The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 9, Number 7
Dec 1985


LC's County Atlases: Jobbed-Out Conservation

The Geography and Map Division of the Library of Congress has over 1,600 county atlases, the largest and most comprehensive collection in existence. Because of their individual and collective research value and deteriorated physical condition, the Conservation Office initiated a project in 1975 to provide full conservation treatment for the entire collection. Over a period of four years, approximately one fourth of the collection was treated.

Experience with treating a large number of the atlases encouraged Conservation Officer Peter Waters to consider contracting out for the treatment of the rest of the collection. This would allow earlier completion of the project and enable the Conservation Office to return staff to projects that could not be safely contracted out.

To insure uniform treatment to Conservation Office standards, detailed treatment specifications were developed by senior paper conservator Barbara Gould. Ralph Ehrenberg and James Golliver of the Geography and Map Division also worked on the project. The contract was awarded to Heckman Bindery, Inc., whose conservation section treated the remainder of the atlases for an average of $189 each. Because of Heckman' s ability to apply mass production equipment and techniques to parts of the job (for example, in the construction of the binding), the Library realized a significant savings over the cost of treating the collection in-house.

A county atlas is a bound volume measuring approximately 18 by 20 inches and containing cadastral (survey) maps of each township in a particular county. In addition to showing property lines and owners, roads, and railroads, many atlases also contain lithographic or photographic illustrations of buildings, and biographies of prominent individuals. These atlases were produced on a subscription basis from about 1860 to 1920 and cover most of the rural communities and farmlands of the Northeast and Midwest. They are extremely scarce and are rarely offered for sale.

As research tools, county atlases are used to establish early survey records and facts of ownership. They are heavily used by architects and others to research the reconstruction and restoration of historic buildings and by genealogists and local historians.

In addition to deterioration of the bindings from use and age, most of the naps were printed on poor quality wood pulp paper that had become extremely weak and brittle. Chemical stabilization and physical support of the paper, followed by rebinding, were needed to preserve these irreplaceable items. Because of the format of the atlases (large size, folded maps, presence of colored ink) and the manner in which they are used, microfilming was not considered a viable preservation option.

The conservation treatment of the atlases included collation, disbinding, paper cleaning and mending, nonaqueous deacidification and polyester film encapsulation of individual leaves, and post-binding. When decorative covers existed, they were saved and placed inn the back of the new binding.

Although fairly uniform in size and content, the collection included a full range of conservation challenges. The atlases were printed on a variety of papers in different stages of deterioration. Folded maps created complexities of collation as well as treatment. Pencil notations written in a variety of hands were part of the historical integrity of an atlas and could not be removed with the surface dirt. Impermanent or damaging repairs had to be removed, and many maps had colored inks, requiring extra care in the deacidification step. All these conditions required that the contractor both follow the specifications carefully, and exercise independent judgement when necessary.

This project was the first to demonstrate that the Library can effectively use outside contractors to provide treatment that meets Conservation Office standards. Since then, the Library has successfully completed similar projects and others will be accomplished as funds permit.

For more information about the County Atlas project specifications, contact the National Preservation Program Office. [From the October National Preservation News, a publication of the NPPO, Library of Congress, Washington, DC 20540.]

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