Penn Libraries’ new conservation lab preserves precious rare collections

Text by Jeanne Leong
The Penn LibrariesKislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts renovation project started in 2010 is now complete with the opening of a new conservation laboratory.
 
Library
Penn Libraries' Sarah Reidell, the Margy Meyerson Head of Conservation (left), and Susan Bing, a conservation staff member, discuss the best ways to conserve and display a large manuscript.
Located on the fifth floor of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center, the glass-enclosed Steven Miller Conservation Laboratory is equipped with all of the tools that conservators need to preserve and conserve materials—ranging from medieval manuscripts to 21st century books—and is the newest addition to the Penn Libraries’ preservation program. The Kislak Center for Special Collections is home to about 300,000 rare books and 15,000 linear feet of manuscripts.  
 
“Often, work done in conservation labs is behind the scenes,” says Sarah Reidell, the Margy Meyerson Head of Conservation. “I think that having a glass viewing wall into the lab is a really fantastic opportunity for including people in what we do. I’m hopeful that students, researchers, staff, and others will be intrigued when they walk by and will want to discover more about how we care for Penn’s collections.”
 
The conservation staff also prepares items for digitization and for Penn Libraries’ exhibitions.
 
In preparation for the Libraries’ Thai Manuscripts exhibition, which is on display on the sixth floor through Oct. 7, the staff conducted conservation treatment using toned mulberry paper and wheat starch paste to repair minor tears and reattach separated layers on the painted surface of the paper.
 
Before the lab was completed in July, three conservation technicians handled projects in a small office in Van Pelt, while other more extensive work was outsourced to a regional conservation company.
 
The new lab will allow the Library conservators to do most of their work in-house. The approximately 3,200-square-foot space includes large work tables, and houses rolls of a variety of papers and supplies, along with specialized tools. A vacuum suction table allows conservators to perform tasks such as flattening an item or helping to remove a water stain from a page in a book.
 
“You can expect to see conservation play an integral part in the pedagogical activities of the Center,” says Will Noel, director of the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts and director of the Schoenberg Institute for Manuscript Studies.
 
Future plans include holding classes in the lab so that students will have the opportunity to get involved in the preservation of the Libraries’ collections. In addition, workshops will be held for audiences, such as collectors and conservation professionals.

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