Collaboration & Conservation: Archivists Tackle Tri-Folded Documents and Iron Gall Ink
This blog post will detail the experience of two graduate students in the NYU Archives and Public History program who worked on pre-processing the Sylvester Manor Papers in the Conservation Laboratory in the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation & Conservation Department. The Sylvester Manor Papers were processed by Project Archivist Colin Wells at Fales Library & Special Collections in 2009; an earlier blog post by Colin about this project can be found here. As explained in Colin’s post, a large part of the Sylvester Manor papers were stored in the basement of the manor house in Shelter Island in eastern Long Island, New York. Being in such an unstable environment created numerous preservation issues, such as high levels of humidity and exposure to rodents and insects. Furthermore, these environmental conditions exacerbated the corrosion of the iron gall ink used on the documents. The documents arrived at The Fales Library and Special Collections in tightly tri-folded bundles that had been subdivided into packets. Through a collaborative effort on the part of Colin and the Conservation Librarian, Laura McCann, it was determined that the collection would need extensive conservation attention before it could be fully processed and used by researchers. Under the supervision of Laura, we worked carefully to stabilize and unfold over 1,500 of these documents to allow for easier user access and to prevent any subsequent damage the collection would have received if left in its folded state. Although we both had some limited prior experience working on conservation projects, we received more extensive training on the flattening and mending process involved in conserving the historic documents and the various types of paper and iron gall ink directly relevant to the project.
The tightly bundled sheets were unfolded using a 1:1 solution of ethanol and deionized water applied with a soft brush to the folds to relax the fibers of the paper. We cleaned the documents using a soft brush and an extruded rubber sponge to remove frass (bug excrement) and grime. The sheets were then flattened between blotters under light weight. Due to age and/or previous attempts at opening the tri-folded documents, there were many tears and areas of loss. Any tears or areas vulnerable to further handling damage were mended using a 5 gram Klucel-G remoistenable tissue, which was reactivated with a 1:1 solution of ethanol and deionized water. Furthermore, the acidity of the iron gall ink caused severe burn through of many documents, at times completely perforating the paper and creating a lacy effect. This created a potential handling problem for archivists and researchers using the collection. We were able to reinforce these areas of loss with 5 gram Klucel-G remoistenable tissue or by inserting the document into a polyester sleeve.
Iron gall, the predominant ink present on these tri-folded documents, was used from roughly the 12th to the 20th century. Iron gall ink is composed of a tannin (usually extracted from galls), vitriol (iron sulfate), a liquid (such as water), and some type of gum base to allow for a smoother and more binding application. Iron gall ink was extremely popular due to its inexpensive ingredients, the ease of usability, and its stability in light, yet it can become corrosive and damaging over time. The level or rate at which iron gall ink decays depends on the ingredients used to make the ink and the environmental conditions in which it was stored, among other reasons. Consequently, each tri-folded document in the Sylvester Manor papers received an individual iron gall ink data assessment. This data documented numerous details about the adherence of the ink to the paper, ink color, intensity, application, penetration, burn through, surface appearance (such as if the ink has “feathered” through the fibers of the paper), physical attributes, the level of discoloration around the ink (often creating a “halo” appearance), and transfer of discoloration due to acidic ink migration. This data was taken for each individual historic document, was further assessed collectively by each packet (which often contained many individual documents), and finally was compiled into a Microsoft Access database. The difficulties involved in identifying iron gall ink, the prevalence of this ink on a multitude of historic documents (and consequently an important issue for archivists), and the desire to discover ways to arrest the corroding effects without further damage have led to continuing studies in the field. We hope our assessment will be useful for further research by conservators treating historic documents with iron gall ink.
Colin’s awareness of the preservation concerns affecting the Sylvester Manor papers led to the pre-processing activities in the Conservation Laboratory. The tri-folded documents were at risk of being severely damaged during processing in their original folded manner. Due to the anticipated high use of this collection (as determined by the Project Archivist), it was clear that the documents needed to be in a more accessible format (as accomplished by the Conservator). This collaborative effort ultimately led to a better-preserved collection that is more easily accessed by the general public. The importance of preservation education for archival students became even more evident through this project, as the conservation work helped preserve the historic documents for future users. This project also emphasized the need to acknowledge preservation concerns during the accessioning process, and the subsequent need for an institution to be aware of their ability to address these concerns. As two graduate students in an archives program involved in a hands-on conservation project, we can attest to the importance of this type of collaborative work among conservators and archivists.
Nicole Milano received her Master’s degree in History from the University of Florida and is a candidate for an Advanced Certificate in Archives from the Archives and Public History program at NYU. She has been a Graduate Assistant in the Conservation Laboratory in the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation Department working on the Sylvester Manor project since September 2009.
Sarah Hodge is a Master’s degree candidate in the Archives & Public History program at NYU, and has been a Graduate Assistant in the Conservation Laboratory in the Barbara Goldsmith Preservation Department working on the Sylvester Manor project since January 2010.