I spent a very enjoyable day last week over at the University of Illinois’ Urbana-Champaign campus presenting a lecture and then conducting a series of hands-on workshops upon the invitation of Jennifer Teper, Velde Professor and Head, Preservation Services. The topic of the day was the “Technology of Writing”. Over the course of an hour I explored the various writing implements and traditions of several cultures- European, Islamic, Far Eastern and Mayan civilizations.
The morning talk was attended by primarily Conservation and Preservation staff, though a few select members of the public were also invited. Afterwards this eager group of fifteen jumped into learning how to cut quill pens and exploring writing with various inks (including the walnut ink we made in-house this past August) and writing instruments (quills, reed pens, writing brushes, steel nibs).
The afternoon event was an open house at their Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The library was currently displaying an exhibit curated by the Conservation Department entitled “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Conservation Treatments and Decision Making Through the Ages”. Cookies, cakes and coffee created a festive atmosphere; adding to this, tools and materials for quill cutting and writing were set up. In no time at all, dozens of students and staff arrived wanting to try their hands at cutting goose feathers to create a writing instrument used from roughly the 6th century up until the mid 19th. By the end of the afternoon, the door count was 132! By all accounts, it was a successful event and I’m proud to have played a part in so many people visiting the library- hopefully there were some new visitors who will keep coming back.
When I had some free time between the day’s events, I was generously hosted and given a tour of the Conservation Department by members of staff. It’s always a pleasure to talk with other conservators- we invariably share methods and learn from each other. The University of Illinois is in the Big Ten Academic Alliance, as we are here at IU. Library collection size and scope and organizational structures are similar; so they encounter similar challenges within their conservation and preservation departments as us. This made for a good heart-to-heart discussion.
The lab is currently developing some in-house papers utilizing agricultural waste in conjunction with Fresh Press. I spoke a bit with staff members Quinn Ferris and Anneka Vetter about the testing- both physical and chemical- of these papers in order to create a product that satisfies archival needs. The topic brought me back to many years ago when I worked in a laboratory ageing and testing for clues to paper deterioration.
Also of interest to me were the innovative enclosure and display solutions the Exhibit Conservator, Marco Valladares Perez, has come up with in order to reduce the amount of material purchased (and often thrown away afterwards).
The day ended with a staff holiday pizza party at RBML with Library Head, Lynne Thomas, and her staff.
Looking back, I’ve always found that these sort of hands-on materials talks and workshops generate a lot of interest and enthusiasm. Though much of what is covered is no longer in widespread use in the 21st century, people are always eager to learn about the past and have a hand at new skills development.