This article is based on the "Condition Survey Report" of the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection by Daniel De Simone, curator of the Rosenwald Collection, Rare Book and Special Collections Division; and Beatriz Haspo, Getty Fellow in Preventive Conservation, Conservation Division; it was published in 2002.
In an effort that was the first of its kind for the Library of Congress, the Rare Book and Special Collections Division (RBSCD) and the Conservation Division (CD) collaborated on a new form of comprehensive computerized inventory program, database development and conservation survey of the Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection. The project, which began in August 2000 and was completed in September 2002, also evaluated the usefulness of handheld computer technology for future projects proposed for the Library of Congress and for other institutions making similar conservation and inventory studies.
"One of the most important aspects of the program," said Daniel De Simone, curator of the Rosenwald Collection, "was the collaborative effort undertaken by Rare Book and Conservation. The legacy of this project will have enormous impact for both divisions as we begin to formulate programs to ensure that the Rosenwald Collection and other special collections in the Library meet the goals of access and preservation as outlined in the mission statement of the Library of Congress."
The Rosenwald Collection is considered the premier collection of its kind in the United States. Lessing J. Rosenwald, chairman of Sears Roebuck Company from 1932 to 1939, formed the collection over a period of nearly 40 years. He gave the collection to the Library of Congress in a series of gifts, beginning in 1943, with the final installment coming after the collector's death in 1979. It consists of 2,653 titles documenting the history of book illustration and bookbinding over six centuries.
According to De Simone, the Rosenwald Collection has some excellent examples of medieval and Renaissance illuminated manuscripts, a large collection of 15th-century block books, and some of the finest illustrated books printed before 1500. The collection of early printed woodcut books is its major strength, he said. This group includes the finest examples of the art as executed by German, Italian, French and Dutch artists from the late 1460s to 1550.
The collection is also rich in 17th-century illustrated science books and architecture; 18th-century French illustrated books, many with original drawings; the finest collection of illuminated books by William Blake outside Great Britain; 19th-century books illustrated with lithographs; and 20th-century livres d'artistes, which are illustrated with images by Braque, Picasso, Rouault and many other major European artists from the period. The focus of the collection is Western Europe, with emphasis on imprints from Germany, Italy, France, Spain, Great Britain and the Low Countries. A catalog of the Rosenwald Collection was printed in 1954, with an enlarged edition issued in 1977.
During his lifetime, Rosenwald prided himself on making his valuable book collection available to the public. For example, at his estate in Jenkintown, Pa., called Alverthorpe, Rosenwald displayed his books for scholars, students and school children of all ages. He insisted that his books be used to further understanding of the relationship between the artist, the book and the printing technologies that fostered artistic advancement.
Rosenwald also allowed many of the books from his William Blake collection to be reproduced in facsimile editions by the Blake Trust. This act of largesse has influenced the work of untold numbers of scholars, students and researchers and was instrumental in the rebirth of Blake studies in the 1970s and 1980s, De Simone said. In addition to working with the Blake Trust, Rosenwald had facsimile editions made for many of his rarest titles, especially those books from his collection that were known in only a single copy.
Because of the significance of the Rosenwald Collection, it is in constant use by scholars, researchers and students interested in examining the books or reproducing images from the books for use in their own research, De Simone noted.
"One result of this high demand," said De Simone, "is the risk that the books in the collection could be damaged by such frequent use. For this reason, we decided to conduct a comprehensive condition survey to determine how best to meet the challenges posed by the dual responsibility of maintaining access to the books while ensuring their preservation for future generations."
In order to accomplish an inventory of the collection and prepare notes on the condition of the books, the Rare Book and Conservation divisions worked together to create a survey that would record the physical condition of each volume. Beatriz Haspo, a fellow of the Lampadia/Vitae Foundation, Brazil, and a Getty Fellow in Preventive Conservation working in the Conservation Division, was selected to examine the condition of the books with De Simone and record the results.
"The goal was to use the survey to create a baseline report that would identify existing damage, make short-term and long-term recommendations for conservation, and determine how best to avoid future damage to the collection," said Haspo.
"A secondary goal was to use the condition survey to establish guidelines for staff and researchers who handle the books. In the long term, how the books in the Rosenwald Collection are handled will determine their future condition," she added.
