By DONNA URSCHEL
Rep. Donald Manzullo (R-Ill.) brought a newspaper photo clip of himself and his wife at the funeral of Ronald Reagan. A congressional guest brought an old photo of Jack and Bobby Kennedy. But mostly the House members brought their enthusiastic curiosity to the Library’s first-ever Preservation Night for Congress.
On July 29, 19 members of Congress, many of whom belong to the Library of Congress Caucus, and their 40 guests learned the latest preservation techniques used by the Library to preserve its priceless collections. They also picked up some tips on how to preserve their family treasures-a photo, newspaper clip, document, book or letter- which they were invited to bring for consultation with a conservator.
Hosted by Librarian of Congress James H. Billington, the evening included a tour of the newest science laboratory, where they saw how specialized technology can reveal information invisible to the unaided eye. They also had the opportunity to view some top treasures.
In his welcoming remarks, Billington said, “the Congress, by creating and supporting the Library of Congress, has done more to acquire, preserve and make accessible the mint record of American creativity than any institution in history … Tonight you will learn how Congress, through its Library, protects the nation’s and the world’s cultural and historical legacy.”
Festivities started in the Madison Hall, where everyone dined on a picnic-style buffet dinner. The Preservation Directorate set up four consultation booths with displays about preservation of photographs, papers, books and audiovisual items. At each booth, a conservator was stationed to answer questions and dispense advice. In addition, two slide presentations viewed on large plasma screens offered a virtual tour of the preservation labs and an explanation of the I.R.E.N.E. project, which captures and preserves recorded sound from old records and other mechanical carriers by using digital imaging techniques.
The consultation booths—operated by Andrew Robb, AnnLinn Kruger, Lynn Kidder and Emma Lincoln—were continuously busy. Kruger, stationed at the paper conservation booth, said several members were interested in learning why inks fade and wanted help in finding stable inks to preserve signatures on important documents. The Library handed out archival storage boxes, sleeves and a wide range of housing materials.
During the second part of the evening, members of Congress and their guests departed on a tour of the science and conservation laboratories to see firsthand how specialists can preserve a wide variety of collections in different media.
First stop was the Optical Properties Laboratory, where they gasped in awe over the preservation techniques of hyperspectral imaging, which were explained to them by Fenella France, a scientist in the Preservation, Research and Testing Division (PRTD). They were able to peer beneath the darkened varnish preservative on the original L’Enfant 1791 Map of Washington, D.C., to see previously invisible streets, and the locations of the “President’s House” and “Congress’ House.”
They also saw how hyperspectral imaging revealed fingerprints on Lincoln’s original Gettysburg Address (perhaps those of Lincoln himself), a thumb print on the front and three fingerprints on the back.
Jennifer Wade, a scientist in PRTD, demonstrated the Environmental Scanning Electron Microscope, which magnifies items 20,000 times. The microscope identifies elements present, information that assists conservators in choosing treatments.
Next stop was the chemistry laboratory, where Ken Harris explained the mass-deacidification project, a chemical process that neutralizes acidity in paper, thereby extending the life of a book or manuscript by 300 to 1,000 years.
In the Conservation Division, Heather Wanser, Sylvia Albro and Andrew Robb showed the congressmen and women how conservation experts repair and care for such items as a damaged Chinese scroll map of the world; Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address; two daguerreotypes, the first-known photographic images of Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln; and General George Patton’s personal photograph album from World War II.
Robb showed the custom box that the Conservation Division staff made for the Lincoln Inaugural Bible of 1861 so it could be safely carried to and used during the inauguration of President Obama. Also on display was the original Gettysburg Address.
Members of Congress and their guests also were able to view the earliest draft of the Emancipation Proclamation.
Diane Vogt-O’Connor, the chief of the Conservation Division, said “This lively summer evening event allowed us to meet 19 members of Congress and their guests, and led to discussions of what we do, how we do it, and why it is important. I hope we have been able to demonstrate the value of our collections, our staff and the need for good, quality preservation techniques and storage facilities.”
Donna Urschel is a public affairs specialist in the Library’s Public Affairs Office.