Conserving the Winslow Papers
The Winslow Papers consists of approximately 2500 individual letters dating primarily within the years 1776 to 1826.1 Organized into 17 volumes, this collection is presently owned and housed by the University of New Brunswick Archives. The Winslow Papers are considered one of the most important compilations of Loyalist documents, and are recognized internationally for their historical value.
The collection has been actively researched in the years it has been available for public use. The UNB Archives has added their collection mark to each sheet, and organized the holdings by hinging them into book format using various tabs and adhesives. Evidence of handling over time includes pencil and ink notations, ingrained grime, stains, tears and losses. In addition, the paper has been damaged by insects, mould, acid degradation, and other natural or man-made agents of deterioration. As a result, most of the documents became fragile and difficult to use safely, despite the good intentions of custodians who attempted to mend many sheets with tape. In most instances earlier corrective measures were more injurious and irreversible than was suspected at the time! The Winslow Papers required stabilization against further deterioration, and protection against improper physical handling to ensure their preservation and continued usefulness.
Through a generous bequest from Kenelm Molson Winslow, treatment of this important collection became possible. Conservator, Harold Holland, surveyed the volumes and developed a program for their care in the Paper Conservation Laboratory at the Provincial Archives of New Brunswick. The first step in the process was written and photographic documentation of the physical condition of the collection as received by his department. A range of samples representative of the collection was then brought to the Canadian Conservation Institute for in-depth scientific examination of the various inks, stains, paper fibers, sizings, additives and adhesives present.2 Based on their findings and recommendations, procedures were developed which would effectively and safely preserve both their original integrity and the information held therein. With a budget and a keen sense of productivity, equipment was purchased and staffing organized in order to realize efficient treatment of this relatively large, and completely unique, collection of historical documents. To date, two conservators and perhaps a dozen full or part time technicians have been working to fulfill the conditions of the bequest.
Treatment began with collation and removal of the individual letters from the binding format. Very small graphite numbers written on the lower edge of some sheets will facilitate reassembly into their proper order at the completion of the project. Graphite, or pencil, is permanent media (meaning it does not fade or decompose with time), yet is easily removable if required. It is interesting to consider how all notations made on these documents are, or become, an integral part of their history, so no effort is made to remove or obscure evidence of use. However, some past researchers chose to use water-soluble media for their inscriptions. These inks (mostly red!) were reduced using alcohol and water over a small suction device to pull out the component which would otherwise bleed into the paper during washing procedures.
The removal of pressure sensitive tape and tabs, and the reduction of adhesive residues, are perhaps the most painstaking steps in the conservation of any paper document. Testing is required to determine the most effective solvents and tactics, and the procedure demands the skilled hands and eyes of a trained conservation scientist. Pressure sensitive adhesives are the trial of every conservator, as they are often very difficult to remove satisfactorily. If these materials are not removed, they will continue to sink into the paper fibers, oxidizing to a point where staining, brittleness, and residues will cause irreversible chemical and physical degradation. Removal of the carriers (as opposed to the adhesive mass) also guarantees dimensional predictivity during wetting out and drying, and allows for proper alignment and planar correction during repair.
Once all of the water-sensitive media is stabilized, and tape and tabs removed, each document which is otherwise stable in water is washed with deionized water. Many hours of research were necessary to determine the optimum time and conditions for washing, based on removal of acidity from the paper substrate.3 Washing is accomplished by fully immersing the documents, supported by a spun-bonded polyester web, in a tray of pure water. Those letters with sensitive wax seals, or which are severely brittle or fragile, are washed on a cold suction table or suspended on a piece of acid-free blotter using a "float" technique so as not to effect the sensitive materials or media. Washing removes water-soluble acidic impurities, reduces yellow discolouration and soiling, and generally improves the colour and crispness of a paper sheet. Much damage can occur if washing is carelessly tended. Many inks can subtly change colour, fragments can be lost, and seals or inscriptions and main media altered during treatment. Careful testing before wetting out and diligence during operations is the only way to ensure the safety of individual papers during this stage of the processing.
After washing and air drying, the documents are then neutralized to reduce or remove any remaining acidic impurities. Neutralization is carried out in the same way as the washing, using a 20 ppm solution of calcium carbonate in deionized water. Optimum concentrations and conditions were determined again based on the CCI recommendations and on testing done by conservators at the Provincial Archives. The documents are then inspected for changes in condition, media, or support, and sorted for finishing treatment.
The last phase of conservation treatment is mending or leaf casting, followed by slight pressing to return the documents to plane. Mending with wheat starch paste and long-fibered Japanese tissues is performed on those documents with wax seals, or whose media is especially sensitive. Many papers remain very fragile after washing and must be repaired this way to minimize the chances of further damage or loss. The bulk of the collection, however, will enjoy the benefits of state of the art methodology, made possible by Mr. Winslow's donation to this project. Leaf casting is essentially the precise matching of paper pulps in colour, thickness, and makeup, to the original, to fill losses and repair splits and tears. The amount of pulp required for a single casting is determined using an electronic digitizer and computer system. The pulp is added to a vacuum tank with the document to be treated, and the pulp is drawn only to those areas of loss or thinning. The result is an almost perfect match in record time, a real bonus when dealing with mass treatments! Whatever the method of repair, each document is reinforced, providing both strength and a degree of aesthetic improvement overall.
The completed documents will be placed within Mylar sleeves. "Mylar" is a clear plastic used in conservation for encapsulation because of its proven stability in use with archival materials. It will provide a secondary support for the pages and allow them to be read and studied without handling or damaging the paper itself. The documents will be put back in their original order and placed within post-bindings before being returned to the UNB Archives.
The process is sometimes very slow, and is often tedious, yet the commitment to high standards and quality control is paramount for the protection of these works during conservation treatment. Every effort is made to maintain these standards for the continued and safe accessibility of The Winslow Papers to historical researchers in the years to come.
Provincial Archives of New Brunswick