By: Corinne Zaczek Bermon
Recently, graduate students in “Archival Methods and Practices,” a history course taught by professor Marilyn Morgan, entered the exciting world of conservation and preservation at the New England Document Conservation Center (NEDCC). Located in Andover, MA, the NEDCC, the premier center for conservation, provides treatment for rare books, oversized maps, photographs, historic documents, scrapbooks, illuminated manuscripts, audio recordings, movings images, and other rarer formats. Working with archival repositories, museums, and individuals, NEDCC aims to preserve records in their original format. They save tangible pieces of history.
Upon our arrival, Julie Martin, Marketing and Public Relations Manager, and Eva Grizzard, Preservation Specialist, provided a warm and informative introduction to the NEDCC and led us to the impressive main work laboratory. The vast room held several enormous tables at which conservators painstakingly attended to various projects.
While the conservators concentrated on their work, Michael Lee, the Director of Paper and Photograph Conservation, discussed the processes involved in paper conservation and explained the vital importance that advanced knowledge of chemistry and manual dexterity play in conservation work. He expertly described one process that used water baths to refresh the cellulose of delicate paper advertisements.
Mary Patrick Bogan, Director of Book Conservation, displayed books, scrapbooks, and illuminated manuscripts in various states of deterioration. She described some treatments in book conservation including stabilizing the bindings, boards, and spines of books.
As she highlighted the difference between conservation and restoration, she explained that, as a conservationist, her primary goal entailed preserving the books to prevent further damage.
Amanda Maloney, Associate Photograph and Paper Conservator, discussed the conservation of megalethoscope prints, a rare style of photography invented by Carlo Ponti between 1861 and 1862. Megalethoscopes used special translucent albumen photographs that were colored, pierced, and backlit from an internal source to create dramatic effects. Maloney demonstrated how she preserved the albumen prints and their support structures.
In NEDCC’s digital imaging area, Terrance D’Ambrosio, Director of Imaging Services, and David Joyall, Senior Photographer, demonstrated the significance of digital photography in preserving oversized items. Using stationary overhead digital cameras enabled them to photograph pieces of extensive works, such as the wall-sized historic map below. They then virtually stitched together the digital images to recreate a readable map online.
Lastly, Julie Martin introduced a fascinating machine: IRENE (Image, Reconstruct, Erase Noise, Etc.) that operates within NEDCC’s audio preservation center. Physicist Carl Haber won the MacArthur Genius Award for inventing this process in which cameras photograph the grooves in fragile or decayed sound recordings. Then, using software that knits those digital images together, the IRENE creates an unblemished image file and reconstructs the sound recording by converting the images into an audio file.
Haber’s IRENE is revolutionizing audio preservation. Sound recordings on older formats, such as wax cylinders or lacquer discs, are too delicate to be played back with traditional equipment. Without the non-invasion method of preservation that IRENE provides, unique voices, such as Alexander Graham Bell, and early obscure recordings of artists, like Woody Guthrie, would be lost forever. You can read more about NEDCC’s work with IRENE on their blog or listen to some digitized recordings NPR.
Our archives class walked away from the NEDCC fascinated by the different facets of preservation work and intrigued by the use of modern science to preserve our history.