By YVONNE FRENCH
"Conservation work usually focuses on preserving our link to the past, but in this case it is our link to the future that we want to preserve," said Senior Rare Book Conservator Terry Boone, whose conservation specialty is understanding the way materials age.
As part of the commemoration of the Library's Bicentennial, a collection of artifacts that capture the texture of life in 2000 at the Library of Congress will be preserved and secured in a time capsule to be retrieved and opened on April 24, 2100, the tricentennial of the Library.
"It is our intention to collect artifacts from the staff that will provide a reflection of the work, the language, activities, preoccupations and milestones of our daily lives and, for those who open it, a glimpse of our life and times," said Elizabeth Wulkan, Bicentennial Time Capsule Committee co-chair.
The contents of the time capsule fall into four general areas:
- "Celebrating the Day," which includes items from the April 24 Bicentennial celebration, such as the Bicentennial commemorative coins, commemorative stamp, the Library of Congress flag, a piece of copper from the dome of the Thomas Jefferson Building and posters;
- "Daily Life," which includes tools of daily work such as a staff identification card, a wallet card stating the Library's mission and values, reference questions from each reading room, as well as commuting necessities, including a map of the Metrorail system, fare schedule and fare card;.
- "Ways and Means," which includes a comprehensive two-volume set of Library of Congress forms compiled by the Records Management Unit, including a carpool permit and application, a vacancy announcement and current collective bargaining unit agreements; and
- "Library Lifestyles," which includes seeds or blossoms from the American dogwood trees on the grounds of the Capitol, an exhibition catalog and newsletters including this publication and the final 1999 copy of the staff newsletter, the Gazette.
Said Mike Handy, Bicentennial Time Capsule Committee co-chair "The capsule will provide future librarians with a glimpse into the character of our staff. It will include an official copy of the complete list of suggestions from which the final contents for the time capsule were selected."
Ms. Boone observed that when the committee narrowed the list of what would go into the capsule, members had to look at the medium — the material upon which things are transcribed. For example, machine-readable media such as a CD or computer disk or videotape were, for the most part, eliminated because playback equipment probably will not be available in 2100.
"We have to make sure it is still going to be decipherable without additional equipment, and we cannot guarantee that the media will survive, so we're brought back around the loop to paper, photographs and books." said Ms. Boone.
However, a two-CD ROM set, "Catalogers Desktop" will be enclosed in the time capsule. This raises a panoply of conservation issues. In the sealed environment of the capsule, the off-gassing caused by degradation of the plastic CD or the low-grade plastic ID and wallet cards could cause the Bicentennial commemorative coins to pit or corrode the copper from the Jefferson building roof.
Therefore, the conservator will create a capsule within the capsule by placing the CD, ID badge, wallet card and other objects that may compromise the environment into a plastic and foil envelope to shield other objects from the harmful effects of any gases they may emit through the years. The coins, too, will be wrapped in antitarnish cloth and placed in a foil and plastic bag as extra insurance.
For those paper items not created with an alkaline buffer, another level of conservation protection will be achieved through deacidification with a nonaqueous spray that neutralizes acid in paper and leaves an alkaline reserve, thereby prolonging the life of a book up to 300 percent, as proven in tests conducted by the Conservation Division's Research and Testing Laboratory.
Said Preservation Director Mark Roosa, "The capsule by its very nature is also an encapsulation of state-of-the-art conservation methods."
Aside from what will go into the capsule, Ms. Boone also studied which type of container and sealing methods would survive for a minimum of 100 years. The 16-by-28-inch capsule will be placed into a safety vault in the Librarian's Ceremonial Office in the Thomas Jefferson Building.
In the past, many time capsules were placed underground, in cornerstones or in the walls of buildings. Often, they were made of copper panels soldered together with a silver-lead compound and a lid welded on with a blowtorch. The solder broke down and moisture and atmospheric pollutants seeped in, harming the contents.
The specifications developed by Ms. Boone include a seamless stainless-steel container with a lid that screws on with an o-ring gasket to achieve an airtight seal. "We chose not to weld it shut because it can heat the capsule's contents," she said. A final seal of silicon or wax will be applied and the container will be engraved with identification markings and opening instructions.
Before sealing and interment, the conservator, with the help of Architect of the Capitol staff, will displace the oxygen — which causes things to deteriorate — in the container with an inert gas such as argon or nitrogen, the same system used to preserve the nation's founding documents.
Silent in its vault as the century waxes and wanes, the capsule, called "Reminding the Future," will leave it to future librarians and conservators to determine just how old fashioned or newfangled we were at the Library's Bicentennial.
Ms. French is a public affairs specialist in the Public Affairs Office.