Handle with Care | Preservation Strategies for Pan Am’s Digital Archive

Conservator Duvy Argandoña prepares a document in the Conservation Lab on the first floor of the Otto G. Richter Library.

Repair and conserve: a phrase that drives a vast and complex component of University of Miami Libraries’ (UML) mission. Primary source materials and books are handled over years, decades, and even centuries; room conditions fluctuate, humidity falls and rises, and critters occasionally find their way to them for a snack. For the specialists that manage UML’s Preservation Strategies Department, “repair and conserve” holds a significance akin to a “search and rescue” operation – only rather than a search for people, it’s about the search for and provision of aid to materials that are in distress or imminent danger. As items become damaged and too fragile to handle, they require treatment and special care in order to ensure they can remain accessible by students and researchers in the future.

The grant from the National Historic Publications and Records Commission has allowed UML to sustain such specialized preservation efforts as the digitization of materials from the Pan American World Airways, Inc. Records collection continues. This ongoing project is now at a stage where a second group of images from the renowned aviation collection are in the process of being made accessible by keyword search. These brochures, timetables, directories, and other items require special treatment prior to any scans or photographs to ensure that the text in them can be recognized, or that they can even be handled for image capturing purposes.

Argandoña uses the hot spatula and tweezers to repair small tears in a Pan Am brochure.

Duvy Argandoña is the conservator at the Otto G. Richter Library. She spends a good portion of her workdays in the Conservation Lab repairing Pan Am materials before they can be scanned. The Lab, a brightly-lit, state-of-the-art equipped facility, is an infirmary for the collection’s torn or creased materials, where Argandoña uses specialized machines and tools to reconcile any damage that might interfere with digitization.

“The meticulous work done by Duvy is so important to the process, because it’s essentially our means of loss control – vetting and repairing the materials in a way that ensures we are able to capture the best scans possible,” says Gabriella Williams, who works closely with Argandoña and is managing this digitization project. Williams prepares and triages the materials before they are sent to the Lab. She flags each box, folder-by-folder, and creates a detailed, object-level spreadsheet of the items that require attention.

The humidification dome releases a mist of deionized water to relax a map’s paper fibers.

Argandoña then uses both basic and more complex techniques, depending on the level of damage, to repair the selected materials. “For mending small tears in brochures and timetables, I use the hot spatula tool and heat-set tissue paper,” says Argandoña. She first cuts the tissue paper into five millimeter strips and then uses tweezers to line up the strips with the seams of the torn documents. Carefully holding the tissue paper in place with tweezers, she applies soft pressure with the hot spatula until the paper adheres.

If a large map or fold-out is wrinkled or bent, Argandoña places it in a humidification dome for up to 15 minutes before any further repairs are made. “The dome uses a deionized water vapor mist to help the paper fibers relax, then the item is arranged between blotter paper sheets in the oversized book press for 24 hours, or until all the creases are gone,” says Argandoña.

Martha Horan, head of Preservation Strategies.

On October 17, UML welcomed new Head of Preservation Strategies Martha Horan, who is enthusiastic about working with the Pan Am materials under the NHPRC grant.

“Too often one does not consider the highly skilled, artisan-like techniques that go on behind-the-scenes in a library to stabilize and treat materials as part of preservation and digitization,” says Horan. “It’s an impressive operation here, with an even more impressive team behind it. It’s an exciting time to be a part of the Libraries.”

Digital images of these materials from the Pan American World Airways, Inc. Records – which date from the company’s inception in 1927 until it ceased operations in 1991 – are now available to the public for browsing and research purposes on the University of Miami Libraries’ Digital Collections website.

Photos by Brittney Bomnin