Climate Change Blog Post 2: Sustainability in light of disaster

In light of this year’s conference theme, Practical Philosophy or Making Conservation Work, the Sustainability Committee would like to highlight how something as intangible as climate change directly affects the practical side of conservation.
This is 2 of 3 in the series of blog posts that explores this relationship. In this one we offer a case study of how climate change affected one institution.

Climate change may seem like an esoteric topic to the average conservator until it hits close to home. In the summer of 2012, parts of the American Midwest experienced drought conditions. Extreme heat, coupled with severe cold the previous winter, led to pavement shifting and subsequent water main breaks. In fact, in the greater Kansas City area, dozens of water main breaks occurred daily at the peak of the summer of 2012.
On August 1, 2012, Lawrence, Kansas, experienced near record high heat. That morning, when staff entered the Murphy Art and Architecture Library at the University of Kansas (KU), located below grade on the first floor of the university art museum, water was rushing in from the ceiling. The art museum was situated halfway down a steep hill, and a water main break in the road above led to water entering the building and traveling down to the library. The force of the water inundated the 14,000 square foot space, covering the floor with many inches of water in short time, and drenching the library stacks with water on the way down.
Ceiling tiles and wet floor after a water main break in the University of Kansas art library. Courtesy University of Kansas Libraries.

Ceiling tiles and dirty water remain after the water from the ceiling stopped. Image: University of Kansas Libraries

Luckily, the University of Kansas Libraries had a disaster plan in place and quickly came up with a recovery plan. Nearly one-hundred volunteers helped remove wet books from the space on the day of the disaster and package them for transport from the library. The combined staff contribution was 279 work hours on the day of the disaster, and subsequent work on further days added many additional hours of staff labor.
Boxing wet books for removal to an off-site drying facility. Courtesy University of Kansas Libraries.

Books packed in boxes for removal to the disaster recovery company. Image: University of Kansas Libraries

The Collections Emergency Response Team worked with university leaders to contract with a disaster recovery company that vacuum-freeze-dried over 17,000 volumes. While better than 97% of the volumes were recovered, thanks to significant planning and training before the event, the toll on the conservation lab was still significant. In fact, between the disaster in August and the following February, the staff in the Stannard Conservation Laboratory focused almost entirely on treatment of materials recovered from the disaster. All but the most urgent outside treatment requests were put on hold.
Industrial dehumidification equipment.

Industrial dehumidification equipment used to dry out the space. Image: University of Kansas Libraries

The damage to the library building was extensive, and the library was closed for over a month. Because the space had to be rebuilt from the ground up, 26,000 volumes not affected by the water main break still had to be moved from the space. Drywall was cut up to 24 inches from the floor to prevent mold growth, so books on wall-mounted shelves had to be removed. Likewise, soggy carpet had to be discarded, requiring that books on bottom shelves in freestanding shelving ranges be relocated. Staff volunteered 212 hours of their time to help place these books on trucks, and hired contractors moved them to a location across campus. Although in an ideal world the collections would not have been returned to a basement-grade location, space restrictions necessitated reusing the existing library.
Rebuilding compact shelving after a disaster. Courtesy University of Kansas Libraries.

Rebuilding compact shelving from scratch. Image: University of Kansas Libraries

In this one, but fairly typical, example, the resources that went into recovering the collections and library space were extensive: nearly five hundred hours of staff time were diverted from other projects to remove books from the space and six months of conservation staff time were focused almost exclusively on recovery of collections. Perhaps the most challenging aspect of this experience is that extreme heat and cold may occur in future years and such a disaster could possibly be repeated. Certainly there are extensive references available to aid us in preparing for a likely disaster, but do we have adequate training to respond to the often very large events that result from climate change? Are we prepared to reserve the resources—financial, personnel, supplies—that such disaster may take? How can we sustain our collections without taxing limited resources?
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41st Annual Meeting, Book and Paper Session, Archives Conservation Discussion Group (ACDG), May 31, “Is it real?: The value and ethics of using surrogates,” co-chairs Cher Schneider and Tonia Grafakos

