Friday, November 1, 2019

In the Basement: Conservation, Preservation, and Restoration in Progress

Down in the Walter Clinton Jackson Library’s basement, you will find more than just that oh so famous doughnut. This is where you will find preservation and conservation being performed on your favourite library materials. This includes not only the materials in Jackson Library, but the music scores and manuscripts housed in the Harold Schiffman Music Library, located in the College of Visual and Performing Arts. As the keepers of UNCG’s collections, we aim to prolong the life of our materials and their informational content.

Image: Studiovin at Shutterstock Free Images
Library preservation encompasses everything which serves to prolong the life of the items in the collection. In our collection at Jackson Library, this encompasses everything from books, maps, reference materials, periodicals, and journals, to documents, university archives, special collections and of course our beloved, elderly doughnut.

You may be wondering exactly what preservation, conservation, and restoration is and how it keeps the library filled with the seemingly never-ending selection of books to indulge in. In fact, Jackson Library holds over 2.19 million printed books, archives, federal and state documents, all of which we are responsible for providing the care and conservation. Down in room 61, we use methods of conservation, restoration, and preservation that have been around for centuries to maintain our collections and keep them accessible to students, professors, and the public.

UNCG University Libraries'
infamous 39 year old doughnut
The majority of the damage to our books (that is not due to natural ageing), is due to mishandling. Actions such as removing books from the shelf by pulling the top of the spine, forcing the books to open wider than the spine structure allows, using pens and highlighters, and sticking post-it notes to pages, all cause unnecessary and preventable harm. This lack of basic care can lead to the rapid deterioration of the items in our collection. Prevention is the best way to keep collection damage to a minimum and prolong the lives of our books and resources.

Damage prevention can be classed under the umbrella of passive conservation and preservation. Preservation is defined by the British Library as “all managerial, technical and financial considerations applied to retard deterioration and extend the useful life of (collection) materials to ensure their continued availability.” The preservation of materials in the library consists of controlling the handling, storage, disaster response, pests, light, pollution, temperature and humidity. Of course, the books and materials in our collections will experience the effects of natural aging and will need intervention due to this, but we slow the deterioration and extend the usable lives of these items by controlling the environment they are housed in and preparing accordingly for potential disasters.

This process of preservation is a non-invasive way of protecting the collection - it does not alter the books or materials. Preventing mould, insects, nibbling vermin, water damage, and other elements that can lead to the demise of a book is the first line of defense against collection loss. This preventative approach is regarded as the most effective way of maintaining an object’s health and achieving overall longevity.

The American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC), defines Conservation as being, “The profession devoted to the preservation of cultural property for the future. Conservation activities include examination, documentation, treatment, and preventative care, supported by research and education.”

In the Library, conservation encompasses the activities of active treatment. These repairs are structural and ultimately serve to prolong the life of the book. Decisions on the repair of bookbindings consist of considering the structural integrity, usage, function, and its historical importance.

Book conservation also includes the disbinding, surface cleaning, deacidification, mending and guarding of pages, as well as re-sewing and the repair of text blocks. It’s important to note that the role of a book conservator isn’t to make an old book look brand new again, but to make it suitable for use. Mindell Dubansky, head of book conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, stated in an interview in 2018, “I’m not going to rebind a book because it’s old and beat-up, I treasure the fact that its old and beat-up. What I’m going to try to do is repair all the parts that are vulnerable to make it functional.”

Occasionally, our books and materials are in need of restorative work. Restoration is the process of returning the book to as close to the original condition as possible.

Broken spine of a leather bound book
This includes restoring bindings, book covers, stain removal, rebuilding missing parts, and refinishing. The process of book restoration is built on the foundation of reflecting the original way the book was bound for publication. The methods of restoration overlap with the those of conservation but entail a more invasive intervention. Unlike conservation, restoration work includes both cosmetic and structural repair and is concerned with more than just function. When doing restoration work on a book, there is a deep consideration of not just the functionality of the book but also how the book was presented at publishing.

There is an apparent overlap in the processes of preserving, conserving, and restoring library materials, which contributes to the ongoing debate over the usage of them. The main difference, I would say, is in the intention of the repair and the desired outcome. At Jackson Library, we employ these terms to keep our collections well maintained and accessible for the public.

by Georgia Barrett, current UNCG student and Preservation Services student employee


Bendix, Caroline. "Preservation Advisory Centre." Damaged Books. British Library, 2010.

Northeast Document Conservation Center. Book Conservation. n.d.

Pearson, David, John Mumford, and Alison Walker. "Preservation Advisory Centre." Bookbindings. British Library, 2010.

Walker, Alison. "Preservation Advisory Centre." Basic Preservation for Library and Archive Collections. British Library, 2013.