Inside the Smithsonian’s Book Conservation Lab

Katie Wagner, rare book conservator for the Smithsonian, washes book pages in de-ionized water. (courtesy of the Smithsonian Libraries)

Beyond the black steel gates, past guards and through the large double doors is a place where books are still cradled.

The Smithsonian Institution’s Book Conservation Lab in Landover is where a small team of book conservators and technicians conserve and preserve more than 1.5 million volumes housed in the Smithsonian’s 20 libraries in as close to original condition as possible.

The other day, Katie Wagner, a rare book conservator, worked on Edward Jenner’s 18th century first-edition book about the variola vaccine, known as the cowpox, which became the vaccine for smallpox.

“These are the hand-colored prints in the book and this is the original binding. So what we’ve done is we’ve taken it out. It has some mold damage, and we have washed and dried the interior,” she said. “The plates [pictures], the color, cannot be immersed in water, the way text can be.”

Wagner was preparing to take wheat starch paste and apply thin Japanese paper to edges that are scalloped areas of loss from fingers pressing and lifting pages for centuries. “I’ll custom cut each page or each little piece of the Japanese paper to adhere to this form, so that it’s just attached on the edges but on both sides. So I’ll do that twice.”

Jenner’s book is one of the rare books adopted at the Smithsonian’s Adopt-A-Book event last month, where guests chose books to financially support through the conservation process. More than 20 other rare books that were similarly adopted wait in a queue to get the same degree of skilled attention as the Jenner text. Fifty to 60 rare books are conserved by Wagner each year, and it is the rare case when some part of a book is replaced.

Wagner is assisted by special collections technician Don Stankavage and volunteer Louise Crean. A high linen or cotton content of paper pre-1840 allows Stankavage to submerge pages without color in de-ionized water to reduce stains on the pages before Wagner begins the more delicate work.

Read more here