Unfiltered voices of the past

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Catt Thompson-Baum

Catt Thompson-Baum, conservation manager for Wiley Digital Archives, gives an inside view of the world of archive collections – from mummified rats to medieval parchments

Can you describe the conservation process briefly?  

There’s really not one process as it’s so dependent on the material: type, age, condition, intended use, and the reason for conservation.  For digitisation of large volumes of collections, we do a condition assessment of every page of every item and repair specific damage that we feel may put the item at risk during the physical process of digitisation.  We also repair damage that affects the legibility of an item so that the users get the best possible image and maximum amount of information possible. We use specialist materials and techniques that are sympathetic to the specific item and ensure their longevity.

Do you think there is a stereotype of what a conservator does? 

I think there can be a stereotype of individuals sitting in studios painstakingly fixing individual objects until they look new, but that’s quite outdated.  Conservators now are driven and constrained by budgets, deadlines and overheads like everyone else. The big difference with conservation for digitisation, which is my specialism, is that we work on a mass scale to commercial timescales.  

What is something that people would be surprised to learn about your role? 

People definitely still expect us to wear white gloves because that’s what they often see on television. Gloves are important for some kinds of materials, such as metals, but for paper it’s not necessary as long as you have clean hands. White cotton gloves desensitise your fingers so when you’re turning the pages of a file or book, you’re more likely to do damage wearing gloves than not. We do wear gloves when handling photographic material directly, as the oils in your skin can damage emulsions, but we usually wear nitrile rather than cotton gloves.

What type of materials have you come across to conserve?

I’ve conserved everything from medieval parchment deeds, including one signed by Elizabeth I, to the extradition request of James Earl Ray, who was accused and convicted of assassinating Martin Luther King. It included a copy of the autopsy, which was disturbing but fascinating.  

Do you have a favourite item or type of item you deal with? 

I absolutely love books, and particularly the many different kinds of book structure and solutions different periods and cultures have found to engineering books. Whether they’re beautiful or mundane, they have to be functional. Multiple types of material need to work together to function, and the solutions found for any particular book will tell a story about society at the time and the person for whom the book was intended.

What’s the most extreme item you’ve come across in terms of damage?

Not one item, but a collection of papers from the family of a Ghanaian Chief. The family had dispersed to various countries and the papers donated to an archive on the condition they be digitised. It was a small but very interesting collection and had been stored and transported in plastic bags. The heat and humidity of the Ghanaian climate, exacerbated by the storage conditions, had caused the paper a lot of problems, including mould, brittleness, severe rust from staples and a few paper-eating insects. They were very fragile initially, and in quite a mess, but we strengthened and repaired them so that they could be read and digitised.

What is the biggest challenge in conserving items? 

For digitisation, it’s not just the conservation itself; it’s the other management aspects. We have to track and account for every movement of every item of someone else’s collection, from shelf to assessment, to crate, to scanning company and back again. We’re moving thousands of original, often unique, historic documents so having spreadsheets and processes, and above all, a really good team, is crucial.

What’s the most unusual thing you’ve ever had to work on?

I’ve worked in collections that include mummified rats, guns and bullets, communion wafers, textile samples, buttons and medals. There are also occasionally things that have been left in by mistake. One collection I worked at found a pair of scissors in a file. They’d obviously been there a long time as they’d left an imprint on one of the documents from rust. I’ve also been involved in an archive where a fairly mundane book has become an interesting artefact by virtue of it having been shot by a Napoleonic soldier!

What’s the most valuable thing you’ve worked on? 

I’ve worked on collections with items of high monetary value such as rare printed books, but often the value of something isn’t monetary at all. Most of the archive documents I’ve worked on during my career are unique and while they may not have a high market value, the content is invaluable.   Personal letters and diaries that no-one expected to be kept are a particular favourite as they allow you to really hear unfiltered voices of the past.

What do you feel is the difference between discovering an archive in person vs. an online platform?

While there is something special to me about the feel of the physical object, and there are discoveries to be made browsing them, the main difference with online collections is that you  can have the whole archive at your fingertips on a 24-hour, 365 day basis. A search term to find something you’re looking for may open a whole new avenue that hadn’t been considered. With Wiley’s platform this applies not just within one archive’s collection, but across multiple archives at once. It’s impossible to do that in the reading room of one institution.

What do you think are the benefits of conserving and digitising archives?

Conservation in general to preserve and maintain cultural heritage is hugely important as it tells the story of the world, good and bad.  Losing that memory would be devastating. Archives provide so many different perspectives depending on where they’re from that we can often get a three-dimensional picture of events. For me, the conservation and preservation is first and foremost, but I’m also really proud that the work I do brings historic archives to a wider audience than would be possible without digitisation. Without conservation, much of our history would be lost to the ravages of time.

Interview by Tim Gillett