Encapsulating an hour-and-a-half discussion into a blog post isn’t easy, but fortunately the speakers in the Book and Paper Group’s Archives Conservation Discussion Group, “Is it real?: The value and ethics of using surrogates,” riffed on a few common themes, namely: When is it appropriate to use surrogates in place of original materials? and What are some ethical considerations to take into account when doing so? While the discussion rarely focused on archives, as might be expected given the normal focus of the ACDG, the presentations nicely encompassed a wide range of book and paper scenarios.
The panel of speakers provided a wealth of experiences with and uses for surrogates including replacing originals (in total or in part) and utilizing copies in exhibits and in interactions with private collectors.
Jeanne Drewes (Chief, Binding and Collections Care Division  and Program Manager, Mass Deacidification, Library of Congress) presented “Replace, repair, remove or remake: Decision making for severely damaged items in general collections.” Drewes noted that because the Library of Congress (LC) is the library of record and often the “library of last resort” it is imperative that the general collections remain in usable condition. When Drewes came to LC she created workflows (provided as a handout) to guide decision making to more actively approach damaged or fragile materials, as opposed to just boxing and deferring treatment. Fragile items are assessed for physical condition, copyright restrictions, and replaceability. Whenever possible LC retains a physical copy. Options include creating an entire facsimile, replacing part of an item and/or retaining original colored plates or cloth cover with a facsimile copy of the textblock, providing a digital surrogate, withdrawing if multiple copies of an item are available, or going to extraordinary lengths to find a replacement. Drewes clearly explained how the use of surrogates plays a role in providing long-term access to mechanically sound general collections materials.
In his theoretical take on the question of surrogates, titled “DIORAMA,” Gary Frost (Conservator Emeritus, University of Iowa), discussed the interplay of originals and copies in exhibits, and the conceptual space–or “third thing”–between the two. Museums have always reinterpreted items, be it in diorama, a cabinet of curiosities, or a born-digital exhibit. Frost noted that until the turn of the 20th century exhibits rich in artifacts were the norm; since then there has been an increasing “pervasive displacement of physical artifacts.” Frost argued that in museum and library exhibits, no falsification is intended by composite displays of originals and copies; exhibits induce a suspension of disbelief. He referenced two books that may be of interest: Matthew Kirschenbaum’s Mechanisms: New Media and the Forensic Imagination and Orhan Pamuk’s The Innocence of Objects.
Jane Klinger (Chief Conservator, United States Holocaust Memorial Museum) noted her museum’s strong commitment to authenticity. In order to remember victims, honor Holocaust survivors, and respond to Holocaust deniers, USHMM determined to display only original artifacts. Small nods could be made to preserving light-sensitive materials if a like item could be found to replace like or one copy to replace a second copy. The chronological nature of the Museum exhibits creates challenges for substituting items for each other; similar items must be the same size, format, and content. Occasionally USHMM has chosen to display surrogates and has opted to use artist-made facsimiles to achieve a similar look and feel to the original. In one example, two letters that belonged to another museum were reproduced by an artist using period typewriter, paper, and artist-made stamps. In another situation, an artist-made facsimile of a child’s watercolor owned by another museum stands in for the original. Where the presence of a copy might serve as fodder for Holocaust deniers to question the authenticity of historical events, USHMM has been careful to clearly label as a surrogate both the exhibit text and the item itself—and provide access to the original on a case-by-case basis. Based on the questions posed by the audience at the end of the session, the use of artist-made facsimiles may be a new idea to many.
Valerie Hotchkiss (Andrew S. G. Turyn Endowed Professor and Director of The Rare Book & Manuscript Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) provided a counterpoint to earlier discussion in “From physical artifacts to copies to super surrogates: The use (and abuse) of surrogates in special collections.” Hotchkiss noted that while there is a distinct place for surrogates, it’s generally not in exhibition cases. She pointed to the “thrill of the original”: students and faculty come to the rare book library to see the original, and we should not fool the public into thinking they are seeing something they are not. Hotchkiss provided the “Clooney Law of Exhibitions” that was so compelling that it was also quoted as a case in point by one debater during Saturday’s Great Debate, namely that seeing George Clooney in a film is not at all the same as sharing wine him in person. Much the same can be said of seeing a surrogate in place of an original. Hotchkiss promoted the use of facsimiles, however, when they augment the original, such as in a text panel with additional images of a book on display or in a digital display to flip through an entire book. Online exhibits are different in that everyone understands that they are not viewing the original. Newer “e-rare books” or “super-surrogates” contain value-added materials such as translations, transcriptions, and text introductions and can reach broader (and often younger) audiences.
Marieka Kaye (Exhibits Conservator, Huntington Library) presented a case study on the use of surrogates in interactive exhibits. The Huntington Library recently mounted an exhibit of anatomical books with moving flaps and parts. In order to provide the viewer the experience of handling and interacting with the books, full-size surrogates were printed, with parts laminated and sewn with clear elastic cord to open and close properly. Many copies were created as the surrogates wore out over the course of the exhibit. While digital exhibits—especially those allowing people to page through a digital copy of a book—are interactive, having physical copies of the books available allows visitors to come as close as possible to experiencing the books as they were intended to be enjoyed.
Meg Brown (Exhibits Librarian and Special Collections Conservator, Duke University Libraries) will soon become a full-time exhibits librarian. She provided many points to consider when using surrogates in exhibits. The first is that sometimes the curator may not need or want the original in an exhibit, and advised us to consider that “sometimes it is easy to say no to the original–but you have to ask!” In some cases, the “original” in our institutions is already a surrogate, such as a photocopy of a photocopy. In such situations, displaying a surrogate may seem less troubling. There are situations in which making a copy might allow the exhibit staff to enhance visibility or understanding of the item, such as in scanning, printing, and assembling a sheet of paper puppets that are decidedly one-dimensional in original form. Others situations in which surrogates may be warranted include when the original is too large to fit in an exhibition case, when the item is too valuable, too controversial, or brittle, or when the exhibit conditions are not safe to display originals. Brown has successfully used an item light-damaged after a few months on display in a sub-par space to lobby for improved exhibitions conditions in her institution. She urged the audience to share with one another examples of exhibition damage to help us all make positive changes.
“Conservation conversations: Surrogate creation and the private collector” was the topic of Anne Kearney’s presentation. Before becoming Collections Conservator at the University at Albany, the State University of New York, she worked for many years in private practice. She encouraged the audience to remember that collectors are also professionals who have collected for a reason. They may desire surrogates for display, research, and safety. They may not want to handle or display the real thing, but worry about the expense involved in creating a surrogate. Kearney encouraged us to consider user-centered business models and closely observe, listen to, and interact with collectors. Their goals and concerns can add knowledge to what we as conservators bring to the table. Kearney helpfully provided a handout with additional resources, both electronic and paper-based.
Questions from the audience and responses from the panel included a discussion of the lack of standard terminology for what constitutes a facsimile; how to describe or note the use of facsimiles in exhibit labels and text panels; how to ensure that facsimiles on “loan” to other institutions are clearly delineated as such in exhibit labels; and how to draw attention to the use of facsimiles in order to inform the public about conservation issues such as light damage.
The Archives Collections Discussion Group presenters were well chosen, focusing on varying aspects of the surrogate question. The panelists agreed that the use of surrogates should always be openly and honestly disclosed, and that surrogates do indeed, in some situations, play a role in exhibitions, repair, and private work.