSLAC’s lobby.)  The dam’s development group, the Medina Irrigation Company, also hoped to establish new towns and sell farmland based on irrigation improvements.  Much of the project’s funding actually came from British capital, an arrangement that became problematic with the outbreak of World War I in 1914.  With access to British funding limited and the Medina Irrigation Company in jeopardy, project leader Fred Pearson set out for England to make a personal appeal.  Unfortunately, Pearson sailed aboard the Lusitania in 1915, when it was sunk by German submarines in a major international incident that eventually helped spur American entry into WWI.  The troubled Medina Dam assets were eventually sold in 1950 to a local water district, which retains ownership today.

The dam and the resulting Medina Lake were promoted as tourism destinations in the 1920s and beyond, as seen in a hand-colored postcard from the period.

Medina Dam Postcard, 1920s

Hand-colored Medina Dam tourism postcard from the 1920s. Image and much of the preceding historical information courtesy “The Edwards Aquifer Website,” http://www.edwardsaquifer.net/medina.html

As tourism in the area continues, Texas Highways magazine commemorated the 100th anniversary of Medina Dam in its June 2012 issue, which gives us this charming account:

When Medina Lake was being constructed, there was a gravel toll road (built by an industrious landowner) leading from FM 471 to the construction site. Sightseers from San Antonio would travel up FM 471 in Packard touring cars and stop at a little rock house at the intersection, where a monkey wearing a tiny hat would come out and collect the tolls. The toll road was eventually paved and became FM 1283.

So happy 100th birthday, Medina Dam.

Medina Dam Tree

The folksy 1901 floodmarker referenced in this design (see first photo) likely ceased to offer useful information once Medina Lake filled.

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I recently had occasion to test the mettle of our microscope equipment here in the lab, and I’m pleased to say it rose to the challenge.  Sarah Sokolow, a graduate student at the University of Texas School of Information, asked if we could take some microphotographs of the silk textile in a wedding dress held in TSLAC’s collections.  Sarah explains a bit more about her project:

This semester I am conducting a preservation needs assessment of particular historical artifacts from the collections at TSLAC. The historical artifacts that I am focusing on are costumes and accessories that belonged to Lucadia Pease (wife of former Texas Governor Elisha M. Pease) and Mirabeau Lamar. In this assessment I am focusing on the current condition of the artifacts and methods to improve this condition with recommendations for better storage. Also, I am researching different methods to exhibit these artifacts where they will not be harmed in the exhibition process.

The lab’s microphotography capabilities have been used only sparingly, so this project yielded an excellent opportunity to experiment with them.  At first, I anticipated using the microscope on its boom stand to photograph the textile in situ.  I sent Sarah the following test shot:

Textile Photo Test

Textile photo test with ambient light.

Sarah replied in that she actually needed a higher level of magnification in order to compare our photos with those in the Fiber Reference Image Library (FRIL) maintained by Ohio State University.  With that reference, I realized we were seeking microphotography on the level of individual fibers.  This led to an entirely different strategy.

Microphotography for fiber analysis requires making a slide from several small fibers and examining that slide with transmitted light, rather than simply the ambient light in the room (as in the photo above.)  I moved the microscope back to its transmitted light stand and prepared to make a slide.  When Sarah arrived, we removed a small, loose thread from the dress (approximately 5 mm long,) teased apart its fibers, and enclosed them between a microscope slide and cover with water.  The resulting images are detailed enough for comparison with similar silk fibers in the FRIL.

Silk Fibers 1

Silk fibers viewed with transmitted light.


Silk Fibers 2

Silk fibers viewed with transmitted light.


Such close examination of individual fibers can help conservators identify the fibers’ type and origin.  Sarah hopes our photos, in comparison with those in the FRIL, will help her characterize the dress’ condition in order to make future storage recommendations.  We look forward to her report and hope the conservation lab can continue to provide technical support for future research projects. 





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TSLAC is participating in the Society of American Archivists’ “I Found It in the Archives!” contest.  The event offers a chance for visitors and researchers to share stories about the treasures they’ve discovered at TSLAC, and helps promote archival research.

I find all kinds of interesting things in the archives, or, rather, those things find me when they come to the conservation lab.  Two finds from this week represent the breadth of the historical materials housed in archival collections.

The Big
Sometimes archival holdings put a fine point on major events in history, such as this ticket to the presidential welcome dinner in Austin November 22, 1963.  President Kennedy, Vice President Johnson, and their wives were to attend; Kennedy was shot in Dallas earlier that day.  This ticket, along with an invitation and program for the event, are part of a larger, donated collection of newspapers and magazines documenting the Kennedy assassination.  The materials have come to the lab for assessment of whether they should be removed from their library bindings.

Kennedy Welcome Dinner invitation

Kennedy Welcome Dinner invitation

The Small
Though big finds are impressive, sometimes the small finds are the ones that really humanize the historical record.  Probably my favorite find from this week is the following letter from the 1920s, written from a mother to a son, which reminds us that some facets of family life remain unchanged throughout the years.  Note how the author pulls no punches from the letter’s first sentence.  This letter is part of a collection in the lab for basic cleaning, flattening, and mending to stabilize the correspondence for researcher use.

Dear Thad, What is the matter with you that you don't write to me?

Dear Thad, What is the matter with you that you don't write to me?

Archives offer unique, unpublished treasures that can be startling in their immediacy, especially as people grow accustomed to learning and interacting onscreen and online.  Learn more about TSLAC’s “I Found It in the Archives!” contest on our website, and plan an archives visit soon!

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Archival Serendipity

As I gradually de-silk, deacidify, mend, and sleeve our collection of Confederate muster rolls, I receive periodic inquiries from the reading room staff as to whether work on a particular requested document is completed.  Untreated muster rolls are not available to researchers due to their extremely fragile condition.

This week, I was surprised to receive an inquiry about a muster roll whose treatment I had just completed three days earlier.  I recognized this particular muster roll by number right away for several reasons.  First, it had arrived in the lab in nine separate pieces and had been reassembled into four complete sheets, one a giant 32.5” x 42.5”!  Beyond the physical condition, I also immediately noticed that this muster roll was filled with Hispanic surnames, something I’d never observed in other similar documents.  Not only was I excited that such recently completed work should be requested by a researcher, but I also hoped to potentially learn a little more about this unusual document. 

The researcher told us that this muster roll represented a unique intersection of Civil War and Tejano history.  When the Civil War broke out, many Tejanos did not support the Confederacy, and they lost land and status.  By contrast, the prominent family of Santos Benavides in Laredo allied themselves with the Confederacy.  Benavides took his staff and servants into battle, and their names are listed on the muster roll.  Benavides eventually became a colonel, the highest ranking Tejano in the Confederate Army, and participated in several significant battles.  Far from encountering ill fortune during the war, Benavides, the son of Laredo’s founder, remained a major landowner and political figure in Laredo until his death in 1891. 

How fortunate to learn more about this unusual document, and how fortunate the timing of the research and conservation work!  Many thanks to our researcher for taking the time to talk about Benavides’ story.  I look forward a forthcoming journal article on the topic.

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