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Oldies and moldies

Memorial's book repair expert preserving documents for 20 years

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A summer spotlight on some of the wide-ranging and important roles at Memorial and the faculty, students and staff who fill them.


By Kristine Power

When Bryan Russell tells people he works in the field of conservation, they assume he means endangered animals.

He actually specializes in paper conservation, a rare and valuable area of expertise if you happen to work in a library, particularly the Archives and Special Collections Division of the Queen Elizabeth II (QEII) Library.

His office, tucked into a corner of the library’s basement, is called a preservation laboratory. It’s the size of three conventional offices and has the feel of a controlled environment. It’s bright, the temperature is cool and there’s a gentle drone of white noise.

In the middle of the room is a large work station covered with bone folders, paint brushes, rulers, and X-Acto knives. Against one wall sits a powerful paper cutter known as a board shear that looks like an 18th-century guillotine. Throughout the space there are book presses of different sizes to flatten and shape repaired books.

Book repair

During Mr. Russell’s 20-plus career as Memorial’s go-to paper and book repair expert, his day-to-day work has changed.

“The amount of books that come to me for repair or binding has dropped off. Now, my main focus is archival material,” he explained. “Usually anything new to the collection or anything that is in the collection that has become damaged through use and misuse comes to me.”

Archival materials that have been donated to the university have often been kept in basements or attics. According to Mr. Russell they are the worst places to store precious materials because they are subjected to extreme fluctuations in humidity and temperature.

Bryan Russell works with some of the damaged documents he is tasked with salvaging.
Photo: Jae Hong Jin

“Dirt, mold, insect casing, rodent droppings, rusty staples, you never know the shape stuff is in. I will take it and get it into shape so that it can be used by researchers.”

Mr. Russell hauls out a box from under a table to show the extreme condition materials sometimes arrive in at the library. Before he opens the box he asks if anyone in the room has any allergies. A mildew-y cloud of scent wafts up from the box. There are file folders full of flakey, crumbling paper. Mr. Russell says some old books, particularly those with yellowed paper, smell almost like vanilla, but not the ones in this box.

“At some point the paper got wet because you can see the rust from the staples. It got dirty from soot and it also got moldy. Those may or may not be insect casing. There doesn’t seem to be any chew marks on this, but sometimes they come into the library and are nibbled on by rodents.”

1/ The state of paper

Mr. Russell illustrates damaged paper with a bone folder. There is rust residue from a staple.

Photo: Jae Hong Jin

2/ Paper fibres

Japanese paper is cut with a wet paintbrush or water pencil and gently pulled apart. A wheat starch paste is used to create an adhesive. Some conservators like the paste to be slightly off or bad before they use it because it gets stickier.

Photo: Jae Hong Jin

3/ Cleaning paper

Mr. Russell demonstrates how to clean paper by rubbing tiny eraser shaving in circular motions.

Photo: Jae Hong Jin

Essential tools

Key to any paper conservationist or book preserver are the right tools to clean paper.

The shelves in the preservation lab have containers of white vinyl eraser shavings. Mr. Russell laughs as he describes how he wore his fingerprints off of one hand when he was a student from the tedious work of rubbing little pieces of erasers over sheets of paper until the dirt was lifted from the page and soaked up by the powdered shavings.

There are also dry cleaning sponges designed for scrubbing paper. They take the surface dirt but can’t be used on brittle or damaged paper.

“Everything we use is acid free, because paper or repair materials that are acidic will break down and form acid in the paper,” said Mr. Russell.

Once the paper is cleaned, repair often comes next in the process. Pressure-sensitive tapes are the simplest type of restoration. A bone folder is used to burnish the tape to the page; eventually, the tape becomes almost invisible.

“Theoretically every repair you do, you should be able to reverse it without damaging the object.” — Bryan Russell

There is also heat set tissue that is like tape but uses heat to set the adhesive. It works best for repairing entire pages. Mr. Russell has an iron designed for this type of work on paper.

Really damaged items that mean a lot to the collection are repaired with Japanese tissues. These are handmade papers that are made with different grades and hues.

“What you would do normally is you try to match the thickness of the repair paper to the paper you are working on, so that’s why you would use different grades. This stuff is particularly prized, because when you pull it apart, the fibres are very long and it is stronger repair tissue because of that.”

Paper is not designed to last long and the job of the paper conservationist is to clean and restore it to the best of their ability.

“Theoretically every repair you do, you should be able to reverse it without damaging the object,” Mr. Russell explained.

He says he likes the pressure of getting it right the first time.

Challenging work

The work that goes into the restoration depends on the value of the item in the collection.

In the beginning of Mr. Russell’s career, he spent a lot of time fixing bindings of paper-based periodicals that students and faculty relied on for their research. The first month of every semester involved almost nothing but fixing reserve materials and periodicals.

“You have to have the right mindset and the ability to unhook your mind for a bit.” — Bryan Russell

As resources continue to move online, Mr. Russell is finding his work is expanding to include all kinds of materials. If an object is deemed important to the libraries’ collection, he starts researching how to conserve it. He relishes the challenge.

“You call up other conservators and exercise your mind instead of doing stuff you have always done for 20 years, because you are already pretty confident you are doing that stuff right.”

Mr. Russell continues to avail of training and seminars provided by the Canadian Conservation Institute. He’s completed courses on conserving photographs, metal, costumes and even musical instruments.

“The favorite part of my job is when I get something novel. I’ve been doing this for long enough, and honestly, it can be unbelievably tedious and I am pretty good with those sort of tasks in general,” said Mr. Russell. “You have to have the right mindset and the ability to unhook your mind for a bit. I will be cleaning a book for a couple of hours, and I let my mind wander.

“I sing a lot down here,” he laughed. “And I don’t ask the people in the computer room next door if they can hear me.”

Bryan Russell
Photo: Jae Hong Jin

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