The Old, Bruised and Overused Can Find New Life in McKeldin Basement Lab
Photos by John T. Consoli
The case was critical. Beaten and battered, the subject was rushed in with bite marks and a mangled spine; its pallor deathlike under the room’s fluorescent lights. This was another grisly sight for members of Mark Coulbourne’s team, but they had seen worse—and like many of the subjects coming into their care, this one could be saved.
What sounds like a story from a Level I trauma center is actually a different kind of tale: one of a desecrated (and quite overdue) second-edition library book on Greek culture that was transported to the University of Maryland’s Conservation Lab to be rescued. Located deep under the stacks of McKeldin Library, the Conservation Lab is where the university’s seven libraries turn to heal broken bindings, restore torn pages and clean moldy covers.
“We are sort of the clearing house for damaged, old and precious things, but also a lot of everyday books,” said Coulbourne, interim head of preservation for UMD Libraries. “Sometimes stuff comes back and it’s in the same condition it was checked out in, but if it’s not, it comes to us.”
Created in the 1980s to preserve and repair the university’s vast literary catalog, the lab now works on everything from lowly paperbacks to periodicals, but primarily focuses on UMD’s special collections: rare and old books, archival slides, drawings, artifacts and other valuable items. Music scores, which it readies for use by students in the music program, contribute to 30% of the lab's workflow.
Most of the books that come under the team’s care are merely victims of time or intense wear and tear; but the occasional burst pipe, earthquake or neglectful borrower also send books to the lab, like the Greek culture book, which was quietly left at McKeldin’s front desk with a dozen others by a retiring faculty member (who was stopped at the door—faculty, take note). The books, which showed evidence of mold, cockroach and mouse infestations, were analyzed for restoration and repair by the lab’s team to determine if they were worth saving.
“Books comes into us in a variety of conditions, and the folks at the desks know when to call us right away,” said Special Collections Conservator Bryan Draper. “And yes, there are cases where the damage is too great, like a waterlogged book. We always know it’s trouble when a book comes to us in plastic.”
The team’s work is exacting and time-consuming. Misters, sponges, quilting irons, wheat paste and a wall of implements—from wide brushes to kitchen whisks—are at the ready for patching ripped pages and cleaning dirt from spines. A well-used copy of the “Laws of Maryland,” roughly 300 years old, is being meticulously “dry-cleaned” with sponges that absorb grime. Books beyond repair could be digitized, but the process is expensive, and sometimes stymied by copyright.
In addition to books are items gifted to the university that range from the odd to the outstanding: The team designed a hermetically sealed, coffin-like box to store a DDT-treated cape made of monkey fur that belonged to former Vice President Spiro Agnew (gifted during his travels in Africa) and also restored the 1891 UMD diploma of the United States’ first Korean student, Pyon Su. The lab’s latest project is the restoration of the original blueprints for the university’s School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation, found rolled up in a faculty member’s office. Drawn in 1968, the large sheets are torn and taped in several places, requiring Coulburne and Draper to steam and scrape off the adhesive and fuse it back together with heat set tissue, ultra-thin paper with activated adhesive. Once repaired, it will be digitized and placed in protected enclosures.
“What they’re doing is pure magic,” said Architecture Librarian Cindy Frank. “They are just very respectful of these items.”
In addition to repairs, the team also monitors the environment of each library on campus, measuring humidity and temperature to prevent overly dry rooms from rendering books brittle, or too-humid ones from encouraging mold. They carefully pack special collections for storage, using archival materials and custom-made boxes. And the team is often the library’s first responders when disaster strikes, like flooding in McKeldin after a big storm in 2020.
When Frank found a white powdery bloom on a book on the second floor of the architecture library, the team was there the same day to inspect, “CSI”-style. It turned out to be a degrading binding and something they could fix; but they are blunt when a book has outlived its useful life, said Frank, which strays from the traditional librarian mentality of “every book is sacred.”
“It’s a great value to a librarian to have some whisper to you, ‘It’s OK, you can let it go’,” she said.
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