Have you ever been asked, “What is your role? What do you do at your job?” People asked me this question all the time when I first started working at the Niels Bohr Library and Archives (NBLA) in 2019. Even though I would answer, “part-time Library Project Assistant,” my inquirers still wouldn’t understand exactly what my job description entails. It is true, the title Library Project Assistant could apply to a variety of job functions across different institutions. Under normal circumstances, here at NBLA, my days would mainly be filled working with our collection of rare books. For our purposes, NBLA has classified rare books as those dated pre-1920. (You can read more about this decision in the R is for Rarity post.)
As all libraries do, NBLA must deal with issues of space and location for our materials. The decades-old HVAC system in our library spaces has not held up well since it was first built. The collections have also outgrown the space that was originally allotted for them. The suboptimal storage location of our rare books is one of our current space issues; since it was only last year that NBLA made 1920 the cutoff publication year for rare books, thousands of titles that we now consider rare are located in the general collection stacks. The general stacks are open stacks, browsable to anyone who comes in the building. As you might imagine, they do not offer the best security or environmental conditions. When stored in open stacks, it is easy for the rare books to get lost or damaged. They may be squished between other books, and some have fragile, flaking spines that may be accidentally bumped if stored on the open shelves. Plus, the old, insufficient HVAC environmental control system in the general stacks allows for a greater chance of damage from temperature and moisture fluctuation. Thus, my main project was to flag each book published in 1920 or earlier in order to prepare them for a collection movement from the general stacks into a secure vault for rare books and archival materials that is under construction. Yes, that's right. A vault! With temperature and humidity control, a waterless fire suppression system, moveable high density shelving, and more! Visit this page to read Allison Rein’s detailed post about the initial stages of the vault project.
It would also be part of my normal duties to assess and take notes on the condition of the rare books. If a book in our collections is really falling apart, we do not want to leave it as is. When we come across a book in bad condition, we rehouse it in a box made of special acid-free archival card stock. We refer to these boxes as 4-flap enclosures. See the images below for examples of what a 4-flap looks like.
Now what condition issues would warrant a 4-flap? There are two main categories: a completely detached cover or a cover that displays a significant amount of red rot. What is red rot? It is a powdery, reddish-brown substance that forms when the leather material of a book cover literally deteriorates.
I remember one day when I came across five huge volumes of Universities and Their Sons that were covered in red rot dust. Just trying to pick up one of the thick volumes left my hands coated in that awful red powder. This is one of the few instances in which wearing gloves would certainly be beneficial when handling rare books. (The red rot won’t kill you, but it’s probably best not to breathe in the dust if you don’t have to. A mask would be quite useful in this case!) See the photos below for a comparison of new leather and red rotted leather under magnification.
What are some other horrific condition issues I’ve encountered? One of the most surprising things I came across were rubber bands! It seems that a previous employee had literally rubber-banded books that were falling apart, furthering the damage to the book covers. Already crumbling spines crumbled even more due to the tension from the rubber bands, which also contributed to misshapen text blocks and torn pages. I’ve also encountered taped covers - as in Scotch tape, not archival tape. As non-archival tape ages, its chemical structure changes, causing the adhesive layer to seep into the part of the book it is touching. This can leave that portion of the book brittle and stained, or the adhesive can spread, creating a larger sticky area. My heart ached for those poor books.
On a more positive note, book displays were something I really enjoyed assembling in person in the reading room before COVID. My very first book display contained an array of winter/water themed books! I was quite excited when my coworker asked if I would like to help create a book display. Since I’d never made one, it was interesting for me to consider the process of assembling a display. What would be an engaging theme to set as the focus? Which books might be appropriate to include in the display? Do we have books for varying age audiences? Do we have different book formats we might want to show off? It was also quite fun to design the little title posters to go with the display! Before remote work began, I also had the opportunity to create book displays for Black History Month, Women’s History Month, and Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. It was a joy to help with each of those!
Aside from working on book displays, what are some of the most interesting items I’ve come across during my time at NBLA? The “Library of Wonders” illustration in Wonders of Electricity by Jean Baptiste Baille was one of the first items I discovered in the stacks that I found fascinating. It’s perfect for spooky October vibes, and you never know what hidden “wonders” you may find in a library! The entire book is available digitally via HathiTrust.
Another “wonder” I discovered was Water Wonders by Jean Thompson. It was one of the books I included in my first book display because I found it so fascinating. It contains gorgeous photographs taken by the Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley that depict microscopic views of various types of snowflakes! I highly recommend browsing through the book. Even though NBLA is temporarily closed to in-person visitors due to COVID, researchers are welcome to view a digitized edition of the book on HathiTrust.
To learn more about Wilson Bentley and his snowflakes, view the intriguing video below from a Washington Post article! You can also read more about his life in detail here.
One other fascinating item I stumbled across was a book with exposed music sheet spine lining paper. Spine lining was a common practice in bookbinding from the 17th century onwards. It supplied a better surface than the ridges of the textblock for the outer covering material to be glued to. The smooth surface it provided also made it easier for the artisan to title and decorate the outer spine. A variety of paper types were used as spine lining for 17th-19th century bindings: parchment manuscript strips, bits of scrap paper, fragments of printed text - or even a music sheet! It seemed that bookbinders either used whatever was lying around for their convenience or they were avid proponents of recycling.
But those were the days of the past. These days, due to COVID and the work-from-home situation, my daily duties continue to evolve. Remotely, I mainly work on developing and refining my cataloging skills, along with contributing to outreach projects such as our Ex Libris Universum blog posts!
It is interesting to consider the ways in which libraries in general can continue to serve their patrons from a remote work setting. Digitization capabilities may take a hit since staff members may not have physical access to books and other materials that may need digitization. On the other hand, if materials have already been digitized and are stored electronically, it is easy to remotely fulfill a reference request. There are many online resources and databases that can aid libraries and patrons during this time. HathiTrust is one example of a database that contains many digitized books, and I encourage you to explore! Furthermore, NBLA has a vast visual archive available online here. Our digital collections, which include many digitized books that are unavailable elsewhere, can be accessed here. NBLA currently offers virtual reference services; feel free to shoot us an email at [email protected].
Andres, Angela M. “Preservation Week 2014: Tape Troubles and Treatments.” The Black Table. April 29, 2014. Accessed November 02, 2020. https://wp.nyu.edu/specialcollections/2014/04/29/preservation-week-2014…;
Hayes, Lee. “Spine Lining.” University of Adelaide. May 2018. Accessed October 26, 2020. https://www.adelaide.edu.au/library/special/exhibitions/cover-to-cover/….
Kaplan, Sarah. “The Man Who Uncovered the Secret Lives of Snowflakes.” The Washington Post. January 11, 2017. Accessed November 02, 2020. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/speaking-of-science/wp/2017/01/11/t….
Moore, Tiffany E. “Conquering the Dreaded Red Rot.” York: A City Making History (blog). August 30, 2017. Accessed October 26, 2020. https://citymakinghistory.wordpress.com/2017/08/30/conquering-the-dread….