Thursday, March 17, 2011

Our visit to the ICU for sick paper

One of the perks of my job, apart from working daily in the NEMA salt mines alongside BJ, Heather, and Leslie, is the privilege of getting out occasionally to visit interesting museums and places associated with museums. Such a visit occurred yesterday, when Bill Veillette, director of the Northeast Document Conservation Center, hosted BJ and me in high style with a tour of his remarkable facility.

For those of you unfamiliar with NEDCC, I can sum up their primary mission in one breath: they are the Mayo Clinic for injured paper. A rare book with a broken binding, an antique map resembling Swiss cheese, historic documents suffering from rodent nibbles or water damage – all find their way to the doctors of NEDCC for rehabilitation.

On our tour, Bill explained how his hospital of 20,000 square feet is broken down into various wards: an area for works on paper, a much smaller area for book repair (since books require less space than the sometimes Brobdingnagian maps they conserve), a digitization studio, and, of course, offices.

As we toured these areas, we encountered workers at their craft. One gentleman intently scraped layers from a sheet of wizened black paper with what appeared to be a large scalpel. A woman stitched a piece of tawny leather by way of preparing a timeworn book for a new cover. They did not look up when we passed, but neither, we imagine, would a surgeon.

I was struck by the tools of their trade, how old-world they appeared. Industrial-age presses made of painted iron clamped between their jaws sheets of precious paper. The bookbinder’s vice would have been at home in the shop of an artisan of the Middle Ages. Everywhere were scattered assorted brushes, needles, weights, magnifiers, calipers, grippers, and plenty more gizmos of which I had no clue.

But beside these relics were some astonishingly clever tools that are at the forefront of the conservation practice. Bill showed us a vacuum table that can literally pull stains off the face of a historic manuscript. An apparatus resembling a tanning bed will bleach the mold off a drawing in a fraction of the time it would take to do the same job with natural sunlight. And NEDCC’s digitization studio features technology that would make Steve Jobs blush, including gazillion-megapixel cameras and a photo platform that allows absolutely precise reproduction of oversize works such as architectural drawings and maps. All cool stuff.

The juxtaposition of old tools and new, low-tech and high, was fascinating. It goes without saying that our ability to care for historic property today is far better than 50 years ago, simply because of advances in technology and method. But, as advanced as the procedures may be, there’s still a place for the simple hand tools of ancient artisans. I bet for many NEDCC employees, this is why it’s a great place to work.

As we said our thanks and goodbyes to Bill, it dawned on me that the juxtaposition of old and new is probably why, also, many museum professionals across the board like their work. Whether we’re involved with art, history, or otherwise, our principal occupation is often making a collection accessible to audiences with contemporary sensitivities. Sometimes this takes the razzle-dazzle of the latest technology. But, importantly, there is still a lot of room for old-fashioned scholarship and visitor service. The WOW! factor lies at the intersection.



  1. I have been fortunate to serve on the NEDCC's Advisory Committee over the course of the last year or so. In this capacity, I have learned a tremendous amount about paper conservation and different types of replication. It's a bit like learning a foreign language!

    The work done at NEDCC is fascinating -- and it's easy to get mesmerized watching the staff at work conserving paper objects. I've also had the chance to talk with many of the staff, and their passion is contagious! So many of the staff have patiently answered my questions and shown me how they do the work they do. I'm so glad you had a chance to visit the NEDCC. I know I'm a bit biased, but it truly is a remarkable organization.

  2. I have been a client of NEDCC and now serve as vice-chair of their Advisory Committee. Your medical analogies are apt--it IS amazing what an expert can do! Here are three of NEDCC's recent success stories. They are worth a look:
    ** rehab for a medieval scroll (
    ** TLC for Woodie Guthrie materials (
    ** "exploratory surgery" on circus posters (