At the same time that the Rosenwald Survey was being formulated in the Fall of 2000, Jeanne Drewes of Michigan State University and Andrew Robb of the Library's Conservation Office presented a joint paper at a meeting of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC), describing the use of the Palm Pilot in conservation projects. After their demonstration, De Simone and Haspo decided that the small physical size of the Palm Pilot and its large memory capacity made it a most appropriate tool to record survey results while working in the narrow book stacks of the Library's vaults. Instead of a condition report handwritten on individual sheets that would need to be compiled and transferred to a computer, the database program in the Palm Pilot would record and organize information that could later be downloaded to a more sophisticated database program for sorting and manipulation.
Haspo and the technical staff in the Conservation Division undertook a test of the versatility and capacity of Palm Pilot technology.
"The challenge was to create a database survey that would provide a clear picture of the condition, conservation requirements and curatorial observation for each book in the Rosenwald Collection," Haspo said. "The survey had to be detailed yet simple to conduct, and we had to formulate a series of questions to achieve these two requirements."
In designing the survey layout, De Simone and Haspo were limited to the number of questions they could include, because the Palm Pilot software allowed for only 25 data fields to work efficiently. The primary curatorial concerns were shelf location, the identification of bibliographical characteristics of each book, and the determination of whether handling guidelines should be imposed on a specific book. Conservation questions focused on condition, recommendations for repair, preservation and handling guidelines.
"The information I wanted to capture for each item from the curatorial point of view," said De Simone, "included the shelf location, the date a book was examined, whether a book was printed or in manuscript, and whether it was illuminated, rubricated or contained original drawings."
Other fields of curatorial interest recorded typographical information, whether a binding was historically significant or had unique characteristics, and information about illustrations such as woodcuts, engravings, aquatints or lithographs. The team also devised a data field to record whether a book contained a significant example of the illustration process.
The conservation database requirements included fields that recorded information reflecting the current condition of the housing of book, the binding, text block, paper and the condition of the painted illuminations and rubrications. Haspo also needed data fields for recording recommendations for repairs to bindings, text block and paper, as well as specific treatment recommendations that could include rebacking, rebinding, new housing, interleaving, board attachment, paper repair, or consolidation of manuscript illuminations and refurbishing. The database also had fields to record recommendations for special handling requirements and opening limitations for books with tight or fragile bindings.
The final field in the database was a comment field where "keywords" could be recorded. Keywords included other significant information about the individual books, such as the names of important printers, artists or binders; illustrative techniques, such as woodcut, engraving, aquatint or lithography; bindings styles, such as fanfare, regency, grolieresque; and the subjects or genre of the book illustrations. Keywords such as portrait, landscape, map, city view, costume, women, anatomy, calligraphy, fables or botanicals were used to capture the variety of illustrations found in the collection. The inclusion of a field for keywords was desirable, said De Simone, because it made it possible for the first time to organize information about the collection and provide a searching capability that had not been possible in the past.
The survey was configured using J-FILE software, which uses "pop-up lists" that significantly increase the amount of information that can be input during one screen touch. The J-FILE program also has the capacity to make all fields searchable, a characteristic that was extremely useful when the results of the survey were compiled. The software allows the user to modify the pop-up list while working in the database. Fields can be added or renamed as requirements change during the survey process. There is also an option to make multiple selections within fields, a feature that greatly expands record-keeping choices.
An important feature of the Palm Pilot, of course, is its small portable size, which was especially important when working in the narrow stack area where the Rosenwald Collection is shelved. The small size of its screen, however, places some limitations on the length of words used in the pop-up lists. To get around this limitation, De Simone and Haspo created code words and abbreviations. They replaced the code words with full descriptions at the end of the project when the survey database was converted into a more sophisticated database program.
After data was stored in the Palm Pilot, it could be transferred to desktop computers, laptops and other handheld computers through cables, infrared beaming, modems or by wireless communication. The daily transfer of data was an essential method of providing a backup to the Palm Pilot technology.
The primary source used during the survey to identify each of the books in the collection was "The Lessing J. Rosenwald Collection: A Catalogue of the Gift to the Library of Congress," (Washington, 1977.) The Rosenwald Number (R#), the first field in the survey, was the link to all bibliographical information used by the Library of Congress, including Library classification and control numbers.
The survey was numbered from 1 to 2653 to cover all of the books in the collection. De Simone and Haspo worked together to examine every book and record the results of their evaluation in the Palm Pilot. During the evaluation process, Haspo took photographs of many of the books in order to record both historical bindings and bindings in need of repair.
The interchange between De Simone, the curator, and Haspo, the conservator, ensured that the conservation needs of the collection were evaluated from both a bibliographical and a preservation perspective.
