Giving History a Future

  • 28 October 2010

Removing tape from a historical document.

Article Highlights

  • The Church employs three full-time conservators and an intern to preserve photographs and paper-based artifacts.
  • Conservators focus on preserving rather than restoring materials.

Time, certain chemicals, and careless handling of books and papers are enemies to Chris McAfee. He works day by day to keep history of the Church from slipping away. He does this by ensuring that important documents, photographs, and artifacts survive.

His motivation is more than simply historical. “If I can help stabilize the history of the Church by preserving the documents, and what you might call the evidence of the truth, then I feel like I’m doing an important work.”

A senior conservator for the Church History Department, Brother McAfee works with two other conservators and an intern to preserve paper-based artifacts, including documents, books, and photographs. On any given day, the items on their workbenches may include documents signed by Joseph Smith, a first edition Book of Mormon, or letters from Brigham Young. But their work also includes protecting relatively recent books and other materials that get a lot of use.

The conservators’ lab in the Church History Library handles 400 to 600 artifacts a year, Brother McAfee says. He is one of the two full-time document conservators on the staff; the third full-time conservator works with photographs.

“I chose this career because I enjoy working with my hands and with my mind,” he says. The work is very much a creative process. “The reason I chose to work for the Church is that I wanted my conservation efforts to have meaning in connection with something I care about.”

He avoids the word “restore” as a description of what he and his staff do. While they “repair artifacts that have historical significance,” a conservator’s work is to “stabilize” the object—preserve it while maintaining its “artifactual history,” he explains. For example, a conservator might have to put a new cover, in part or whole, on a leather-bound book. The book may need new paper leaves in front of and behind the original printed pages. A conservator will carefully match the leather used to the original cover, whether it was sheepskin or calf, and the original tanning process and dye. The new leaves added will match the original kind and color of paper. But when the work is finished, it will still be possible to distinguish what is new from what was original.

Often documents have to be washed to help preserve them. Over the past century, many documents were printed on highly acidic paper that tends to deteriorate quickly. Some documents have to be “alkalized” in the wash as part of the preservation process.

Work done in the conservators’ lab may seem highly creative, even ingenious, to an observer. Conservator Russ Fuhriman, a long-time photographer, has saved old black and white photographic negatives whose acetate base was badly crinkled and warped. His process involves soaking the negatives, then sliding their silver halide emulsion off onto a polyester sheet or glass plate. Prints from this new glass plate negative may show no sign of damage or distortion.

Conservators rely on some techniques in photography, bookbinding, and papermaking that may go back decades or centuries. In doing so, they are helping preserve skills of the past. But they don’t mind being aided by the most up-to-date tools of the present, Brother McAfee says. One of their valuable new tools is a device called an X-Ray fluorescence analysis instrument. It can scan a page or piece of leather and determine the material’s composition down to the molecular level. Having this information allows the conservator to match paper, leather, dye, or ink exactly in making repairs to the item.