Empowering Your Paper Conservator To Be Successful & Happy

by | Jul 28, 2023 | Blog

You are in charge of a team of conservators. It’s your job to justify, plan, spend, and stay within laboratory budgets. Perhaps you used to do some bench conservation back in the day, but that was a long time ago. Now, it’s your responsibility to protect your department budget, your team members, and your collections.

Among your managerial duties, you are in charge of the paper conservation lab staff and budget – but maybe you were never a paper  conservator yourself. You know how conservation works, generally, but you might not know the details for each particular area of expertise.

How can you keep your paper conservator successful & happy?

What are the best ways to provide them with the support, tools, and equipment they need so they can get the job done while balancing your budgets?

This short article will provide you with a short list of the most important and useful resources you should consider for your laboratory. Of course, the following are merely suggestions, and it will be important to talk to your staff – maybe you don’t really need the super expensive suction table, so what would be a better option given your most common collection needs? Here are a few tips to help you start the conversation.

pH testing and monitoring equipment choices

**Problem:** One of the most crucial aspects of paper conservation is ensuring that the pH of the materials and environment is maintained at an appropriate level. Acidic materials and conditions can cause paper to deteriorate rapidly, making it essential to monitor and adjust the pH levels as needed.

Read more about the relationship between paper and acidity in this article by the Library of Congress.

**Solution:** You should have a reliable pH testing kit, such as pH indicator strips or a digital pH meter. Sometimes, a conservator may also need to carry out deacidification treatments to neutralize acidic papers and prevent further deterioration.

Tip: If you are interested in learning more about the deacidification of paper as well as its interaction with water, you can try getting the book “Paper and Water: A Guide for Conservators” by Gerhard Banik and Irene Bruckle (2011, Routledge). Although the original 2011 edition has been discontinued, you may get the revised 2018 edition from Archetype Publications in the UK for an approximate £99 + shipping. Special thanks go out to Valeria Orlandini for this tip on how to get this valuable resource!

Light table and magnification tools

**Problem:** Examining the condition of a paper object and identifying areas that require attention can be challenging without proper visualization equipment. Minute details, such as small tears, holes, or stains, may be difficult to detect with the naked eye. Nevermind trying to see them by laying a light-colored paper over a (probably) white table.

**Solution:** A light table is an essential piece of equipment for paper conservators, as it allows them to carefully examine the paper by illuminating it from below. This ensures that any issues, such as tears or discoloration, are easily identifiable. Additionally, a high-quality magnifying glass or a digital microscope can be invaluable for closely examining the paper’s surface, fibers, and any applied media.

In spite of the importance of both of these tools, there are a variety of options and prices that you may choose from depending on your budget from $20 head magnifiers and tablets to microscopes and specialized light tables worth several thousand dollars. Talk to your staff to see which one you really need and stop yourself from automatically buying the most expensive equipment – maybe that budget would be better off elsewhere.

Don’t forget to ask other paper conservation labs as well as they might have had experience with some of these tools and can give you an honest review of their performance.

Humidification and flattening equipment

**Problem:** Paper objects often suffer from distortion, such as cockling, creasing, or curling, which can compromise the integrity and appearance of the item. Correcting these distortions will require controlled humidification processes and flattening techniques to avoid causing further damage.

**Solution:** Your paper conservator might need a humidification chamber or system that allows for precise control of humidity levels. This could be a simple setup using a sealed container with damp blotting paper or a more advanced system, such as an ultrasonic humidifier with a humidity controller. Don’t forget that this chamber or system will also require some associated space!

Check out some examples in this article on “Practical Considerations for Humidifying and Flattening Paper” by Stephanie Watkins, Head of Paper Conservation at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, University of Texas at Austin.

Tissue, adhesives, and repair Tools

**Problem:** Tears, losses, and other structural issues in paper objects will require careful repair to prevent further damage and ensure the object’s long-term stability. This often involves the use of Japanese tissue, adhesives, and specialized tools to carry out these delicate tasks.

**Solution:** A paper conservator should have a wide range of Japanese tissue, which is known for its long fibers, strength, and flexibility, making it ideal for paper repair. They might also require a number of dyes for color-matching papers. A variety of adhesives, such as wheat starch paste, methyl cellulose, or conservation-grade PVA (like Jade), should also be on hand, depending on the specific requirements of the object being treated. Tools like fine-tipped tweezers, awls, needles, bone folders, and a variety of micro-spatulas and scalpels can be invaluable for working with precision.

Remember that you don’t need to stick to just conservation-related shops. Many conservators love to browse through medical tool sites (for spatulas and picks) or even kitchen-related stores for tools they might adapt for the lab. Check out this Instagram account that often shows several paper conservator tips, tricks and little adapted tools.

Protective enclosures and storage solutions

**Problem:** Proper storage and handling are essential for the long-term preservation of works on paper. Good storage solutions will protect paper from several key environmental factors, such as light, humidity, and pests.

**Solution:** A paper conservator should have access to a variety of protective enclosures, such as acid-free folders, boxes, and polyester sleeves, to ensure the safe storage and handling of paper objects. Additionally, materials like acid-free tissue, archival-quality blotting paper, and interleaving sheets can help protect delicate surfaces and prevent damage from handling.

Make sure you talk to your staff and know when it’s cheaper to buy enclosures vs. making them yourself. You can also consider teaching volunteers and other staff how to make enclosures to reduce the workload on your paper conservators if necessary. If you need ideas for storage solutions, check out the Folders, Envelopes, and Enclosures on STASH (Storage Techniques for Art, Science and History).

Ensure that you have an ample supply of tools and materials at your disposal for creating your own solutions. When doing so, consider prioritizing sustainability and creativity over merely seeking the lowest price. Additionally, be mindful of minimizing fabrication waste and adopting eco-friendly practices throughout the process.

Final thoughts around paper conservator success

As a decision maker in your organization, you know it’s important to care not just for the collections, but also for the people. The stresses of everyday museum/library/archive life can get to us all, so we all appreciate knowing that our managers are interested in making sure we are happy and we have the tools and resources we need to do our jobs. By understanding the challenges of your paper conservators (and other staff too!) and keeping conversations open, you are more likely to use your budget wisely and build a positive work environment for all.

If you have any questions about environmental monitoring, integrated pest management, or just want to talk about preventative conservation, please reach out to us! Don’t forget to check out our blog or join our community of collections care professionals where you can discuss hot topics, connect with other conservators or even take a course to get familiar with the Conserv platform.

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