A Short Look at the Long History of Conservation at Columbia

In keeping with our “long view” of the Columbia University Libraries and their collections, we should consider the steadily evolving history of the Conservation Program at Columbia.

The first professional conservator was hired at Columbia in the 1980’s, but we know that the University maintained a book bindery since 1912, when Columbia’s library was in its first home on the Morningside campus in the Low Memorial Library building. Conservation staff members still use some large pieces of equipment that came from that first workshop in Low.

But a conservation department is not a bindery. How are we different? Mastering the techniques of bookbinding is only a starting point. We also need to know all about the chemical make-up of the materials themselves – things like paper, leather, pigments, adhesives – so that we can understand how both new and ancient substances will change as they age, and use this information to prevent deterioration. Aside from treating books, prints and manuscripts, we must know how to safely handle and care for the many other kinds of formats, such as paintings, costumes, and artifacts that find their way into libraries and archives.

While bookbinders of earlier centuries learned a regional or local set of skills and practiced them repeatedly, library conservators work with collections spanning many centuries and cultures, and so must know as much as they can about the practices the binders in all these times and places may have employed. Because we study materials and craft techniques, we have a unique perspective on the books and documents that students and scholars encounter in our libraries. By sharing what we know, we become, in a sense, the “reference librarians” for the physical aspects of the objects in our collections.

Perhaps the biggest distinction between the 1912 bindery in the old library building, and the Conservation Program in Butler is that our workplace is no longer confined to one room, but extends to every part of the Libraries where our collections are studied, handled and stored. From our desktops in the lab, we monitor the environmental conditions in fifty separate locations around the campus and communicate with engineers when adjustments are needed. Together with staff throughout the Libraries, we look for ways to make handling delicate materials safer and easier, whether in the process of returning ordinary books to the circulation department or while displaying a Babylonian clay tablet to a visiting class in the rare book room. And, we are delighted that our work is essential to the important ways the Libraries bring their collections into public view: through exhibitions at Columbia and elsewhere; digitization projects that require us to stabilize fragile materials; and in classrooms where we use the collections to teach about bookbinding and manuscript production. We look forward to future posts when we can describe our favorite projects as they arise!


Surveying the Weng Wango Film Collection

Among the many moving image collections at Columbia University Libraries is the Weng Wango Collection, held by the C.V. Starr East Asian Library. This collection primarily contains elements of films produced by Weng Wango (1918- ), also known as Wan-go Weng, a Chinese art collector and past president of the Chinese Institute in America, who has worked as a filmmaker since the 1940s. Weng has lived in the United States for many years, and his films, mostly covering topics related to Chinese art and history, were primarily produced for the U.S. educational film market. (More biographical information on Weng can be found online in descriptions of exhibits featuring his art collection at the Huntington and the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.)

The collection at Columbia was donated by Mr. Weng himself, and includes many original and master elements for his films, as well as prints, outtakes, and miscellaneous footage. The films include a series on Chinese cities, filmed in glorious Kodachrome in the mid-1940s, a series on Chinese arts and crafts from the 1950s, a series on Chinese history from the 1970s, and a filmed Buddhist service at the Cathedral of the Pines in New Hampshire.

A frame of 16mm Kodachrome film shot by Weng Wango in Beijing, c.1947-48. (C.V. Starr East Asian Library, Weng Wango Collection, Film ID WW0110)

The Weng Wango Collection was one of my first projects at Columbia, when I started working in the Preservation and Digital Conversion Division during the summer of 2016 as Digitization and Preservation Project Manager. Given my background in media preservation, I was asked to conduct a survey of the collection, which had been acquired by Starr several years earlier. The library already had a basic inventory of the collection, which consists of 739 16mm film elements, as well as a few 35mm film elements and ¼” open-reel audiotapes. My job was to gather further information on the film elements, assess the condition of the materials, and recommend future actions.

A frame of 16mm Kodachrome film shot by Weng Wango in Beijing, c.1947-48. (C.V. Starr East Asian Library, Weng Wango Collection, Film ID WW0110)

As I discovered, the collection was in good condition, for the most part. Since being acquired by Columbia, the films had been stored at the offsite ReCAP facility, which provides a cool, dry environment that is appropriate for storing film. There were, however, some issues that needed to be resolved. Testing with acid detection (A-D) strips revealed that some of the films were suffering from vinegar syndrome, a form of deterioration that affects cellulose acetate films. In addition, many of the films were stored in inadequate housings – rusty and dented metal film cans or deteriorating cardboard boxes, for example.

