The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 6, Number 5, Supplement
Current Trends: Notes From Two Recent Conferences
Nov 1982


TLA Conference: New Territory

"Preservation Management for Performing Arts Collections" was the title of the conference held April 28 to May 1, 1982 in Washington, DC. It was the first such conference attempted by the Theatre Library Association, which (unlike the sponsors of the "Second Annual PCLM Conference") addressed the problems of its own members.

For the last 50 years, people fascinated with the theater have been collecting playbills, posters, correspondence, costumes, stage sets, machinery--anything connected with the performing arts--and many of these collections are now being cared for by members of the Theatre Library Association. Some collections are administered as part of a larger library, and some are part of a theater or other organization. The typical theater library's collection includes much ephemeral material, and many artifacts of the sort more often found in museums, so its conservation problems are larger than life..

The National Endowment for the Humanities helped the TLA put on this conference for its members, and the conservators at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia helped plan it. Other conservation organizations lent material--information sheets and so on--that were duplicated and put into notebooks that were distributed to the participants. About 40 conservators were asked to speak. Over the period of three days they covered this broad field fairly thoroughly and competently. The sessions and the people who spoke in each (including theater librarians) were:

  1. Deterioration & Stabilization of Collection Materials
    David Shute, Moderator
    Peter Waters, Speaker
  2. Emergency Preservation Procedures & Planning Richard Baker, Moderator
    George Cunha, Speaker
  3. Preservation of Paper & Manuscript Materials
    Ann Russell
    Lois Olcott Price
    Dorothy L. Swerdlove (clippings)
    Jean Geil (music)
    Patricia Rader (dance notation scores)
  4. National & Regional Preservation Programs
    Pamela Darling
    Marilyn Kemp Weidner
  5. Preservation of Playbills & Programs
    Elizabeth Kaiser Schulte
    Martha Mahard
    Elizabeth Burdick
  6. Preservation of Designs, Fine Art & Technical Drawings
    Karen Garlick
    Elizabeth Kaiser Schulte
    Donald Etherington
    Brigitte Kueppers
  7. Preservation of Image & Sound Recordings
    Paul Spehr
    Leslie Waffen (sound recordings)
    Lawrence Karr (films)
    Alan Lewis (videotapes)
    Robert Carneal (videodisc)
  8. Preservation of Posters & Billboards
    Roberta Sautter
    Mary Todd Glaser
    Elizabeth Ross
  9. Preservation of Scrapbooks & Albums
    Robert DeCandido
    Mary Ann Jensen
    Merrily Smith
  10. Funding Preservation Programs
    Margaret Child
  11. Preservation of Realia & Memorabilia
    Scott Odell (functional objects)
    Richard Flint (popular entertainment)
    Mary C. Henderson (costumes)
  12. Preservation of Photographs, Negatives & Transparencies
    David C. Horvath
    Debra Hess Norris
    Patrick G. Loughney
  13. Management of Collection Preservation Programs
    Lawrence J. McCrank
    Marilyn Kemp Weidner
    Geraldine Duclow
  14. Preservation Procedures for Performing Organizations and Arts Councils
    Geraldine Otremba
    Laraine Correll
    David Mayer
    Anthony Ibbotson
    Jane Lange

Partly because of economic conditions, only about 45 people registered, which was a pity. But there will be other preservation conferences for theater librarians, and this one has set a good precedent, so its influence is likely to spread beyond the people who were physically present.

In order to report the high points of the mass of information that came out of this conference, it has been necessary to sort out the most interesting facts and opinions under six headings, and forget about who said what. For a really definitive version, the proceedings can be consulted when they come out. No attempt has been made to verify the facts reported or the soundness of the advice offered, although statements obviously in error have been omitted.

The six headings for reporting purposes are: preservation problems and practices in theater arts libraries; costs and figures; selection for preservation; facts, principles and advice; questions, problems, dilemmas and controversies; and recent developments and the big picture.

I. Preservation Problems and Practices in Theater Arts Libraries

The conference was planned to address the problems of multi-media libraries as well as theater arts libraries, because the technical problems are so similar.. . . In music libraries, the material comes in odd shapes and unusual formats, and gets a lot of wear and tear. Avant-garde composers often have scores that are extra-large, small, long, even accordion-pleated. Piano rolls are of thin paper which gets brittle; the only solution is to re-issue them at $35 to $60 apiece. There are many thin items, which get chewed up by the depressible book return bin. Non-paper items like records are often issued as part of books or journals, and the librarians don't like to separate the parts, though they require different storage conditions. Music is often printed or duplicated by photo processes: Diazo, Ozalid, blue line, black line or brown line; the copies may be smelly and quick to turn brown at the edges. The bibliography of music is scanty, so it is usually impossible to tell if you have a rare item in your library. "We had the only copy of Ponchielli's Wind Quintette in the U.S.--but we had no way of knowing this until someone else told us."

About a third to a half of those attending said they were currently collecting clippings. Many of those present worked with photographs all the time. Scrapbooks are common. One museum has 2500 costumes and lots of pieces of other costumes. Photographs and other artifacts that have prestige value or public appeal are likely to be displayed to death, and mass damage may result from ill- advised administrative decisions made without the benefit of consultation with curators or conservators.

