|Fastener found in Florence Bailey's Journal for Bermuda, March 1890. Smithsonian Institution Archives RU 007417 box 1 folder 5. Photography courtesy of Breann Young.|
By Breann Young, Conservation Intern, Smithsonian Institution Archives
During the past couple of months, I have been interning at the Smithsonian Institution Archives in the conservation lab. I am an undergraduate student at Kutztown University and my work here, for the most part, has been to absorb as much information as I can about book and paper conservation, as I am still new to the processes and techniques of this field. One of the first assignments I received was to go through a couple boxes of field books and papers belonging to Lawrence Walkinshaw and remove the numerous damaging staples within them.
Walkinshaw (1904-1993) was a 20th century dentist who was also a leading expert on cranes in and around the Michigan area. He is credited with recording some of the first field surveys of cranes and other Michigan birds. He wrote three published books and kept large quantities of personal field books. Interestingly, he often adapted his field books very specifically to his needs, including using staples to hold large sections of pages or photographs together within one particular spiral bound book. One of the staples had even, somehow been placed inside the metal coil and latched on to four pages, a situation I had never seen before and which still makes me wonder about how it could have happened. Of course staples, while helpful to Walkinshaw, are damaging to paper over time, and create plenty of work for conservation staff like my colleagues at Smithsonian Archives.
As my internship progressed, I was able to gain enough experience to move from staple removing to mounting fragile botanical specimens. Field researchers often picked samples of the plants that they were researching and pressed them in between the pages of their notebooks or placed them in separate folders. Surprisingly, preserving plants often does not require any special chemicals or special paper. They just need to be pressed under weight between two pieces of paper and left to dry for two to three weeks.
One of the very first field books I worked on was Florence Bailey’s journal from Bermuda, dating to around 1890. Florence Bailey (1863-1948) was a pioneer naturalist who dedicated her life to the preservation of birds and their way of life. She was a very active woman in a male-dominated profession, and accomplished a lot of firsts for women in the scientific field.
In these field books, the botanical specimens are attached by small pins that are poked through the page twice, securing the small plant into place. Unfortunately for conservators, these pins are a challenge because those pin holes destroy portions of manuscript on the other side of the paper. In other cases, these pins are poked through multiple pages and possibly rust, getting stuck in place. Now with a beginner like myself, this work can be difficult because I had to be very aware of not damaging both the incredibly fragile plant and the paper itself. Only once did I have to deal with a particularly tricky pin, and I was thankful to have the help of my supervisor. All the other pins that I removed were fully cooperative. After the pins were all successfully dislodged from their homes, I mounted the plants onto a sturdy card stock and placed them in protective folders, where they would be preserved safely for years to come.
From removing small little staples to pins holding a fragile plant, one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned while interning here at the Smithsonian is to balance problem solving while caring for fragile objects. Every day in the lab is completely different. You never know what you’re going to encounter and what problems may be ahead of you, waiting to be solved. That’s the beauty of conservation.