Scientific Research, Archiving Tools, and Nicholas Cage: An Interview with the Library of Congress’s Preservation Program

By Marlena Cravens

We’re always looking for new ways to push our instruments, so don’t feel restricted by the stereotypical uses of the equipment we have. We would much rather be presented with an interesting and challenging research question that let’s us get creative in adapting our technology to answer it.

The Preservation Research and Testing Division (PRTD) is a part of the Library of Congress and it is tasked with the work of undertaking research to advance the Library’s preservation and conservation efforts. This division works closely with the Conservation Division in the Library of Congress (in fact, they are neighbors!) and it establishes the standards and techniques used to preserve and store library materials ranging from paper, parchment, and amate books and codices all the way to photographs, CDs, records, and wax cylinders. I sat down with two members of the PRTD—Amanda Satorius and Meghan Wilson—to learn more about their work and training (and what is—and isn’t—realistic about the National Treasure film series).

Their training runs the gamut from art history to chemistry and the physical sciences, and they have worked with everything you can imagine. Curious about what language Thomas Jefferson used in his original drafts of the Declaration of Independence? The PRTD was able to uncover his scratched out writing. Curious about the sections of Alexander Hamilton’s (love) letters that his son censored before donating them? The PRTD has the answers. Wondering how accurate the 2007 movie National Treasure: Book of Secrets was, especially when it came to Ben Gates (aka Nicolas Cage) using spectral imaging and infrared to uncover a cipher hidden on the page of John Wilkes Booth’s diary? The lab members of the PRTD will tell you it is unrealistic.

  • Tell us a little bit about your background. How did you make your way to your current position with the PRTD?

Meghan: My background is in fine art. I had no idea this technology existed or what preservation science was.  The closest inkling I had was a vague familiarity with art conservation but I had focused more on the art history and curatorial side of things with my degree. During an internship at the Walter’s Art Museum I was introduced to multispectral imaging of a Syriac Galen palimpsest and was just amazed at the capabilities this technology could unlock for cultural heritage objects. The manager of that project put me in touch with the Preservation Research and Testing Division at the Library of Congress where I interned over the summer and was eventually hired on as staff. I know my background is a little unconventional for my position but there’s a few of us in the division that don’t have a strictly science background and I think the different viewpoints really bring together an enriching collaboration between staff.

Amanda: My background is Chemistry, Art history, and Conservation practice (or, applied preservation science). I gained an interest in the field of Conservation back in high school after coming across the field during a research project. After I completed that project, I was very excited to try and make my way into the field, so I tailored my education goals to get there, starting with degrees in Chemistry and Art History in undergrad in order to get into a Conservation grad program. After graduating, I applied for all the positions I could find in the field of Conservation, along with the position as a Preservation Science Specialist here in PRTD that I came across on USA Jobs. Even though my master’s degree is in applied conservation treatments, my chemistry background opened up the possibility to get into the scientific research side of things as well. After interviewing for a few different positions, I managed to get the job here. I also agree with Meghan, that it is great to have people from such different backgrounds collaborating bringing new perspectives to a project.

  • What is your area/specialization with the PRTD?

Meghan: I specialize in multispectral imaging (MSI). MSI is a non-invasive technique that captures information at specific wavelengths along the electromagnetic spectrum, including those beyond the visible light range. We image in ultraviolet, visible, and infrared to characterize of inks, colorants, substrates, treatments, assess environmental factors, and recover obscured or deteriorated content information.  

Amanda: I specialize mainly in the use of portable non-invasive instrument analysis to identify collection and reference materials, focusing on research relating to paper degradation/condition studies and pigment creation/identification/degradation studies. 

  • Describe one project that you worked on that you found striking or interesting. What was the outcome of the project?

Meghan: A project that has always stuck with me was a study on the degradation of modern inks used in the Library’s Herblock Collection. Herblock was a political cartoonist and upon his death, his body of work was donated to the Library with the bequest that some part of the collection always be on display for the public. He used an array of different materials in his cartoons like porous point pens, conte crayon, ink, white out, tape, stickers, etc. This was profound to me because as expected he used the materials that suited his needs as I had when I was in art school. Artists aren’t taught about preservation best practices and rarely think about the longevity of their work. It wasn’t until my senior thesis that I thought, “Oh, maybe I should splurge on the acid free tape. Hmm.”. While you would think that priority should be given to preserving the older collection items, in actuality, many of those materials are quite stable – they’ve already been around for hundreds of years. It’s the modern materials we use that change so rapidly in format and composition that tend to be more at risk.

Amanda: One of the analytical requests I worked on shortly after I started working in PRTD with the Conservation Division was simply to identify whether an arsenic based pigment was present on a collection item in order to determine a safe storage and handling procedure for the item in the reading room. After being able to identify that the pigment was indeed arsenic based, it really brought to mind how there are so many unidentified hazardous materials that can be found on collection items. Working at a Library where our materials have to be accessible for public use, as compared to a museum where they are on display behind glass, provides an additional consideration and challenge for our preservation staff.

