Interview with Linda Edquist

In her work as a conservation specialist at the National Postal Museum, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., Linda Edquist has worked to preserve countless letters and other objects in the museum's enormous collection.

How can you use some conservation techniques on your letters at home? Watch Linda demonstrate, in these video interviews.



Chapter 1: Introduction

My name is Linda Edquist. I work for the Smithsonian Institution in the National Postal Museum, where my job is to care for the collection, in the preservation department; oversee the collection care as well as the conservation. Our collection includes objects as small as, of course, the inverted Jenny stamp, to as large as a highway post-office bus.

Chapter 2: Storing Your Collection in Boxes

I think once you get your documents and your materials out of an attic, out of the basement, and you're faced with a box -- could be a wooden box, it could be a cardboard box, it could be a shoebox. You've done a lot by just removing it from the attic. You've done a major degree of the work in trying to preserve your collections. Now if you'd like to go the next step further, what you want to do is address the boxes that these objects are in, and these letters are in. Most of the boxes, the cardboard boxes -- shoe boxes are very convenient, very inexpensive -- but they're not going to benefit the collection. They're extremely acidic. And we know that the one thing that will destroy your paper is an acidic environment. It will cause your paper to brown, cause your paper to turn brittle, and eventually break and fall apart. So pick the collection you'd like to start with, say a collection of letters or a collection of postcards, and purchase an archival box. And there are companies that specialize in archival products. And I really stress to you, find a company that has a reputation of carrying archival products. Don't depend on going to the stationary store and finding an archival box; you'll probably have to mail order them. The next best thing would be if you don't have the money right now to get a new box, or to buy an archival box, if you would like to wait on purchasing the archival box, the next best thing is to try to get a new box. Boxes get more acidic with age, so if you have to, go to a new cardboard box. You can, if you want, line the box with say, unbleached muslin, and put them in there and that can act as a little bit of a barrier between the box. And once again, if you're going to use the cardboard box or the shoe box, it's a new one, don't put it back down in the attic and don't put them down in the basement. Try to keep it where it's going to get as little air circulation and air exposure as possible. The air that we breathe, the air that we have to live in, is acidic, and the more it's exposed to the air and the environment, the more acidic the box will become over age.

Chapter 3: Organizing the Different Material in Your Collection

I really advise people when you start looking at your collections, and your family documents, and your letters, your pictures: prioritize what you feel is really important. Take the stuff that's most important to you, most important to your family, most important to your history, and start with those first. Look for the best home possible for them first. If you try to start the project by thinking you're going to take care of everything you've owned -- every single piece of paper your family or you have collected over the years -- you'll be overwhelmed, and you won't get anywhere. So really try to prioritize and look at what is really important to you, and work your way down.

When you come across a collection that you have had in a box for years and it's a mixture of newspapers, photographs, letters, booklets, corsages, buttons -- when you want to decide to organize your collection, what I advise you to do is to separate the different medias. A piece of newspaper is a lot different from a photograph, and the media that you're dealing with, and the environment that's best stored in. A newspaper is best stored in a -- higher pH level environment, where a photograph is going to need a pH of seven; very neutral environment. So go through your collection and separate the different -- and you can separate them into sizes -- all your postcards in one, your larger, oversized letters, your newspapers in another place and start there, start with one collection. And then you're going to try to get boxes that will best fit those particular size objects.

Once you've got your piles and everything is divided, and you want to label and differentiate between your pieces, the one thing I say -- never to -- to try to avoid labeling directly on the object. One of my biggest enemies is the post-it note. No matter -- it's adhesive -- and it doesn't matter that you cannot see the little bit of adhesive on the back of a post-it note, but the adhesive is there. And once you attach it to a letter, the adhesive stays. And what that adhesive will do, even if you pull it off, the longer you leave it on, the worse the damage, but even if you pull it off immediately, it leaves a residue behind. You may not be able to see it, you may not be able to feel it, but what it will attract is dirt. Dirt and dust will be attracted to that surface.

I discourage people from even putting them on boxes as a label. They are temporary. They are not meant to remain permanent. You could walk away and six months later, that post-it note could be on the floor. It's not going to be on your box and you will have lost that documentation on there.

You can write directly on the box, on the outside of the box. I advise putting a piece of paper inside your box that lists everything that's in there.

