350 Years of Preservation Problems
Today’s post comes from Fales Processing Archivist Colin Wells. Colin recently moved to Switzerland to work for the United Nations Archives, but left us with this overview of preservation issues in the collection.
Sylvester Manor is the home of the original European settlers on Shelter Island in eastern Long Island, New York, created in 1652 with the arrival of Nathaniel and Grissell Sylvester. For over 350 years and continuing to this day, the Manor has remained with descendants of the original Sylvesters, and the Sylvester Manor Archive contains documents dating from its European settlement to the late-20th century. The earliest documents provide evidence of an operational northern provisioning plantation involved in the Atlantic trade of the 17th century, while later portions of the collection document the lives of several notable descendents including Ezra L’Hommedieu, an attorney and politician from the American Revolutionary Era, Samuel Smith Gardiner, an attorney from a prominent family of eastern Long Island, and Eben Norton Horsford, a scientist at the forefront of the development of American food science and chemistry and a successful entrepreneur.
Prior to their shipment to NYU, the collection materials were generally stored in the Sylvester Manor’s basement, which alternately provided very humid and very dry conditions and subjected the materials to flooding, insect and mold issues, and even the indirect impacts of a fire. These environmental conditions have exhibited themselves throughout the collection in terms of significant preservation issues. Instead of a monolithic or small number of common concerns, however, the collection displays a spectrum of preservation concerns, each distinctly related to the age of the document or materials and some common problems associated with each era.
Generally speaking, the Sylvester Manor materials fall into four time periods, and each period has its own prominent issues. The earliest materials relate to the Sylvester and related families, and date from roughly 1650-1750. Most of the materials are paper, and though the paper is relatively strong and non-acidic, issues around dirt, wear, losses along creases, and earlier attempts at repair are common. Conservation treatments with these items have generally involved cleaning and strengthening along those creases and material losses that are determined to impact on overall stability and handling.
The next group of materials is those of the L’Hommedieu family, dating from about 1750 to 1811. These items were commonly stored in the traditional tri-fold method of the era, and the temperature and moisture conditions made much of the paper stiff and difficult to open and keep flat. In addition, most of the documents were written with iron gall ink. Iron gall ink damage in this portion of the collection includes relatively minor coloration transfer from one page to the next, to moderate haloing and discoloration, to complete “burn through” and material loss. When particularly large areas suffering from iron gall ink damage exist along creases, the damage can threaten the overall integrity and stability of the page. Treatment here has involved various flattening procedures, and extensive interleaving to minimize transfer and further damage from the iron gall ink.
The third group of materials, Gardiner family documents, dates from roughly 1825-1850. These materials exhibit many of the same problems with tri-fold storage and iron gall ink that the L’Hommedieu materials do, but we also begin to see a reduction in some of the paper quality, particularly with later papers and paper used for the numerous receipts and notes that were kept by Samuel Gardiner. Treatments for this group are largely the same as the L’Hommedieu materials.
The final group to have notable preservation issues in the Horsford family materials, the bulk of which span from 1830 to 1890. The preservation problems here are compounded by the fact that we move from largely document based collections to one of more diverse materials, including significantly greater numbers of printed items, visual materials, and photographs. Paper materials here exhibit much fewer issues with iron gall ink, but instead there are issues with brittle and acidic papers, combined with tightly rolled storage and the use of a range of metal clips and fasteners. There has also been a high incidence of mold, and there are a large number of newspapers and clipping in the collection, which bear their usual preservation issues. Photographs have also presented some problems, with glass plate negatives and slides, tintypes, nitrate negatives, curled prints, and fused negatives all present. Treatment with this group has been much more varied, and includes humidification and flattening, treatment of mold and other dirt and soot problems, and a number of custom housing solutions.
The Sylvester Manor Archive has provided a number of hurdles because of the preservation state of much of its content. Both direct and indirect assistance from the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation and Conservation Department has been critical in allowing the collection to be intellectually processed and physically preserved for research use.