  • What are the most important tools for the work that you do? Tell us a little bit about them and what kind of information they can collect.

Meghan: What’s great about our instruments is that we focus on non-invasive technologies. There’s no damage, no sampling, and rarely even any contact with the object whatsoever. We’ve made it a point to acquire instruments that are complementary to one another and have worked on building a systematic workflow that starts with multispectral imaging as a baseline mapping of the entire object which then indicates where our point source analyses should focus to characterize the organic and non-organic components of the object. One of our primary jobs in our analytical projects is to understand the materiality of the collection item. Analyzing the substrate, inks, pigments, binders, prior treatments, stains, current degradation, etc. allows us insight to how the object was made, used, and how best to ensure it’s preserved for generations to come. 

I would also argue that one of the most important “tools” is the collaboration with conservators, curators, and scholars. It’s in combination with their historical and contextual knowledge that we can truly provide a deeper understandings of our collections.

Amanda: Meghan provides a very thorough answer to this question. I will only add that the non-invasive techniques we use provide qualitative information, meaning information about whether something is present or not, not information about how much is there. This information comes in various formats as well based off technique used, with each technique providing complimentary, but different information.  Generally, we can tell what material(s) is/are present, along with more detailed information about chemical compounds or elements we are seeing to help provide additional/clarifying information. This information can then be provided to conservators, curators, and scholars, who can provide the contextual knowledge that provides meaning to our findings.

  • Are there portable tools that can be taken into the archive? What are they and what do they do?

Meghan: You could bring a small thin light panel, like a CeeLite, to place beneath a page and identify watermarks for provenance research. There are small microscopes that plug into your laptop or even clip onto your phone’s camera that can provide some structural detail of the object that may indicate how it was made, e.g. any scoring or ruling marks, how the inks and pigments were layered. But remember to always ask the reading room attendant for permission before using these tools.

Amanda: Meghan has stated the most useful tools that can increase the amount of information that can be gained through the materiality of a collection item. I will just reiterate that it is very important to ask first before trying to use these materials in an archive/research setting. Doing a little research to understand how handheld portable tools should be used and what the pros and cons are is key to their successful use. Even though you might not realize it, some light sources can accelerate damage to a collection object when used or used improperly, eg. lights that might produce heat, or tools that emit specific wavelengths of light that can cause fading, like UV light. Knowing the specs of the tools and what those specs mean is extremely important to prevent any unnecessary damage to a collection item. Please do not knowingly/unknowingly become a Mr. Bean in the reading room!

  • If a predoctoral student, a postdoc, faculty member, or institution wanted to work with the PRTD, what advice would you give for designing a study?

Meghan: We’re always looking for new ways to push our instruments, so don’t feel restricted by the stereotypical uses of the equipment we have. We would much rather be presented with an interesting and challenging research question that let’s us get creative in adapting our technology to answer it.

Amanda: I think it is also a good idea to have a very clear and concise research question. Some challenges I have faced as a scientist and researcher is allowing a research question to get too big and try to encompass too much information. This makes it challenging to design a study that can be completed in a specified amount of time or even try and focus on what techniques will provide the desired answers to the numerous questions that arise along the way. However, narrowing it down slightly, and staying focused can make a study run much more smoothly and allow us to provide thorough answers in the desired time frame. It is also important to remember that just because we have certain analytical techniques that you might want to try, this doesn’t mean those techniques will answer your question. Coming in with an open mind can allow us to get you the best answers we are able to provide.

  • Bonus opinion question: What is the most egregious part of the 2004 movieNational Treasure and Nicolas Cage stealing the Declaration of Independence?

Meghan: If my answer can’t be every single second of it, then it’s a tie between the following: First, when they’re doing imaging of the document [in the 2007 movie National Treasure: Book of Secrets], [they] drop the oh so scientific word “infrared”, and then the final processed image pops up in just two seconds after the press of a button. Second, when he picks up the anoxic encasement as if it only weighs 10 pounds and uses it as a bulletproof shield.

  • I followed up with Meghan: How much does the anoxic encasement that Nick Cage is holding weigh?

One that size is probably around 100-200 pounds or so. Two people could carefully pick it up and move it around, but a single person could not swing it around freely like he does in the movie. And it’s not bulletproof glass. 😛 The really big ones we have over in Jefferson for the Buell and Waldseemuller maps are thousands of pounds.

Amanda: Please do not put lemon juice on any document or use a hair dryer! Even though in theory what they did could have worked (but with pure chemicals and controllable heat application), those materials in particular should never be used on a historically important document. Lemon juice is not only an acidic liquid that can damage a material if used improperly, but it is also fruit juice that contains sugars among other things, that can cause a whole host of other problems. Also, a hair dryer is an uncontrollable heat source that you cannot control beyond the minimum settings of hi/low/cool… That in and of itself is just a bad idea to try and use on a rare document that is likely very sensitive to changes in heat.

Never apply lemon juice or heat to archival materials! Link to the lemon juice scene here.

Image credits: ©Touchstone Pictures/Courtesy E

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