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Conservation Lab Preserves the Past for the Future

Keeping physical material in good condition falls to a team of five full-time conservators

Columbia University

Columbia University faculty are constantly publishing new books adding the latest scholarship to their respective fields. But deep in the basement of Butler Library, a group of dedicated conservators are engaged in the very different, but equally important task of preserving the oldest books, along with many other artifacts of our cultural heritage.

From ancient Chinese tablets to Egyptian papyri, musical scores to medieval missals and architectural drawings, Columbia Libraries’ Conservation Lab takes care of thousands of physical holdings. These objects are only a fraction of the 12 million volumes and 160,000 journals in the collections of Columbia Libraries, but they play an important role in teaching and learning around the university. Keeping this physical material in good condition falls to a team of five full-time conservators, who collaborate with interdisciplinary teams of experts around the university.

“Conservation exists at the intersection of art and science,” said Alexis Hagadorn, (BC’89, SLS’93) who has run the lab in Butler since 1997, after a stint at rare book conservation labs at Trinity College Dublin and Yale. “A main part of our work has to do with preventive conservation”—taking care to prevent damage when an object is exposed to temperature, humidity and light.

Columbia’s conservators specialize in the preservation of books, manuscripts, documents, watercolors and printed artworks. Repairs include washing paper to improve its condition and rebinding manuscripts by hand. When an unusual piece comes in for treatment from one of the Libraries’ special collections— say, a large Thai shadow puppet made of rawhide and bamboo from the Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s Brander Matthews theater collection—Hagadorn and her colleagues often will bring in outside conservators.

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“We have information that can help visiting scholars or faculty with their research,” said Hagadorn. “Occasionally we contribute to scientific research.”

One example is the ongoing work on the history of ink production in ancient Egypt with Professor James Yardley at the Ancient Ink Lab in the Center for Integrated Science and Engineering. The team is using false-color infrared imaging to distinguish between different inks.

The method involves taking pictures of an object under normal studio lighting conditions, then digitally manipulating the images to produce false-color infrared. Writing inks from late antiquity through the Middle Ages typically appear brownish-black in normal light but show up as different colors under false-color infrared. By applying this technique to the Libraries’ ancient papyri, the team hopes to contribute to what is known about the development of writing technology in the ancient world.

Over the summer, students learning about ancient handwriting in the Making and Knowing Project, a history workshop led by Seth Low Professor of History Pamela Smith, visited the Butler lab to see how ink in a 16th century French manuscript would have been made. As part of the demonstration, students wrote with quill pens using ink produced according to a contemporaneous craftsman’s recipe.

When Susan Boynton, chair of the music department, needed high-resolution images of a 13th century Latin hymnal for her musicology students, she turned to the Preservation and Digital Conversion Division. Vasare Rastonis, the Mellon Conservator for Special Collections, determined that the 800-year-old binding should be repaired first. So she disbound the missal to prepare it for specialists, who took high-resolution images of each page, and then rebound it with chemically stable new materials that won’t damage the manuscript leaves.

Rastonis just completed an unusual project for the C. V. Starr East Asian Library, working with one of the library’s prized possessions: a book created on 10 jade slabs and engraved with Chinese characters, dating from the mid- 1600s to the early 1900s. She created a stiff board binding for the book out of gold silk brocade, allowing it to be displayed safely for easy scholarly access.

With the shift toward digitization of library collections, Hagadorn views the conservator’s role as more crucial than ever, in part because digital copies of Columbia’s texts can be distributed easily. “Some in the field worried initially that this would mean a lack of interest in physical books, but what we’re seeing instead is that the actual historic objects become more important,” she said. “Conservators are key, both in preserving the object and also in helping to interpret and understand the physical materials present.”