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Penn Libraries News

Sustainability practices at the Steven Miller Conservation Laboratory

Best practices in conservation help to protect the long-term health of cultural heritage and the planet.

A screenshot of a climate risk assessment tool set to view the address 1420 Walnut St, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19102 highlights the location on a map. This tool seems to provide a comprehensive climate risk assessment for any given location. It includes various factors such as precipitation, heat, and different types of floods. The severity of these factors is color-coded for easy understanding.

Did you know that there is a conservation facility on the 5th floor of the Van Pelt-Dietrich Library Center?

The University of Pennsylvania is very special because there are three conservation facilities across campus, each addressing unique areas of cultural heritage: the Steven Miller Conservation Laboratory here at the Penn Libraries; the Penn Museum’s Conservation Department, which focuses on archaeological objects in the museum; and the Architectural Conservation Laboratory (ACL) in the Department of Historic Preservation at the Weitzman School of Design, which educates professionals who will specialize in architecture and the built environment.

Conservation professionals are collectively called conservators, and our field is devoted to protecting, prolonging, and preserving cultural property for the future. That can often be confused with “conservationist,” which instead is a term used by those who work in the protection of biological life and ecosystems. Both terms are linguistically rooted in protection and care. Conservators who work with cultural heritage usually have master’s degrees in conservation and can come from diverse backgrounds such as chemistry, art history, studio arts, and more. Our attention stretches from the treatment or rehousing steps needed to care for a single item, to the building environment where we store our collections.

Throughout each of our projects, we consider the environmental impact of our work as well as the impact of climate change on cultural heritage. The Penn Libraries conservation lab was an early signatory of the Penn Sustainability Green Labs initiative, a campus-wide commitment to use sustainable and responsible practices, especially with purchasing, waste minimization, and recycling. We continue to participate in the Sustainability Committee and there are other programs for students, staff, faculty, and alumni to get involved too.

Inside of the Steven Miller Conservation Laboratory, we carefully preserve, treat, house, exhibit, and monitor the vast physical collections found throughout the Penn Libraries system – books, journals, zines, art-on-paper prints, photographs, parchment manuscripts, artifacts, and more Many of these items are already centuries old. We also collaborate with scholars, faculty, and other library staff to share our knowledge of material culture through contact with our collections. A conservator’s work, or treatment, is a set of carefully planned steps to physically or chemically stabilize fragile items. The steps can be simple, like surface cleaning to remove dust and grime, or more complex, like washing a print or rebinding a book. Our treatments are meant to safeguard and extend the lifetime of an object by decades, if not centuries.

Often the best way we can care for an object is to house it in an archival box or folder to protect it from risks like dust and light exposure. Carefully selecting archival-quality materials with known compositions and production methods is an important step so that we can make good, long-term choices for our collections.

Five grey storage boxes are stacked on a counter. Each box has a pull tab for easy opening. Behind them is a library cart stacked with books.
Six clamshell boxes made of archival cardboard are awaiting final touches and labels before housing the books inside for optimal long-term storage in our collections. Photo by Valeria Kremser.

To align with our sustainability commitment, we make intentional decisions in procuring and using materials to reduce our consumption and reduce our impact on waste management downstream. For our in-house box fabrication program, we use specialized equipment like a Gunnar Aiox Hybrid XL CMC machine and a keen sense of efficiency to reuse and upcycle scraps and offcuts from different housing projects.

