University of Iowa's Conservation Lab celebrates 30 years of saving books

Lab has treated over 7,500 items from the 2008 flood

University of Iowa Conservator Giselle Simon repairs a pamphlet in the UI Conservation Lab. (Tom Jorgensen)
University of Iowa Conservator Giselle Simon repairs a pamphlet in the UI Conservation Lab. (Tom Jorgensen)

With tools like an ultrasonic welder and a book freeze dryer, the University of Iowa Conservation Lab helped Iowa museums and libraries come back from the 2008 Cedar River flood.

The lab, on the fifth floor of the UI Main Library, has treated over 7,500 items, 100 boxes of manuscripts and 11,000 single sheets from places like the Johnson County Historical Society, the Czech and Slovak Museum and the African American Museum of Iowa.

The flood restoration work was just one of the latest undertakings for the lab, which is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.

The preservation center has come a long way in that time.

A few years ago, for example, the extent of the flood recovery work would not have possible. The sonic welder, book freeze dryer and other equipment including a fume hood for jobs like treating mold, a vacuum suction table for tasks like removing adhesives and a sink to wash and de-acidify materials are all fairly new.

The book freeze dryer allows wet books to be dried quickly to prevent lasting water damage.

“We used to have to dry books by air drying — turning the pages every day and letting them passively dry. It took an intense amount of labor,” said Preservationist Librarian Nancy Kraft. “It used to take two weeks of our time. Now it’s a few minutes to go down and see how they’re doing.”

The ultrasonic welder uses sound waves to seal archival plastic to safely house delicate materials.

“I’ve been really pleased with the support we’ve had from the library to add these things,” Kraft said.

The Conservation Lab treats approximately 2000 items a year, including books, manuscripts, maps and other collection materials.

Working closely with the UI Center for the Book, the lab also provides bookbinding, papermaking and printing students a chance to study conservation treatment and bookbinding styles from throughout history.

Kraft said as flood recovery winds down, the lab is turning to advances in digital preservation and preserving film and audio files, a completely different type of work.

“I think we finally have turned the corner from being super focused on recovery from the flood,” Kraft said. “We’re now able to start thinking about other things, and it’s fun.”

One of those other things the lab’s staff are thinking about are ways to engage with the public, which Kraft said is part of a growing movement among libraries and preservationists — to not just store items, but to make them accessible.

Enter the lab’s 30th anniversary celebrations, which include an exhibit on display at the Main Library through the beginning of June and a Thursday event with music and a presentation by author Erin Hart. Hart will share how the discovery of the ninth century “Fadden More Psalter” in an Irish bog inspired her latest novel.

“She talks about how books were made back in the 9th century and talks about how monks and scribes would copy books and write in the marginalia,” Kraft said. “I thought, what a great connection between that book and what we do here. I thought it would be a great way to bring people into the library.”

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If you go

•What: “Expanding Conservation Treatment: 30 years of Collections Care at the University of Iowa Libraries” exhibit

Where: Special Collections, third floor, University of Iowa Main Library, Iowa City

When: Through first week of June

•What: “An Evening of Irish Music and Mystery” with author Erin Hart and musician Paddy O’Brien, followed by tours of the Conservation Lab

•When: 7 p.m., Thursday

Where: Shambaugh Auditorium, University of Iowa Main Library, Iowa City

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