Preserving the Past

7/20/2020 Bonnie Parr

35 years ago, administrators of what was then known as the Illinois State Historical Library recognized that the library's extraordinary collections were at risk of deterioration and irreplaceable loss due to the fragility of the historical materials and imperfect storage conditions.  Fresh out of library school (I earned a master's degree in library and information science at the University of Illinois Graduate School for Library and Information Sciences, as it was then known), I was tasked with setting up an in-house facility to provide conservation treatments for paper-based materials in the library's collections, as well as to establish a department to address issues relating to the long-term preservation of the collections.  In one end of a large storage room in the basement of the Old State Capitol, surrounded by cement block walls and HVAC pipes, I was given a large table and a desk (but no chair) to begin the work.

Today, the Conservation Laboratory is a 1550 square-foot light-infused space located on the third floor of the magnificent building housing the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.  The facility is fully equipped to do the work of a variety of conservation treatments – with work benches, oversize sinks, book presses, a board shear, an ultrasonic welder for encapsulation, a microscope, a fume hood, plenty of storage for supplies, and several large tables.  (And, yes, I have a chair for my desk). 

Here, conservation staff – currently:  Ginny Lee (Library Associate), me (Historical Documents Conservator), six regular volunteers, and the occasional intern – work to stabilize and preserve historical documents and books in the ALPLM's collections.  We do a lot of surface cleaning, removing tape, repairs, deacidification (a treatment to neutralize acidic elements in old paper), encapsulation, rebinding, making boxes, matting, and a whole host of other conservation treatments.  We also assist in preparing artifacts for exhibits at the museum.  On average, we do over 2700 treatments per year for the ALPLM collections.

Working with the ALPLM engineers, I monitor the storage environment, making sure temperature and humidity are controlled within acceptable ranges.  In collection storage areas, the building's climate control system is maintaining cool temperatures (65 degrees F +/- 2 degrees) and controlled humidity conditions (45% +/- 3%) to provide the best possible environment for long-term preservation of historical artifacts.  The ALPLM uses wireless dataloggers to continuously record conditions in these areas.

As part of the library's preservation program, I provide advice and information resources for issues relating to the preservation of historical materials.  The information is available not only for the use of the ALPLM staff, but also for interested organizations and the general public.  Occasionally, I have given talks and workshops to colleagues, local history societies, and other groups about conservation treatments, how to care for family history materials, and other preservation-related topics.

I am a member of the American Institute for Conservation and the Guild of Book Workers – both wonderful sources of conservation information and continuing education, as well as vital networks of colleagues with whom I can "talk shop".  The conservation field is not static – new knowledge, methods, and materials are continually being discovered and developed.

It's been an honor to work on historical artifacts in the Library's collections and to work with dedicated ALPLM staff in preserving Illinois history (always a personal interest of mine) and the story of Lincoln's life and legacy.  I've been blessed with a job that offers plenty of variety, allows me to incorporate my artistic side with history and science, and gives great satisfaction in the work of conservation to stabilize historical materials – all in the service of preserving our cultural heritage.

Bonnie Parr

ALPLM Conservator

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