2. Costs and Figures

Scrapbooks and photo albums are a big problem, especially if they are heavily used, because conservation is so time-consuming. The cost of conservation for the 3000 scrapbooks at the Library of Congress would amount to $15M (500,000 hours of work at $30/hour); that would be 167 hours of work on each, or about $5,000 each. The best photo-facsimile of a scrapbook of 70 to 80 pages would be only $2,000.

The cost of restoring a water color on board, one of 15, was given as $210.

Mannequins are made to order for displaying costumes, and cost $400 to $500. Costumes can be cleaned either by dry cleaning or washing, and can either be sent out to a trusted outside organization or washed in-house by a costume conservator using special techniques. It cost $1200 to have one of Ethyl Barrymore's costumes washed once; it really needed a second washing but that would have cost $1000 more, so it was foregone.

Not all forgeries are worthless. Those of the playbill at the Ford Theater the night Lincoln was shot sell for $5000 as forgeries.

From 1968 to 1978, there were 50 major disasters in Ohio libraries alone. The probability of some kind of calamity in any given library is high.

Videotapes from the 1950's are still around and usable.

3. Selection for Preservation

"Trash" can become respectable suddenly.... Preservation decisions are really collection building decisions.

One library, instead of keeping scrapbooks of clippings, just indexes the newspapers they have on microfilm.... If scrapbook items are removed and rearranged, they may be more accessible and better preserved. The order of pages in a scrapbook is a curatorial decision.

(Margaret Child's comments about the "right to die" for paper are reported in the August Supplement. She advocates routine weeding, strict retention policies, and giving low priority to materials that are not unique, such as those in many scrapbooks and vertical files.) Theater librarians should establish a mechanism for keeping in touch with each other and looking at retention policies.

Before phased preservation comes appraisal. Every document that comes into your building is costing you money. Ask the donating agency to help you cut donations down to size when they come in, and keep on cutting them down.

Treatment should be selected on the basis of the rate of deterioration [the effects of use and handling may have been implied here].

Not everything can or should be preserved because we are short of money and space. We have to move away from the warehouse mentality and examine the usefulness of the objects.

4. Facts, Principles and Advice

(This section is deferred to a later issue because of space limitations.)

5. Questions, Problems, Dilemmas and Controversies

Photocopies made on good paper at the New York Public Library have faded.

Will termites eat acid-free materials? No one knew, but one person recalled a certain rare book whose back had been eaten away by some kind of insect. It was one of those books with some white and some brown signatures; only the brown ones (containing iron or lacking calcium carbonate) were eaten.

Clippings in scrapbooks deteriorate faster when the pages are of poor paper.... Some think high pH paper next to black and white photographs will soften the emulsion, but at the Library of Congress, this effect has not been observed.

There is pressure from librarians to recommend a pressure-sensitive tape for hard-used collections. Conservators at the Library of Congress, however, take the position that no tape at all should be used; they do not want to be responsible for possible changes in the material the tape is used on, knowing that the collection may become rare overnight.

There was a debate over what adhesive to use for putting items into scrapbooks. Somebody said they used a glue stick; another person, a supplier, said it was not good, that people should use Jade 403. Another said Jade 403 was very expensive to reverse because newspaper absorbs it and it crosslinks; a starch adhesive or methyl cellulose was best. Another said they had tried starch paste, but had to give it up because of the water problem: the paper swells, then shrinks when dry. No one could recommend an adhesive that pleased everyone.

Do the lights on photocopy machines damage the materials being copied? The light is short but intense. Some deterioration continues after exposure even if you keep the paper in the dark, but no one knew how significant this was.

No one in the room was familiar enough (or impressed enough?) with commercial deacidification services to be able to recommend any. The feeling was that it was up to the commercial supplier to prove its method was safe and effective.

Should posters be deacidified before encapsulation? Some people think they should, to keep them from "stewing in their own juices." Others think that you shouldn't deny a piece the advantages of encapsulation just because you can't deacidify. One speaker said that the rate of deterioration was not speeded up by encapsulation, even of untreated pieces.

6. Recent Developments; the Big Picture

On the Friday before the conference, the National Conservation Advisory Council converted itself into the National Institute for Conservation--that is, from a study organization into an action organization. Since it is not funded yet as the NIC, there will be a transition period of two or three years, with the same staff. Information services will be its first priority.

Although libraries and museums can get exemptions from the energy-conserving law mandating high building temperatures in summertime and low in winter, the local and state picture on environmental control is bad. Museum directors and head librarians are generally totally ignorant of the effect of the environment on their collections.

The International Federation of Television Archives is planning a hands-on manual, to appear in 12-18 months (i.e., May-November 1983). It will be widely announced.

Sheet music collections are growing more popular and are much used. The same is very true of photo collections.

Library binders are advertising that they will perform almost any "archival" operation, but don't know what they are doing. The consumer should beware; ask questions, consult their regional center.

There are more trained personnel in conservation than there were 8 years ago, but there is no real commitment to use these professionals. There are less than three dozen libraries or archives with conservators in well-equipped labs. University administrators and library directors are not yet convinced it's necessary to take money from the rest of the budget and give it to conservation. Nor are they committed to no-cost procedures integrating conservation with the rest of the library programs.

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