Chapter 4: Creating the Space to do Your Preservation Work

Now that you're ready to work on your personal artifacts and your documents, what I want you to do is create the space for your work. It doesn't have to be the ideal space that I have here. My area is dedicated strictly to the preservation of material. But that doesn't mean that you can't create a similar environment in your home where you want to work. But there are dos and don'ts that I'll ask. One is, always start with a really clean surface; wipe it off, clean it off. I don't care if you've cleaned it off earlier in the morning. Before you start, clean the material off. Clear the table of any extraneous material. Don't leave the salt and pepper and the flower vase on the table if you're going to be working; clear the whole thing off.

It's not time for coffee. Don't put any coffee, no food on the table whatsoever while you're working, no babies. Don't try to do two or three different things at the same time. Don't keep pens, crayons, or paints on the table. If you're going to use those, use them later, or keep them on a side table off to the side. This is strictly for working. Once you've cleaned the surface, you can also put down a clean piece of paper, or blotter paper if you want to work on it, to really protect it.

Chapter 5: Deciding What to Work on First

The first documents you should work with when you're ready to actually look at your pieces and see what really needs additional attention is -- first look at the pieces that are in the most deteriorated condition. By that I mean objects where pieces are missing, where there are tears, where the piece may fall off, where the edges are very brittle and yellow. Those pieces should be looked at individually and isolated. You should also look to see if you see any rodent damage or insect damage and isolate those pieces to make sure that they're well cleaned up, that there's no more insect eggs that could infest the rest of the material that you have there. Also, any material that you see any sign of mold, especially active mold. Say you've just brought a box up from the basement, where it's been exposed to moisture, and maybe it's just the bottom pieces you'll notice that there's mold on there, and it's got color, it's moist. That's active mold. What you want to do is separate that immediately from all the rest of the documents. For the time being, put them in a zip-lock bag. Lock them up so the mold spores don't spread any farther and you should, if they're important documents, you should really take them to a conservator and have them deal with the issue of the mold. I don't advise people to deal with the issue of mold just because of the health concerns that can be involved in that.

Also, look at pieces that are precious to you personally, your really important mementos. Look at pieces that may be of a very high monetary value, sentimental value to maybe someone else in your family, or an important historic document for your community.

Chapter 6: Experimenting on Your Least Valuable Piece

Now when you're ready to really start working, more detailed work, on your material, your documents, always make sure you start by experimenting on a non-valuable piece. Don't start on the most valuable piece first. Do a few experiments, until you get the feel of how you actually want to work with the object. Most importantly, never force an object to do something it doesn't want. Don't force it to open if it doesn't want to be opened. If the dirt doesn't want to come off with an eraser, don't force it by pressing harder. Just try to be sensitive to what the object is telling you. And most importantly, work slowly and be very, very patient.

Chapter 7: Erasing Pencil Marks

First let's talk about erasing. So you have something with pencil marks that you want to erase: always work with a vinyl eraser. Don't work with an eraser off the bottom of a pencil, not with a gum eraser. Make sure it's a white vinyl eraser. The other kind of erasers will leave a residue on your material. When you're working with the eraser, always make sure you have a nice soft brush, a clean brush that's used to wipe the crumbs off, versus using your hand. You want to gently use the brush to brush that off.

Now I can start by just gently, very gently, don't force it, rubbing in a circular motion. And it should lift off. Go over it once, lifting off a little bit at a time. Take the brush and just brush the crumbs away.

Chapter 8: Removing Staples

The next thing you may find a lot in your collection is paper clips and staples. They can be removed. Once again, if it seems like they are too embedded in the actual fiber of the paper or material it is attached to, don't try to remove them -- but there are very easy ways we can do that. One way you can start is -- don't use a staple remover to remove a staple. It will literally bend the paper. It's much too aggressive and you could tear your paper. So don't use that. I just have a little piece of paper that I've stapled. What you can do, especially if you're working on a real document here, is put down a piece of paper here that you can work from, on top of your actual document, so that you're not putting a lot of pressure onto your original. I have here what's called a little microspatula. Anything that's very thin -- and as a substitute for this microspatula you can use a very small knife. Just make sure the end isn't too pointed. If you have a knife you don't really care about, you can maybe round off the edge, just so it's not real pointy. You don't want to punch a hole in your document. I mean, these are not really expensive and can be purchased from archival supply companies. I have my piece of paper down underneath where I'm going to enter, underneath the staple. And you'll notice I'm not working from the front, I'm working from underneath the staple. What you want to gently do is slide this under, holding this, and just gently lift up, gently lift up on this side. And you can gently work it. And what you are going to attempt to do is to make it as straight as possible. Once that's done, turn the piece over and do the reverse. It's going to be sticking up here a little bit. But put your paper here, insert it underneath and gently, very gently, work the staple up. And this is where a tweezer you could also use. And there, we've worked the staple out.