The image depicts a cutting machine with a green and black design, actively working on a beige piece of material. The machine is situated in an office-like environment, and an emergency stop button is visible in the foreground, indicating integrated safety features.
The Gunnar Aiox Hybrid XL is used, along with a digital mat and box cutting equipment, to fabricate custom boxes for the Conservation Lab. Photo by Sarah Reidell

Items on view in exhibits across the Penn Libraries are carefully prepared in the lab to safely display them in our galleries and exhibit spaces. Exhibits can be material-intensive efforts. To be responsible, we have adapted modular book cradle and mount designs made from Vivak, a transparent, cold-bendable polyethylene terephthalate glycol (PETG) sheet. Materials like PETG pass an analytical method called the Oddy Test that detects potentially hazardous pollutants that could impact artifacts displayed in enclosed environments like exhibit cases. Conservators use reference sources like the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) Wiki to crowd-source analytical results from hundreds of materials used in exhibit case construction. Our Vivak mounts and cradles can be adapted and reused again and again for different exhibits, significantly reducing our use of plastics. On a given day, especially during the school year, you can see our work in several exhibits across Penn Libraries. At the Homan Biotech Commons exhibit “A Selection of Mexican Ex-Votos,” items of religious folk art from the Dr. William H. Helfand collection of ex-votos and devotional paintings of medical objects are displayed on reusable Vivak mounts and carefully protected with near-invisible straps and chemically inert foam supports.

We’ve described some of our sustainability practices to reduce our consumption and reuse materials. Penn Sustainability resources help us stay on top of the latest information for single-stream and specialty recycling. Our department contributes to broader facility-level environmental monitoring in collection areas across the library system so we can track the impact of seasonal fluctuations on collection materials. We use small data loggers to record the temperature and humidity in collection spaces. Last fall we replaced outdated loggers that were no longer supported. To keep electronic equipment out of the regular trash, we followed the Computer & Electronics Recycling and Disposal Options from Penn EHRS to safely dispose of e-waste.

Throughout the year, the cultural heritage field celebrates a number of important aspects of our work. Every May 1st we celebrate May Day by encouraging libraries, museums, archives, historical societies, and the public to be ready for disasters and emergencies that could put collections at risk. Preservation Week is sponsored by the American Library Association and inspires action to safeguard physical and digital objects and memories. National Preservation Month is an allied event held annually in May to bring attention to historic sites and buildings. May Day, Preservation Week, and National Preservation Month all underscore how seriously the conservation field views climate change and the accelerating rate of catastrophic weather events that increasing the risk of fire, flood, extreme temperatures, and other weather to our shared cultural heritage. National Preservation Month is an allied event held annually in May to bring attention to historic sites and buildings.

Launched this month, Climate Resilience Resources for Cultural Heritage (CRR, shown in featured photo at top) is a new sustainability tool available from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) and the Foundation for Advancement in Conservation (FAIC) to guide cultural heritage sites and institutions across the US. It has an interactive Hazard Risk Assessment map to identify climate risks at a granular level and across different future time periods using FEMA and NOAA data and projections from the current year up to 2099. There are also other resources to help institutions build resiliency strategies after using the assessment maps. FAIC has also launched a new app called Emergency Response and Salvage Guide (Apple iOS and Android) to help people and institutions prepare for emergencies and know how to salvage by material type — books, paper, electronic records, furniture, and organic materials. 

The image displays four screenshots of an app called Emergency Response & Salvage Guide. The first screenshot shows the home screen. The second screenshot presents a section titled Material Specific Salvage for Emergency Salvage. The third screenshot outlines a step-by-step guide for Emergency Response Action. The fourth screenshot provides detailed information on Step 1: Disaster Alert from the step-by-step guide including advanced warning procedures and immediate actions to be taken during a disaster.
Images from Apple Store preview of the FAIC Emergency Response and Salvage app that shares step-by-step material-specific salvage guide for disaster response. 

The Steven Miller Conservation Laboratory is pleased to share these examples of how we employ sustainable practices in our work, and what the conservation field is doing to protect the long-term health of cultural heritage and the planet. Our lab facility is next to one of the quietest and most popular study areas in Van Pelt, so the next time you need a quick break, come take a peek at the bustling activity and careful work of the conservation professionals within!


Featured photo: The NEH-FAIC Climate Resilience Resources mapping tool color codes the 2050 projected flood risk for Penn’s campus and West Philadelphia neighborhoods. 



May 29, 2024