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Conservation Policy

Selection and Disposition of Vault Materials for Conservation Treatment

Cornell University has five libraries responsible for the care of rare books and manuscripts: the Carl Kroch Library, the Law Library, the Mann Library of Agriculture and Life Sciences, the Industrial and Labor Relations Labor Documentation Center, and the Music Library. The Kroch Library, however, has by far the greatest number of rare and unique materials. All conservation work is centralized at the John M. Olin Library with additional paper conservation treatment carried out at the library annex at the paper conservation facility.

Typically, materials in need of conservation treatment are identified through five main sources:
From the shelf as a result of systematic survey, through acquisitions via gift or purchase, or through reader use, or through transfer.  Or, as identified for exhibition purposes.

  • Systematic Survey - Most surveys carried out on vault collections are comprehensive, in that every item within a particular area is examined and the need for conservation action noted. These surveys are not condition surveys, in that they identify materials for specific forms of treatment rather than by condition.  Book collections are surveyed by the Conservation Liaison, with the survey results tabulated to provide data to help with the drafting of grant proposals. Books are drawn from the collection for treatment in accordance with the rate at which the books can be treated and within the limits of the grant award. The Conservation Liaison selects books from the shelf in groups according to the type of treatment needed, and ensures that they are fully charged to Conservation and that the treatment documentation is created.  Non-book materials (i.e. paper documents, maps, art-on-paper, drawings, etc) have been more difficult to systematize in a similar way.  Some surveys were conducted as needed by the paper conservators with the assistance of interns and/or student assistants.
  • Acquisitions - The procedures in place for books require that items newly acquired be examined by Rare Books and Manuscripts (RMC) staff. If an item(s) is clearly in need of treatment before first-time shelving, it is brought to the attention of the Conservation Liaison who prepares the documentation and transfers it to the Conservation Lab.  If the item can be treated within a short time frame, it is treated and returned to the vault through the Conservation Liaison. If the treatment cannot be completed within a short time, the item is stabilized prior to shelving, and the item noted by the Conservation Liaison for future treatment.  The practice that has developed for non-book items, are more often driven either by necessity for upcoming exhibits, or through grants obtained by either RMC or the Conservation Unit.  Other non-book items which are not in need of complex conservation treatment may require more effective housing and/or stabilization and more minor repair. These are handled through the Conservation Liaison in the manner described in that section.
  • Identified Through Reader Use - When a reader requests a book or document for research, if it is found to be damaged or deteriorated, it is set aside for treatment after reader use. It is then brought to the attention of the Conservation Liaison who adds it to the database and ensures that the book is treated in a timely fashion. This category generally takes precedence over the other categories as it is generally considered that the best predictor of future use is immediate past use.
  • Identified Through Transfer to the Vault - Many of the items identified as appropriate for transfer to the safety of the vault are spotted by the Conservation Liaison in the Olin general stacks or are transferred by the Curator of Rare Books using a date/value formula. After verification of the transfer, the items are treated and shelved in the vault.
  • Identification for Exhibition - Materials in need of treatment which will be used for an upcoming exhibition, are referred for treatment though the Conservation Liaison, with a clear stated deadline for completion. It is preferable that materials selected for exhibition be shown at their best so that this treatment takes priority.

In general, the current practice for surveying, selecting, and treating books is working well.  Non-book materials are more difficult to organize because of the need for more specialized staff to conduct the surveys. However, it is important that non-book collections considered to be of current importance should be surveyed with a view to improving housing and general arrangement as well as selecting items for treatment. Non-book items are usually examined by our paper & photographic conservator, who would make recommendations on rehousing or stabilization.  The role of the Conservation Liaison would be to act as facilitator when the items are requested for treatment.

On a regular basis the paper and photograph conservator meets with the appropriate RMC person and review the materials in the decisive area. The conservator determines if, and what form of treatment, the materials would receive, and record the recommendations for each item. The Conservation Liaison then follows up and creates treatment records and/or a database entry for each item, and arranges a treatment schedule. If an item requires urgent treatment because of its condition or high level of use, it would be regarded as a priority item and treated accordingly.
This approach establishes a regular schedule and causes the conservator and curatorial staff to interact for the good of the material. The resulting dialogue ensures that issues relating to cost, value, and context, are a part of the decision-making process. Items can be examined in the context of a collection or common group, and perhaps lead to a project approach appropriate for grant funding.
Updated 11/13/12


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