As a result of the above findings, my primary recommendation was that the films be rehoused.  The films are being transferred to new, archival-quality, polypropylene (inert plastic) film cans, along with all information from the original housings, such as titles, names, and dates. Once rehoused, the films will be returned to Columbia’s offsite storage facility.

Films from the Weng Wango Collection, before and after rehousing.

The survey also set priorities for digitization, should funding become available in the future.  Highest priority was given to items most at risk of deterioration and to master and original materials. These actions will ensure that the films are preserved and accessible to researchers well into the future.

Thanks to Jim Cheng, Director of the Starr Library, and Sarah Elman, Head of Technical Services at Starr, for their help with this project and for providing information on Weng Wango and his work.

Further viewing:

Is Your Google Book Incomplete? We May Be Able To Help.

As many people know, Google has digitized hundreds of thousands of books from libraries around the world, including Columbia University Libraries, and they’ve created Google Books, a wonderful resource for readers and researchers.  Subsequently Columbia and many other libraries have contributed their Google digital versions to HathiTrust to assure that the e-books are preserved into the future.

It’s also well known that some Google books have problems – for instance, because Google didn’t open out folded pages when the books were digitized, those pages are not visible to readers.  Recently HathiTrust and its member libraries have developed a process to fix some of those problems.

Let’s look at The Royal Land Com’y of Virginia, published in 1877 and digitized by Google in 2009 from a copy owned by Columbia University Libraries.  Until a few weeks ago, anyone trying to read it on Google or HathiTrust, would have found unreadable folded plates, including this one that follows page 72.

Someone reading the book on HathiTrust discovered the folded plates and reported them by using the Feedback button at the bottom of the page display.

HathiTrust staff then notified Columbia, because it is our copy that Google digitized.  We received messages of the form “the plate following page 72 of this title is folded and cannot be read”.  That alerted us to the need for new digital images of the foldouts.

When we looked at the volume, we discovered that the foldouts were torn.  Conservation treated the damage, and then our Imaging Lab digitized the unfolded plates.

We sent the images to Google, and they inserted the new images in place of the faulty ones.  They then loaded the new version into HathiTrust to replace the incomplete copy there.  Today the corrected e-book is available to everyone through Google and HathiTrust, and preserved for anyone to use in the future.

Now that everyone has the ability to search and view millions of books online in a matter of seconds, libraries are taking time and effort to collaborate with HathiTrust and Google to solve problems.  Behind the digital images that appear to be an easy click away, teams of library professionals are dedicated to digitizing physical books and improving the e-book experience.

Hebrew and Judaica Manuscripts Project

Tefilot u-piyuṭim : le-ben Pesaḥ le-ʻAtseret aḥar ha-pereḳ תפלות ופיוטים לבין פסח לעצרת אחר הפרק. [כת”י] (Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Columbia University)

Between 2014 – 2015 at the behest of Michelle Chesner, Norman E. Alexander Librarian for Jewish Studies, PDCD staff completed a project to make a number of previously photographed Hebrew and Judaica Manuscripts fully accessible to the world on the Internet Archive. Here is some background from Michelle:

Ketubah : Venice, 1673 (Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University)

“Columbia’s Hebrew manuscript collection is one of the largest in the country, behind only the Jewish Theological Seminary and Hebrew Union College. It was, however, unknown by many due to a lack of cataloging and exposure until recently.  After a generous donation from the Norman E. Alexander Foundation endowed funds for Judaica in the libraries in 2010, CUL was able to catalog nearly all of the manuscripts in the first step toward accessibility.  The next step was an exhibit of the manuscripts in 2012 – 2013.  A partnership with the National Library of Israel yielded digitized images for many of the manuscripts that had been previously unrecorded, and they became accessible via the NLI’s Institute for Microfilmed Hebrew Manuscripts and their new Ktiv interface for digitized Hebrew manuscripts.  Posting the images to the Internet Archive allowed us to create a space to highlight the manuscripts at Columbia (the NLI sites contain manuscripts from all over the world) and it has become a place to point to for a sampling of our extensive collection.” — Michelle Chesner


Ketubah Damascus, 1830 (Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University)

In PDCD, we worked from Michelle’s detailed spreadsheets to derive new catalog records for the electronic versions of the materials. We then used Photoshop to crop and deskew them and uploaded them in large batches into their own special subcollection on Internet Archive. We also updated all the records in OCLC and Voyager so that the materials will be findable both as objects on Internet Archive, but also through OCLC First Search, the international bibliographic database.