"Each time we examined a book together," said De Simone, "we exchanged observations about the object and its content. I provided historical and bibliographical context, and Beatriz provided the detailed analysis of the condition of the book and recommendations for its preservation. The exchange taught both of us to look at books with a more educated eye, and to handle them with a greater understanding about how they were made and how best to preserve them for the next generation. These are lessons that we will carry with us for the remainder of our careers."
The survey revealed that 2,176 titles of the 2,653 items in the collection, 82 percent, were in either excellent condition or in need only of minor treatment. Minor treatment would require less than five hours repair time by a conservator. Most of the damage found was to the leather cases which protected the books. But there was also some abrasion to the leather bindings and some tears to the paper stock. Many of the books with illuminated initials needed interleaving to protect the gold or fresco painting.
The team found that 15 percent of the collection, or 429 items, need major treatment. Major treatment is defined as books that need more than five hours of repair time and would include complex repairs to the bindings, book structure, paper or vellum. Major treatment also could include consolidation problems associated with damage to the paint or gold applied to illuminated initials.
"Given the high use that many of the books in the Rosenwald Collection have experienced over the years," said De Simone, "it was a surprise to us that so few needed major treatment. It is a testament to the care exercised by previous curators and Library staff when handling the books in the Rosenwald Collection."
A very small proportion of the collection, 48 books or 3 percent of the total, were identified as needing urgent care and also requiring major treatment. The books in this high priority category will be the first to be examined by the Conservation Division when a comprehensive preservation plan for the Rosenwald Collection is put in place.
The survey also revealed that 1,475 items, or more than half of the books in the collection, could be opened more than 90 degrees without placing stress on the binding. If no other specific damage is noted, these books can be served to readers with the standard level of care already established by RBSCD. Books in this category may be scanned or photographed using overhead cameras without difficulty or risk of danger to the items.
On the other hand, the team found that 925 titles, or 35 percent of the items, had restricted openings. In most of these cases, the bindings of the books are sewn very tightly, making it difficult to open the volume more than 90 degrees. When books in this category are requested by readers for scanning or photography, special handling and supports are required.
Ten percent of the collection (253 items) have been designated "restricted," because they are vulnerable to permanent damage if mishandled. They are not to be served to readers or sent for scanning or photography without curatorial instructions.
"The result of the survey," said De Simone, "is that we now have a great deal of information on the condition of the books, maps, drawings and manuscripts in the Rosenwald Collection that was not previously available. Now that the survey has been completed, the next phase of the program must begin—the implementation of recommendations to protect and preserve the collection." Two of these are the most pressing, according to De Simone.
The first is converting the raw survey information into a coherent, accessible database that reading room staff can refer to when books from the Rosenwald Collection are requested by readers. A knowledgeable reading room staff, informed about the existing condition of the books and the limits of their use, is the key factor in protecting the future of the collection. The ability of the staff to use the converted database to quickly check the condition report and handling guidelines will alert them to any problems a particular book may have and give them the confidence to discuss with readers how a book should be handled and supported.
Converting the database will also have a significant impact on how scholars use the Rosenwald Collection. By creating access to the keywords in the database, researchers will be able to search the collection more efficiently. This increased efficiency will translate into more accurate use of the collection and should reduce requests for items that are tangentially connected to the focus of research. A final advantage of the converted database is the ability to continuously update information and add bibliographical, historical and conservation information to the note field of a given item.
The second major priority is the establishment of short-term and long-term conservation projects focusing on the Rosenwald Collection. The full report of the condition survey contains numerous recommendations for both the conservation of the books in the collection and the preservation requirements that are necessary to maintain the collection.
Haspo said: "Converting the database is essential for the managers of the Conservation Division so that we can create a forecast for the next three to five years and begin the process of scheduling minor and major repairs to the collection."
The Rosenwald survey has proved productive for both the Conservation Division and the Rare Book and Special Collection Division, De Simone and Haspo agreed. With the completion of the survey, both divisions now have a template that can be used again to evaluate specific collections in the Rare Book Division and throughout the Library.
RBSCD alone has more than 100 named special collections, and an evaluation and treatment program could be established for any one of them. The division recently used the same model to survey the Francis Drake Collection, and the Law Library has used the survey database as a pilot program for the evaluation and treatment of one of its special collections.
The Conservation Division is currently using handheld technology for surveying collections in various divisions as well as for emergency preparedness and response activities.