Holding Down the Fort, and Getting Under the Covers

by Barbara Rhodes on

Library News

There are a number of old movies which feature empty libraries as the setting for creepy horror stories, but frankly, I have never understood this. Libraries, even when unoccupied, are places of positive energy. They are places of learning and inquiry, and of collaborative efforts to advance, as well as to preserve, knowledge. 

As the AMNH Library’s conservator, I have been the only Library staff member allowed to enter the Museum on a regular basis during the pandemic, though only two days per week. I will admit that it is extremely strange, if not necessarily creepy, to see our normally busy workplace “on pause.” While we have kept working remotely, I miss the in-person conversations and the interaction with our diverse collections, especially as someone whose job normally involves a lot of hands-on work.

Photograph of the Library's 5th floor stacks.
The Library's 5th floor stacks, which are not at all creepy.
Barbara Rhodes (photographer)

It has been my responsibility during the pandemic to monitor the Library’s environmental conditions and carry out our Integrated Pest Management protocols, as is being done all over the Museum by conservators and collections managers. Readings and trap checks are conducted on a weekly basis, and the results shared with Library management, and the Museum’s physical plant and conservation departments. Doing this monitoring also ensures that I regularly visit every part of the Library, so that situations such as leaks do not go unnoticed; fortunately, so far, the roof is still holding up.

Twice a week, I also check on the six freezers in which we store our cellulose nitrate photographic negatives, which brings to mind the old prank phone call script: “Is your refrigerator running? Well, you’d better go and catch it.” Not that I ever made any such calls, of course.

The negatives are stored in these freezers because they are inherently very flammable if kept in the wrong conditions, but there is another danger to this collection should the freezers break down. A closed, room temperature freezer can become a very efficient incubator for mold spores after only a couple of days; while a mold outbreak would be a much quieter disaster than spontaneous combustion, it would also be a potentially devastating event. As with any disaster, prevention is always better than cure.

Photograph of the Library's conference room with unopened mail stacked on the table.
There will be a lot of unopened mail to go through soon.
Barbara Rhodes (photographer)

On my days in the Library, I have also been able to perform a few minor services, such as retrieving the odd book or scanning an occasional article required by a researcher, picking up some of our accumulated deliveries from the Museum’s mail room, and watering plants which some of my colleagues were unable to take home from their offices.

On the days when I am not at the Museum, I have been part of the Library’s field journal transcription project, which will broaden electronic access to the observations recorded on several Museum expeditions, and make them searchable. So far, I have worked on the typescript of the journal of Leonard J. Brass, kept during the 3rd Archbold expedition to New Guinea in 1938, and completed transcription of the first of Donald B. Macmillan’s handwritten Crocker Land journals (1914).

The Crocker Land expedition’s aim was to verify Robert Peary’s supposed sighting of new lands in the Arctic off the coast of Greenland in 1908. While Crocker Land itself proved to be a mirage, the description of the journey by dogsled through an inhospitable landscape, defined by hardship and tragedy, made for compelling, and occasionally disturbing, reading. The original journals kept by the various members of the expedition were repaired by contract conservator Paula Schrynemakers in 2017, thanks to the generous support of Patricia E. Saigo, MD, and were scanned shortly thereafter. Those of us transcribing the journals are now working from these scans.

Most of the Crocker Land field books were sheepskin-bound blank books, small enough to be carried in a pocket. The sheepskin leather covers had deteriorated badly over the years, resulting in loose boards and missing endcaps. Paula was able to reattach the covers and repair the spines of the field journals, in addition to cleaning and performing minor repairs to the textblock. While I did not personally do the conservation treatment, it was a special pleasure to actually get to know the contents of a volume which had passed through my lab. It will be even more pleasant to get back to the lab work itself in the very near future.

Photograph of special collections carts in the Library processing area.
New additions await attention in the Special Collections processing area.
Barbara Rhodes (photographer)

This is the tenth post in a series about how the Library's staff is working remotely and enriching its digital collections to enhance access to researchers and the public during the Covid-19 pandemic. This entry was written by Barbara Rhodes, Conservation Manager.