There are now 244 titles in this very rich collection, containing numerous ketubot (marriage contracts), Torahs, books on poetry, fairy tales, astronomy and numerous other topics. Many are brightly illustrated, like the ones featured in this post.

Here is a link to the full collection on Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/culhebrewmss

Hearing Voices from a Broken Disc

Hearing the voices of people who lived in another century brings them close to us, but early recording technology makes hearing them a challenge. In the first half of the 20th century a common recording method was to use discs with a lacquer surface. Sound waves caused a stylus to vibrate and cut grooves into the lacquer while the disc turned. The recording was played back by running another stylus through the grooves and amplifying the sound. The inner core of the discs was metal, cardboard, or even glass. Playing these old recordings is a problem – the lacquer deteriorates over time, developing cracks and sometimes detaching from the core, and of course glass is easily broken.

Until a few years ago, a broken record was a lost cause – while conservators can repair many types of damage, they cannot put broken glass recordings back together again. But in 2013 scientists from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory developed IRENE (Image Reconstruction Eliminate Noise, Etc.), a digital imaging system that can make a picture of the grooves on a disc and then transform the images into digital sound files. Carl Haber, the lead scientist and a Columbia graduate, won the MacArthur Fellows award for his work. (For more on Haber and how he developed IRENE, see this article in Columbia College Today).


Glass disc, WNEW Join the News Reel, 10 February 1944, American Bureau for Medical Aid to China 1937-2005, Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Columbia University

Like many other libraries and archives, Columbia has its share of glass and other fragile recordings. When IRENE became available from the Northeast Document Conservation Center, we sent off this disc from 1944 to test the new service. The disc had shattered and small fragments along the edges of the breaks had been completely lost. Using IRENE, each surviving fragment was separately imaged, and then the entire recording was digitally reassembled. Pops and clicks can be heard where bits of the lacquer were missing, but this recording of WNEW’s Join the News Reel from 10 February 1944, broken decades ago, now speaks once more.

Listen here:

Learn more about IRENE at NEDCC.


The IRENE system at the Northeast Document Conservation Center, mounted on a vibration-damping pneumatic air table. Photo courtesy of Northeast Document Conservation Center.

The Complexity of Color – Creating Digital Surrogates

Researchers and students today have an increasing expectation of being able to find needed materials and information online. Libraries and other cultural heritage institutions have responded by focusing on digitization for both preservation and access to these cultural heritage materials. The Digital Imaging Lab, as part of the Preservation and Digital Conversion Division, is at the center of the creation of digital surrogates for preservation and online access at Columbia University.

Digital surrogates are “faithful” reproductions of an object at the time it is photographed. It is an accurate record of the item’s appearance and condition at a singular point in time. Since we want to handle the material as little as possible, a use-neutral file is created that is large enough to cover the many expected uses of an image file, from viewing on a computer monitor to reproduction in books and journals. But how do we know what is large enough? Back in 2010, in order to ensure a certain level of quality, federal agencies set about writing a set best practices for all those involved with the creation of digital surrogates for the federal government. This became known as The Federal Agencies Digitization Guidelines Initiative or FADGI. These guidelines became the standard for cultural heritage institutions here in America. European institutions adopted similar standards, known as Metamorfoze. In the Digital Imaging Lab we strive to reach the 3 and 4 star ratings parameters set forth in these guidelines (page 10 of the FADGI guidelines has an explanation of the star rating system).

Creating a digital surrogate.

Creating a digital surrogate. Photo credit: David Ortiz.

By far the biggest challenge faced by any institution in the creation of digital surrogates is the capture of accurate color. Color is a highly complex subject. It is thought that the perception of color takes place in the mind as an endpoint of a sequence of physical, physiological and psychological events. Each individual perceives color in his or her own unique way. Just like individuals, every device used in our lab, from the monitors we use to the cameras to the printers, capture and display color differently. Luckily scientists have been studying color for a long time and there exist several models for the mathematical description of color. In the digital realm we use a color model called RGB, named for the red, green and blue light that devices use in capturing and displaying color. Certain amounts of each of these lights (on a scale of 0 to 255) will produce almost all of the colors we can perceive.

Before we can use any device in the Digital Imaging Lab we must first find out how that device captures or displays color, and then, using software, we can bring it to a known state of color capture or display. The process in a nutshell is this:  using scientifically created and widely recognized color targets that have patches of mathematically defined colors, we have the device capture an image of the target (or for a monitor, display a set of defined colors). We note how far off the device is and then create a set of offsets (or corrections) for the device. These offsets are what are typically called color profiles.

