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March 31, 2005

Making Pitt work: Library preservationists save books

Pitt’s senior administration grabs most of the headlines. The faculty here get noticed when they bring in research dollars, win teaching awards or publish in their fields.

But behind the scenes, University staff, some 6,500 strong across five campuses, often toil in jobs ranging from the mundane to the esoteric.

From mailroom workers to data entry specialists, from greenhouse managers to nutritionists, from costume designers to biosafety officers, from photographers to accountants, staff at Pitt perform tasks great and small, year-in and year-out, for the greater good of the University.

Like the proverbial purloined letter, some staff, such as secretaries, receptionists and maintenance workers, go unnoticed even though daily they plug away at their jobs in plain view.

“I often have referred to the dedicated members of the University’s staff as the ‘unsung heroes’ of the institution,” said Chancellor Mark Nordenberg. “Most often, they tackle their responsibilities with a sense of pride and with real loyalty to Pitt. Those qualities add richness and strength to the social fabric of our own community and also have an impact beyond our campus borders.”

This series profiles University staff, providing a glimpse of some of the less recognized employees whose primary business is making Pitt work.


Books, boxes, tags and more books. Jean Ann Croft, head of the preservation department in the University Library System, sorts, ever so gently, through two boxes of damaged books from Hillman Library. She has to decide which ones can be repaired and which ones ought to be seen by a bibliographer to determine how rare and important they are.

Ultimately, along with some other library experts, Croft will decide whether to repair the book, copy it or tuck it away safely as is. In any given year, more than 20,000 items — ranging from books to newspapers to general educational materials — will pass through her hands.

Armed with sharp tools, presses, boards, cloth and patience, Croft and her staff of four preservationists and a slew of work-study students provide a safe haven and a future for damaged goods.

Fridays are designated for review and shelf-it parties in the preservation department, which is housed at the University’s Point Breeze facility. Croft and her assistants assess the books sent to her office by Hillman and other libraries. “Can we rebind it or send it to a commercial binder? What if it’s too brittle?” are some of the questions that Croft considers.

For example, the cloth cover of “Du Lundi,” a monograph published in Paris in 1804, is faded red with buff and blue swirls and holds about 300 pages edged in gold. It seems elegantly worn and functional. Yet when Croft bends the corner of one of the yellowed pages, it cracks and breaks off easily. This book will move on to the preservation department’s brittle books program.

For “Du Lundi,” Croft will have to see how many copies are out there in the world, or rather, in library speak, determine if the book is scarcely held in libraries nationwide. Then a bibliographer (there are about 12 of them at Hillman with subject specialties) will render the final decision on what to do with “Du Lundi.”

“If the book is rare and not used a lot, but important to keep in the collection, we’ll send it to the library collections storage unit,” said Croft. That space is an environmentally controlled warehouse with about 35-foot tall shelves, accessible only by a specialized Bobcat high lift.

“If a book is falling apart, we might order a preservation microfilm or create a facsimile (a photocopy on acid-free paper). People don’t like microfilm but it does last for 500 years with proper storage.” If a book only is available on microfilm, patrons must view it with a microfilm machine.

Obviously, longevity is everything in preservation, even if it means storing the cache in a cave. Say, Croft learns that “Du Lundi” is scarcely held, has not been microfilmed by another institution and that it is important to create a circulation copy. An outside vendor will make several copies of the book. The print negative will be stored at the Point Breeze facility, another copy will go to a ULS library, but the archival master — the original microfilm — will be sent to the Iron Mountain National Underground Storage facility near Slippery Rock.

For Croft, not all books have such dramatic preservation stories. Some can be saved sooner rather than later. She takes out her Abbey pH pen — which looks like a typical Sharpie marker — and draws a line on a book page. If the ink turns yellow, the paper is acidic. If it turns purple, the paper is neutral or alkaline, and presumably stable.

Books identified as acidic, but not yet brittle, can be sent to Preservation Technologies in Cranberry. Using a patented process, the company can deacidify all the pages in a book. This process will save a lot of books, especially ones published internationally, according to Croft. Many books published since the Industrial Revolution contain wood pulp, which is acidic and ultimately breaks down. “I’ve got books from the 1500s with pages made from cotton and the paper is just fine. But I have ones from 1985 that are embrittled,” she said. Today, most American publishers print on acid-free paper, but unfortunately, some foreign publishers continue to produce their volumes with acidic paper, she added.

Generally the ravages of time and usage take a toll on books: Many need rebinding. The damaged book pile is eclectic. Piled on top of one another are stately-looking copies of “Women in World Religions,” “The Province of West New Jersey” and “A History of Islam in West Africa.” All look old and vary in a host of hues of brown and gold tones. Most have covers and spines decorated with ornate, raised designs and lettering.

The rebinding is done in the preservation workroom, which looks much like a carpenters shop with large presses, worktables, a 4-foot long paper cutter and, of course, book shelves. A preservationist can refurbish up to eight books with new spines and new covers daily.

Preservationists use a scalpel to cut the block of pages from the cover of the book. If there is acidic paper in the spine, they use a special iron and a damp cloth to steam off the acidic paper. They re-glue the pages to a newly constructed cover using all acid-free material, and then squeeze the book in a press for two to three days to allow the adhesive to dry.

When Croft and her assistants can’t cobble a rare book together sufficiently to get it back into circulation, they make cloth-covered boxes to hold the manuscript. The preservation department just finished creating what they call a “clamshell box” for the University archives to store the unpublished manuscript, “Physiology” by Jos. M. Quashnock, 1934. Most of the boxes are used for artifactual materials in the ULS Special Collections.

Next to the clamshell boxes, Croft has stacks of bundles wrapped in white paper, each appearing to hold six inches or so of newspapers. Actually, the packages were just readied for shipment to a private vendor to microfilm for the archives. The contents: ledger books from the Marshall Elevator Company. What could they be used for? “What I really like about my job is that we work across many interests, materials and collections,” she said. And for Croft and her crew, some days there aren’t answers, just books.

—Mary Ann Thomas

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