Every item in a Cultural Heritage collection is unique and demands particular handling. Consider a collection of fragile bound volumes from medieval France that may have significant variation in binding fidelity, and require individual assessment and handling to prevent damage to those bindings. Nonetheless, establishing uniform baseline handling protocols can help keep all team members and stakeholders on the same page regarding how particular collections should be handled and what special considerations to account for when evaluating individual items from that collection. This must be done in close consultation with the conservation team of the institution, drawing on their expertise and experience in the proper handling of Cultural Heritage items.
This interaction between the conservation team and digitization team should be collaborative. Digitization teams often have only cursory educations and backgrounds in conservation, and conservation teams often have only cursory understandings of the digitization process. When mass-digitization is an institutional goal, there must be a concerted effort to promote cross-pollination between the two teams. Not only will the digitization team develop a better understanding of material handling, but the conservation team will learn the practical effects of certain handling restrictions. In some cases, a minor handling accommodation can profoundly impact the utility and speed of digitization. For instance the quality and speed of digitizing a manuscript collection can be increased by allowing it to be digitized by a PSI-limited operator-controlled gentle contact with a glass platen; such a system can greatly increase the readability of the digital object created by providing a partial flattening of the page, and increase the capture rate by 10X or more (e.g. simultaneous capture of both pages in one pass using a DT BC100 Book Capture System vs. focus stacking on a general-purpose non-contact copy stand).
“At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library the communication between digitization and conservation is really developing into a robust two-way conversation where we are educating each other. Conservation is always working with the digitization team to tell them about physical limitations due to bindings or other restrictive formats, what we can and can’t fix, and making them understand why we can’t fix something. Digitization staff have also become more confident of their judgement during the digitization process – they know when to know to stop and call conservation. Likewise it’s helping us go in and look at their cameras and understand their workflow, how are they handling materials, how are they propping the books open, what sorts of straps and weights they are using, and how those tools react with the object so we can better work to conserve our materials anticipating that sort of use.”
– Jennifer Hain Teper, Head of Preservation Services, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
The purpose of such interaction is not to pressure the conservation team to provide more liberal object handling protocols than they are comfortable with. Indeed, this would be anathema to the primary goal of a cultural heritage institution; the safety of the collection must always come first. Instead, this cross-pollination should seek to provide both teams with greater knowledge, such that the conservation team can provide handling protocols that keep the collection safe without being needlessly restrictive, and the digitization team can understand the protocols themselves, as well as the underlying reasons for their details.
“Our students found a journal with pretty wallpaper samples that they were touching and admiring. They wondered what we should do with the book, after it had been disbound and digitized, because it was considered non-unique. I suggested they consult with the Head of Conservation. The Head of Conservation read the article title, ‘The Dangers of Arsenic in Wallpaper’ – arsenic was used to make vibrant, colorfast inks in the Edwardian/Victorian era – and she advised the students to wash their hands.”
– Lawrence Wentzel, Associate Librarian, University of Michigan
Some institutions may not have a staffed conservation position. In that case it may be helpful to explore the possibilities of reciprocal site visits with a neighboring or associated institution that does, paid outside consulting, or attendance at an relevant conferences. Any effort to foster cross-pollination with individuals or groups with conservation experience is likely to be rewarding.