The Conservation Division has recently treated one of the most important documents in the Library's collections: George Washington's first inaugural address.
This six-page, double-sided document, written in Washington's own hand, is from the Washington Papers in the Manuscript Division. It is historically significant for many reasons, not the least of which that it is the first inaugural address given by the first president of a new republic.
According to Gerard Gawalt, early American history specialist in the Manuscript Division, it is believed to be the copy that Washington used when he delivered his inauguration speech in New York in 1789. It remained in Washington's possession until his death in 1799.
The address presented many conservation challenges, which prompted its proposal for treatment. The original cream color of the paper was yellowed, with mended tears and paper losses, all evidence of deterioration. Numerous repairs had darkened over time and obscured letters, and additional paper damage indicated earlier unsuccessful attempts to remove them.
In 1952, the already fragile condition of the address called for it to be "laminated" between layers of cellulose acetate film and sheer tissue paper. This was once a popular treatment that has fallen out of favor because it obscures the image and leaves the pages unnaturally stiff. Recent analysis of this film suggests that it may not be as chemically stable as once thought. In addition, there was concern about the chemical stability of the iron gall ink, which is acidic in nature and known to progressively damage the paper to which it is applied. Evidence of the acidity is ink "strike-through," a conservation term for writing that migrates into the paper and becomes visible on the reverse.
Each page of the manuscript was carefully studied and its condition recorded in a detailed written report that included photographic documentation. This documentation, the first step in all major treatments, becomes a permanent record of condition prior to treatment. At the same time, the conservator becomes thoroughly acquainted with the document by conducting all necessary tests to determine the most appropriate treatment.
Treatment started by dissolving the cellulose acetate film and removing the tissue paper. Each page was immersed in several solvent baths until the acetate film was thoroughly eliminated. Prior testing determined that the solvent would not harm or change the antique paper or ink.
After removal of the cellulose acetate film, it was possible to perform additional solubility tests on the iron gall ink to determine the feasibility of future treatments. Testing indicated that the ink was somewhat water sensitive, requiring that all further processes be modified, thus adding to the challenge of the treatment.
The next step was to remove each of the discolored repairs, many of which had been applied over Washington's writing. The old adhesive was softened with tiny applications of warm water until the old repair could be carefully lifted. This delicate process was conducted under a binocular microscope to make certain that none of the original writing or paper was disturbed.
Each page was carefully washed and deacidified in a magnesium bicarbonate solution, modified by substituting 65 percent of the water with ethanol. This procedure, designed to minimize the solubility of the iron gall ink, was recently developed in the Conservation Division, and tested thoroughly by the Research and Testing Division to verify its effectiveness. The treatment deposits an alkaline reserve in the paper to protect it from harmful acids, without disturbing the ink.
The many tears were mended with nearly invisible strips of Japanese tissue adhered with a wheat starch and methyl cellulose adhesive that is easily reversible. The losses were filled with multiple layers of Japanese tissue, or cellulose pulp powder worked into a paste with methyl cellulose adhesive. Each sheet was placed in a custom-designed protective housing of a nonreactive polyester film, fully supported by a sturdy acid-free mat to assure safe handling.
Now that it has been treated, the restored Washington's address will receive the careful attention given to all rare Library collection materials. Specifically, this item will be stored under stringent environmental controls and, when it is exhibited, light levels will be carefully controlled to limit the chance of photo oxidation, which accelerates the deterioration of paper.
This challenging project combined the expertise of a historian, a professional conservator and a team of scientists to provide the most appropriate and advanced techniques available. The conservation treatment not only improved the appearance of this valuable document, but preserved it chemically and physically.
Mark Roosa, director for Preservation, noted in reference to the treatment of the address that "the uniqueness of the Library's collections, its excellent staff and this type of integrated activity make the Library a worldwide leader in the conservation of cultural properties."