Chapter 9: Humidifying Hard to Open Letters

Say we take out a letter and it's folded. Now, you notice it doesn't really want to open very far at all. Now I know the impulse is to immediately take that finger like this and just run it across there and open it up. You don't want to do that. These are fibers that have been bent for a long period of time. By bending those fibers out of their position, you're going to create -- you're going to break those fibers along there. If you break those fibers along this fold, you're eventually going to get tears. So what I'm going to show you how to do is to flatten this with just a little bit of moisture. You can do this with just some simple stuff that you can [use] at home, [get] at Wal Mart. Kmart, drug store or grocery store.

So start with a dishpan. It can be any size -- maybe about an inch of water in the bottom -- make it warm water -- about 100 degrees. Take a little rack -- this is from a dish rack. It's better if it's a little coated and it's not a metal rack. You don't want to cause any rust. Just press that down in there. Because I have a hole in the middle I'll put this other plastic mat on top just to add as a support for the paper. And then I just have a piece of paper so that I'm not laying the letter directly on the plastic. And then I'm going to put the letter in here -- grab -- I like to use a clear piece of plexi or something, or glass as long as the edges aren't real sharp. And I'm just going to leave it -- I'm going to let it sit there.

After it sat in there a while, we can open it up and see. You'll be able to feel if the paper is giving a little more. And maybe you'll find that this fold is giving enough now so that you can fold it open, like this, and work on this other crease. And keep it in there for a little while longer.

Chapter 10: Flattening and Displaying Letters

Now that we've humidified our letter, we notice we've gotten most of the harsh creases out. Now we have a few more kinks we want to get out -- and flatten it a little more. I'm going to put it down on some archival blotter paper. Put your paper down -- I just like to put it maybe upside down there, gently. On this initial one I'll just put another piece of archival tissue on there and then put several pieces of blotter on top. You can let them sit there for a minute. Give it a little time to gently settle down and flatten. And then you can use a weight and put it down there, gently. For a weight you can use a brick. Just get a brick, cover the brick with paper or cover it with fabric but they are a wonderful weight.

The ultimate outcome we have here... This is a different letter but still what we are looking for -- very nicely flattened, minimal damage at all done to the side of it and store in an archival folder. For this one, what I've done is put the cover next to it. I put it in -- corner-mounted it onto the folder and I've encapsulated it in mylar. Once again, "encapsulate it" means I can remove it from it. And what I've put behind it is just a little bit of buffered tissue to prevent it from any kind of acidic damage. Glues tend to be more susceptible to it. And the reason I put it in this polyester film is to protect the marks from ever transferring -- the ink marks here from ever transferring onto the letter itself. So I just put this back in and I've got a complete package here for display or for looking at later.

Chapter 11: Liberating Crammed Materials

Here's a collection that was packed all in this 45 -- little record box. And it was a collection of letters from Vietnam. I removed those letters and -- you can just remove them and put them in a box. Rather than cramming them in at an odd angle in here in that poor quality material -- all I've done is put it into an archival box -- store it, put a label on it and it will be fine. If you decide to go the one step farther, I've got another box. And here, I've tied together, sorted the material according to their size, and tied them together with twill tape. As well as these here - this is a whole other size. And they obviously need more work at some point, there are a lot of torn pieces. I may want to open, take the letters out of the envelopes and flatten them at some point. But for right now, I've bunched those that belong together and put some archival tissue in there to support them so they're not flapping all over the box and put them in storage. You've gone a long way to preserving your collections that way.

Chapter 12: The Role of the Preservationist

There's a lot of information available now on preserving documents and your family papers, and it's available in a lot of different places. On the website of the American Institute of Conservation there is some wonderful information. But you don't have to be a conservator to really learn how to take care of your documents and be a good caretaker. Just realize that you are a caretaker of these materials and that you're hoping to preserve them for all future generations. It's part of your personal family history and it's important for you to take on the role as a good caretaker -- and it is not very difficult to do that, just by taking a few precautions and educating yourself.

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