By MARK ROOSA and TOM ALBRO
The Library's state-of-the-art conservation lab has nearly completed preservation of an invaluable collection of 36 pocket-size diaries that belonged to George Washington.
The diaries cover the years 1748-1799 and contain a fascinating handwritten record of Washington's activities, including observations and memoranda on a variety of subjects, from the weather and agriculture to the Revolutionary War. The diaries are from the Manuscript Division's collections of the papers of 23 U.S. presidents.
During the 1930s, as part of the 200th anniversary of George Washington's birth, the diaries were unbound from their original format and rebound in a larger presentation-style format, which included insetting the manuscript leaves into larger support sheets and covering both sides of each leaf with a transparent silk for the purpose of physical protection. The silking process, which at that time was widely practiced in libraries and archives throughout the world, was thought to provide support for fragile items. Experts know today that silking, which was discontinued by the Library in the 1950s, has a long-term deleterious effect on materials because it is chemically unstable over time. Thus, steps have been taken in the Library in recent years to remove silk from select rare and valuable items.
Early in the 1980s during surveys of the condition of the Presidential Papers Collection, Conservation Division staff discovered the appearance of "foxing," or small spots on paper, on the support sheets of the diaries as well as on the diary leaves. Foxing is thought to be due to the metal pressing boards that are used in the silking process. During the survey it was also noted that the inflexibility of the support pages was causing stress to the original diary leaves. A treatment strategy was developed to address these two problems.
Curators in the Manuscript Division met with Conservation Division specialists to see what might be done to reclaim these precious volumes. A plan was devised that first involved careful removal of the diary pages from each of the volumes. Next, the silking was removed from individual pages by aqueous immersion until the adhesive holding the silk in place dissolved and the silk fell away from the paper. Occasionally, enzyme baths were used to help remove the adhesive.
Weakened areas and small tears in the diary leaves were mended using Japanese paper, a strong, lightweight substance made from the inner bark of the kozo, an indigenous Japanese plant known for its particularly long fibers. The paper was adhered with wheat starch paste, which is routinely used in conservation because of its excellent working properties and because it is reversible should the need arise. Some areas of loss were repaired by means of "leafcasting," a method in which a thin layer of new paper is deposited over the missing areas to impart strength.
Once the pages were mended they were sewn together by hand. The sewn texts were then bound and covered using the original boards (if they were in good condition), or with new boards covered with handmade paste paper decorated in a style typical of the day. While the cover decoration does not replicate the original, it is meant to be of the period in which the originals were created.
In addition to neutralizing the damaging effects of the former binding, the treatment also returned the diaries to their original "almanac" format, an oblong, horizontal or vertical shape that was designed for journal inscription. Finally, each almanac is receiving a custom-fitted protective enclosure, which assures protection from environmental elements and handling.
The series of treatments emphasizes sound materials, structural fitness and a return to the original format. It removes pending danger to the diaries, allows them to be safely used by researchers and improves and makes more historically accurate their appearance. So far, 31 of the 36 volumes have been treated. The project is scheduled to be completed in 2000.
Mr. Roosa is chief of the Conservation Division. Mr. Albro is head of the division's Book and Paper Section.