Evan Knight, Associate Conservator at the Boston Athenaeum, spoke about the Athenaeum’s multi-year project to conserve and digitize its Confederate Imprints collection. In the 19th century, the Boston Athenaeum was one of the premier libraries in the nation, and its librarian William F. Poole quickly realized the importance of collecting print materials from the Confederate States of America. The collection contains 4575 imprints in a variety of formats, including pamphlets, bound volumes, maps, and archival records.
The project’s objectives were to provide access to the Confederate Imprints collection through digitization, while improving its preservation and cataloging. Evan’s description of the project stressed the importance of conservator involvement, in order to balance the demand for digitization with the ability to effectively preserve the collection. The goals of treatment were to ensure that objects could be safely handled during imaging, allow for effective stabilization in a timely manner, and provide for a broader range of treatment options on important or rare items. As Project Conservator, Evan also had the unique opportunity to assess the entire collection, rather than seeing only those objects that came to the lab in need of conservation treatment. This allowed him to get a more comprehensive sense of both the condition problems and material characteristics of the collection.
The collection presented a variety of condition issues, including torn and creased pages, losses, planar distortion, and binding damage. However, because this was a three-year, donor-funded project, working efficiently was a particular concern.Evan spoke abouthow he balanced the treatment goals of reversibility, efficacy, and aesthetic concerns with the time constraints of the project. He streamlined his working methods and materials by batching similar treatments, only humidifying when necessary, using a relatively dry wheat starch paste for mending and flattening creases, and stabilizing losses without fills where possible.He also kept minimal paper treatment records, which were entered into a project spreadsheet at regular intervals. Only significant or unique items received more extensive written and photographic documentation.
Evan then discussed the material characteristics of Southern print culture, as well as identifying avenues for future research. He mentioned that though paper in the South during the Civil War is commonly presumed to be of inferior quality, he found great variety in the papers of the Confederate Imprints collection. All of the papers in this collection are wove and exhibit stitching patterns from the wire mesh screens used in the manufacturing process. With only 15 paper mills operating in the South during this period, Evan thought that some of these papers could probably be attributed to specific mills based on these stitching patterns. He also referenced technical studies in the Confederate Philatelist by Dr. Harry Brittain that have identified local fillers, additives, and ink compositions.
The bindings in the collection encompass pamphlets, trade bindings, and publisher’s bindings. Regional variations exist, with covering materials, decorative tool patterns, and sewing structures often traceable to specific publishers or cities. In this collection, Evan noted that certain sized books are associated with specific binding features or subject matter. He also found repeated use of particular stamping dies and repurposed cases in some of the collection’s publisher’s bindings. Evan then discussed the wallpaper covers associated with literary fiction published from 1863-1865 by S. H. Goetzel of Mobile, Alabama.
The project was a success and finished ahead of schedule, with all but three objects in this collection digitized. Two were bound volumes with unopened pages, and the third had significant mold damage and was set aside for later treatment.
During the questions session, Evan was asked if he’d found any photographic maps in this collection, and he described one that had gotten minimal treatment and was encapsulated. Evan was then asked to elaborate about his stabilization and storage methods for maps that were folded into wrappers. He mentioned that they wanted to store these objects flat, and many could be opened mechanically without humidification. The folds on other documents proved to be more stubborn and needed to be humidified prior to flattening.
Another audience member asked about Evan’s observations on imported papers in this collection, particularly blue writing papers. He responded that though blue stationery was common in this period, he didn’t see it used for imprints. Rather, he most often encountered this type of paper pasted into volumes. Evan also mentioned papers and books that were imported through the Union blockades.
Many thanks to Evan for a particularly interesting and useful talk. For additional information, please refer to Evan’s bibliography on his BPG Wiki user page: http://www.conservation-wiki.com/wiki/User:Ev-knight