This is a very simplified version of what goes into color profiles. The color of the walls, ambient lighting, the position and type of lights being used for photography, all have unique characteristics that must be dealt with when getting ready to create a digital surrogate. Even the pigments in the object being imaged can affect the sensor in unique and surprising ways. Contrary to the wishes of most cultural heritage institutions, creating high quality digital surrogates that have a good chance of persisting long into the future, is never as simple as pushing a button.


Digital Surrogate of a page from a medieval manuscript, at bottom is a Kodak color target.

A Brief History of the Preservation Reformatting Department

Columbia’s Preservation Reformatting Department (PRD) began as a reprographic services unit back in the 1930s. In the 1970s-1980s, the department gradually became a reprogaphy unit with an emphasis on the preservation of brittle and deteriorating materials.

While the Preservation Division was taking shape, the world was just beginning to understand the slow moving disaster headed our way: the acids within wood pulp paper, which would eventually consume our books and documents. A number of studies done as early as the 1930s had found that an overwhelming percentage of research collections were printed on acidic paper which, under less than pristine conditions, would eventually become embrittled, ensuring the eventual destruction of more than a century of scholarly works.

Daily Spectator

Columbia Daily Spectator, Dec. 8, 1941

In an attempt to cope with this looming catastrophe, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) issued a number of grants to research libraries throughout the U.S., including CUL. These funds, along with emerging best practices established by the Research Library Group (RLG), provided us with the means of moving nascent reformatting projects into large scale reformatting programs, which endure to this day, albeit in a much evolved form.

As of 2016, PRD has transformed itself in many ways; a reflection of the revolutionary technological changes happening outside and within the library doors. We continue to prioritize materials in demand but have expanded our capacity. You may be surprised to hear that we still do send out shipments of microfilm for brittle, circulating collections, primarily due to copyright restrictions. We also still create preservation photocopies for materials for which we really need physical copies on the shelves, such as music scores and reference materials.

In addition, we have a fully developed program for ebook creation for public domain materials and PRD staff is responsible for every step of this process, as they have been for many years with microfilming and photocopying. The staff collates items, searches for existing copies, creates copy catalogued records for the new formats, sends and receives vendor reformatted materials, and is responsible for all QC, image processing and uploading and organizing on Internet Archive.


A pamphlet from the Missionary Research Library (Burke Library)

A future blog post will explore this process and some of the customizations and enhancements that PRD has come up with over the years.

Finally, we are also responsible for the front end of patron services and for numerous special projects, such as the Columbia Spectator digitization project and Burke’s Missionary Research Library digitization, images of which are included in this post.

Welcome to The Long View!


Photographers and conservators work together to image a 17th-century medical book. Photo credit: David Ortiz.

Welcome to the Columbia University Libraries’ Preservation and Digital Conversion Division blog.  In our work preserving and imaging the Libraries’ diverse collections, we are privileged to work with remarkable materials and amazing people, as well as some awesome tools. As these activities take place in laboratories and spaces that are closed to the public, this blog will be a forum to share our work with the Columbia University community and beyond.  We hope you will find our observations and discoveries informative and that you will engage with us through the comments section. We want to hear from you!

You may be wondering, what do we mean by “The Long View”? In a division that focuses on both the tangible and the digital, our days are spent engaging with the past, with an eye towards the future. Cutting-edge technology is applied to unique items of cultural heritage; new acquisitions are prepared for circulation; research into historical artistic processes is paired with twenty-first century analytical equipment—all with the goal of increasing access and understanding. How do we make a fragile manuscript, a 17th-century medical pop-up book, or rare Chinese paper gods available to scholars and students? How will we ensure they are still accessible in the future? And what can the original materials and techniques used to make these items tell us about their history, provenance, and significance? These are the questions we ask and the challenges we enjoy. We are not the first to care for these collections, nor will we be the last. So we take the long view, actively engaging the past with the present, and securing its perpetuation into the future.

And now, a message from our director, Janet Gertz:

Established in 1974, the Columbia University Libraries Preservation and Digital Conversion Division is one of the oldest comprehensive preservation departments in the country. We are responsible for preserving Columbia University Libraries’ collections in all formats and genres and we achieve our charge by using a variety of tools to prevent or ameliorate damage and deterioration or, if that is not possible, to reformat. We take an active role, in collaboration with our colleagues throughout the Columbia University Libraries, to assure the ongoing stewardship of Columbia’s world class collections. In addition, we collaborate with colleagues outside of the Columbia community to improve and promote preservation nationally and internationally.