LISTEN>> Caring for a Collection

In a suite of audio posts, visiting journalist Corinne DeWitt heads into our three collecting areas—Library, Art, and Botanical—and meets up with staff to explore facets of the vast collections that are the core of The Huntington. This time around: Library.

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CORINNE DEWITT: Today we’re leafing through the layers of the Huntington Library. I’m here with Kristi Westberg. She’s the Dibner book conservator, the woman in charge of preserving books from the history of science collection.

Today we’re digging into the process of caring for the collection. First stop, we see where the books are housed. Downstairs in the basement, the rare book stacks, where shelves and shelves of beautiful leathery volumes live.

Listen in.

KRISTI WESTBERG: So we are downstairs where the rare book stacks are located. There’s a cage door basically and we head through there, and then we’re in the rolling rack stacks area with all the rare books.

CD: Kristi takes us to a cluster of rolling shelves that have the collection she’s working on. It’s called the LACMA collection.

KW: So in this case, LACMA is standing for the LA County Medical Association, and it’s part of the history of science collection. So I’m going through and assessing the condition of everything within and anything that needs conservation work is getting flagged.

CD: These books are all in various states of scruffiness. The oldest book in the section we’re looking at today was published in 1539. The newest was published in 1926. For the survey she is working on, Kristi comes down here to the stacks to inspect each book and jot down notes before she does any work on them upstairs in the lab. She has a ranking system to determine what gets treated first.

KW: I prioritize everything with a 1, 2, or 3, depending on how in need it is of treatment. So 1s are things that have boards that are detached or title pages that are coming away. Anything that we’re at risk of losing, those become a 1.

CD: Quick interruption: when Kristi says “boards” she’s referring to covers, the rigid boards that protect the pages inside books.

KW: A 2 is something that just needs a little bit of stabilization, and doing that one tiny bit of work will make sure no further damage happens. And then a 3 is pretty much something that just needs a box. It might be a really tiny book that’s next to a really big book on the shelf. So that’s kind of a red flag. You could end up losing the little book behind if it gets pushed back. Or if it’s something that is really dirty, and I can’t make the book stop being dirty, but I can put it in a box so the dirt doesn’t get on the books beside that book.

CD: Kristi goes to get a rolling ladder from a few shelves over and starts taking books off the upper shelves.

KW: So this is a 2 . . . might be a 1. So you can see that the board is attached, but barely, just here. The leather at the top has pulled away from the spine because it’s been pulled off the shelf from the head end, which is, think of the head as the top. That one is probably a 2 on my list.

You’ll see that this board is completely detached from the book, so that’s a 1, that’s a fear of loss.

The older ones generally are in better condition because the materials they were made with are just better. As printing kind of took off, book binders had to figure out ways to shortcut, because they suddenly had a lot more books to bind, and so those shortcuts have led to lots of structural problems in books that are less old.

CD: As she’s showing me various examples of the kind of damage she looks for in this survey, I get sucked in by the titles of these books. Women and Hysteria, Diseases of America, there’s volumes on insects and infections, books about all sorts of maladies. I had to know . . .

Do you ever get, you know, caught up in it? Do you like . . .?

KW: Totally. I try not to, because, you know, I am working, but sometimes you can’t help it. You know, there’s some things that you see just the spine of the book and it’s intriguing enough to make you stop, and want to pull it off. Like this one. Just looking at it, I can tell there’s something interesting going on here.

CD: I asked her, has any book ever surprised her as she’s been sifting through everything?

KW: I opened up a foldout that was a giant scrotum. That was the first one I opened. That’s like my best example. But it was huge and I was like aaaahhhh!

CD: We could have poked around in the rare book stacks all day. But I wanted Kristi to show me what she did with these books. How she was working to preserve them so they can continue to exist for another 400 years. So out we went, up the industrial elevator to the conservation lab where Kristi does her treatments.

KW: So this is my bench, where I do all of my treatment.

CD: What do you have here?

KW: This guy is called a finishing press, you use these wooden screws on either side of the plates, and you can open it and then . . . so I have it out right now because I was working on this book.

CD: Tell me about this book.

KW: The Surgical Works of John Abernathy. So the spine is detached, and underneath the spine, when books are being made, after they’re sewn together, people or bookbinders will attach several layers of paper, and that paper helps consolidate all the sewing and it helps the book to open with a nice drape and support everything. So I’m in the process of removing the old paper linings. So if I put the book in this press . . .

CD: Screwing it, pinching it together . . .

KW: . . . pinching it together. Then I put a poultice of methylcellulose on top, and that softens the paper and the adhesive and then I basically scrape the old paper and adhesive off.

CD: Removing those paper linings is just the beginning of the treatment for this book. Kristi plans to re-back this book. To complete this treatment, Kristi will use new covering material to cover the spine and reattach the boards, making the book whole again.

KW: I have, let’s see, 1, 2, 3, 4 books from the LACMA collection that are in varying phases of the conservation work that they’ve undergone.

This book, this is a book about midwifery. It had detached boards, and those have been reattached and some new spine material has been added where there was none. A lot of books have the damage at the front of the volume, so the first few pages of this book had a lot of damage, so those have been repaired, and this page was actually detached, so it’s been reattached, and . . .

CD: You did that, right?

KW: I did that, yeah!

CD: How did you reattach the page?

KW: So a lot of the repairs that we do are done with Japanese papers, and we use those because the fibers are really long and they’re really flexible. And they come in really nice light weights and so what you do is you basically can strengthen. Like this page, I’ve done some little repairs along the edges of the page, which is where you pick it up to turn it. So that’s kind of a natural place where a lot of book pages have damage, so I’ve put some very, very light Japanese tissue on there that I attach with wheat starch paste which is, basically, I mean, we’re using a higher grade wheat starch paste, but if you used flour and made paste, it’s the same.

CD: She says the benefit of using paste is that the work she’s doing can be reversed someday, probably by another conservator in the future.

With the help of Kristi and other conservators, the Huntington Library’s collections can be used by many more generations of dedicated researchers.

Also in this audio series:
LISTEN>> Japanese Tea Ceremony

Corinne DeWitt is a visiting journalist with the office of communications and marketing at The Huntington. She earned her master’s degree in arts journalism this spring at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

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