Thursday, December 16, 2010

Neon Orange Baptism

I'm sorry, faithful readers, for having abandoned you during the last month and a half. Alas, I became very busy, and in doing so, I became happy. And my track record of writing while actually enjoying my life is pretty bad. However, I am now prepared to fill you in on all the exciting details.

In November, the New York Public Library conservation lab finally put me to work in a serious way. I spent two and a half weeks in the collections care lab, repairing case-bound reference books. Case-bound books are like the standard hardback books you buy in any mega-store today: pulp boards, cloth or paper covers, and a hollow spine. Over time, the cloth often tears on either side of the spine, or the text falls out of the cover, or both. I fixed seventeen books with these types of problems.

Grace and I examine the posters glued into the magic scrapbook. Photo by Sarah Reidell.

Next, I started a fantastic project with Grace Owen, the conservator for the NYPL Library for the Performing Arts. Together, we are conserving 84 magic posters and three window cards that were glued into a scrapbook from the American Society of Magicians. The scrapbook paper has become incredibly brittle, and the spine of the scrapbook is missing, which means that the folded posters are often the only thing holding the scrapbook pages together. With every turn of the pages, the posters tear and lose more of their vulnerable edges. (For more information on the scrapbook, see my blog posting here.)

Cleaning the surface of a Houdini poster. Photo by Denise Stockman.

Because the scrapbook structure has been so damaging, we have decided to conserve the posters without re-binding them. This has involved thoroughly documenting them and their condition issues, choosing a less-damaged set of posters for our initial treatment batch, surface cleaning them with latex sponges, testing the solubility of their inks, and bathing them (as the inks allow) in pH-conditioned deionized water. The cleaned posters are then lined with long-fibered, medium-weight mulberry paper and wheat starch paste to give them support and mend their tears and losses. If necessary, filled areas of loss are toned to minimize the appearance of damage.

Grace with the unfolded, three-sheet Germain poster before its bath.

This week, I received my baptism as a "real" book and paper conservator when I submerged five conjoined posters in a bath of warm water and saw clouds of neon orange ink puff from the stack of wet paper. One of the posters I had tested, which had shown no sensitivity to any of our potential bathing solutions, was in fact highly soluble. And, of course, it was one of the largest posters in the whole scrapbook: about 6 feet, 4 inches long and 3 feet wide, made of three large sheets of chromolithographed paper seamed together with adhesive, and folded into eighths to be glued into the scrapbook. It was also torn and mended in multiple places, with complex and interlocking folds. Now Grace and I had to stop it from bleeding, separate it from the other posters that were glued to the pages around it, and unfold it—all while it was soaking wet. Ever tried to perform complex maneuvers with a wet paper bag?

Grace rescuing the separated sheets of the Germain poster.

Actually, I was quite proud of our efforts. I did not panic. I helped Grace as she added cold water to the warm bath to slow down the ink loss, detached the posters surrounding our bleeding wizard (a Chautauqua-circuit gentleman by the name of Germain), and air-lifted the victim to a light table covered with blotters for triage. Together, we managed to unfold the poster and to separate it into its three constituent sheets. We also used cotton swabs to mop up the adhesive residue, which the solubilized ink had begun to turn a hot pink color. All of this before I had a chance to eat breakfast. We were finally able to stop for lunch at 1 p.m.

The aftermath: rescued posters soaking quietly, the Sunkist-soda-colored Germain bathwater.

And now I, too, have the horror story required for every paper conservator: "I remember the time I put an object in the bath and the color started to float off the surface..." I feel like part of an august and learned society. I'm gratified to know that I can keep a good head on my shoulders when things start to fall apart. I'm also pleased to know that, even with the ink loss, Germain the Wizard is better off now than he was before: bound to highly acidic paper, carelessly folded, mended with lined notebook paper, and slowly turning to confetti.

I don't know why the ink ran when my tests said it shouldn't. We'll be doing more testing before we line the poster. Perhaps the adhesive joining the sheets, or the poster's faded and light-damaged areas, were more sensitive to moisture. We'll try to find out, since lining generally involves dampening the posters again and aligning their lost pieces on a light table before applying the backing paper—something like putting together a large, soggy jigsaw puzzle. Together, Grace and I will work magic on Germain.

Aligning a wet poster for lining on the light table. Photo by Jonah Volk.

Today, I had a moment of epiphany as I massaged the two halves of a torn, wet poster into alignment. This bizarre work—this tedious, labor-intensive, delicate work—is something I'm tremendously happy to do. As odd as it sounds, I was born to put damaged paper objects back together. I will make the illegible legible, the moldy clean, the torn whole. I will take that floppy, broken-backed, dog-eared, water-damaged volume and make it readable again. I'm a book and paper conservator. I rescue knowledge. I keep ideas alive.


  1. Thanks for saving these important mementos of past magicians like !!!!

  2. Wonderful blog post. Glad to read about the process-amazing work

  3. Thank you so much for the pic of that Houdini poster. I just made a entry on my Houdini blog lamenting that I'd never seen that poster in color, and someone directed me here. Wow! It's as beautiful as I imagined. Thank you for your work on the restoration of that and all these beautiful magic posters.

  4. Thank you for your work restoring these posters: I'm looking forward to the day you've completed this important job and hope to see the results of your restoration work soon! :-)