Preservation and Conservation at work

Following up on Preservation Week, Amanda Brent, Processing Coordinator in the Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center, has written a piece examining the difference between preservation and conservation, with an example from our special collections.

In the Special Collections Research Center (SCRC), or in any archives for that matter, you hear the words preservation and conservation tossed around a lot – and for good reason! For though archivists are the stewards of hundreds of linear feet of collections and rare books, we don’t always have the resources to repair the inevitable damage that befalls the collections in our care. Damage can occur for a multitude of reasons, and is oftentimes, quite simply, unavoidable. Sometimes collections or purchased records arrive at our repository damaged, or sometimes they accrue damage over time due to the format degrading. However, just because a record or collection is physically damaged, does not necessarily mean that the research value is damaged. In fact, because the research value and uniqueness of the item is of the utmost importance, we call on our friendly preservation librarians and conservators to help us out.

Preserving items is an essential function in archives, one that keeps records safer for longer, so that researchers can continue to use them for as long as possible. Preservation is also a continuum, ranging from fixing specific damage on an item or collection, ensuring proper housing of items, managing climate and pest control in your repository, to ensuring your repository’s building is up to snuff. But what exactly is the difference between preservation and conservation?


Preservation in archives is defined as “the professional discipline of protecting materials by minimizing chemical and physical deterioration and damage to minimize the loss of information and to extend the life of cultural property.”[1] In SCRC specifically, “preservation” generally means we can identify and solve the problem in-house with the help of our amazing Head of Preservation Services, Amy Sullivan. “Solving the problem” can entail mitigating and halting the cause of damage, and in some cases repairing the item. An example of this would be repairing a structurally unsound book binding, repairing rips and tears in a document, or getting a fragile item out of an old frame. Preservation also encompasses Digital Preservation, which is a whole other discipline that could be discussed at length another time.


Conservation, on the other hand, is defined as “The repair or stabilization of materials through chemical or physical treatment to ensure that they survive in their original form as long as possible…Conservation counters existing damage, as distinguished from preservation, which attempts to prevent damage.” However, “Conservation does not always eliminate evidence of damage…”[2] Occasionally, we have to send off an item/items to be conserved – this generally occurs at the nexus of a) the item is damaged beyond the repairing capability of our in-house staff and b) the record is deemed of such archival value and importance that repairing it becomes a priority.

An Analogy

Let’s use a medical analogy to clarify the varying relationships between these cultural heritage experts in an instance of something needing conservation. A patient (a damaged record or collection) gets a routine check-up from their GP (the archivist), who sees them regularly and knows their medical history. The GP notices something wrong with the patient in their encounter – perhaps something they cannot fully address by themselves – and then refers the patient to a specialist. The specialist (or in this analogy the preservation librarian) can further identify the issue at hand and what the patient truly needs in order to address the issue satisfactorily. In some cases, the specialist might recommend surgery. And that’s when a surgeon (the conservator) comes along to fix or mitigate the damage. The GP, specialist, and surgeon, or in other words, the archivist, preservation librarian, and conservator all have differing and important roles, but working together as a team is essential to caring for the record or collection in question.

An Example

One such collection in SCRC, the Grant of Thornton land from Malcolm de Chastillon to Robert, son of Robert Symond (C0401) from 1327 C.E., was recently sent out for conservation at the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC). The item, which was acquired in relatively stable condition for its age, was deemed by SCRC archivists and the Head of Preservation Services to be in need of conservation. Though the item could be stored unharmed in our stacks, we were concerned about future patrons handling the item and therefore perpetuating the damage it had already suffered during its 694 years of existence. So, off to NEDCC it went and below is the conservation plan they proposed and that we accepted:

  • Tension mount parchment onto a double-sided window mat with Japanese paper strips using wheat starch paste. The paper strips will be attached to the perimeters of the mat using Jade 403 and wheat starch paste.
  • A sealed package will be created by sealing the window mats, object and archival backings between two pieces of UV filtering acrylic glazing with Scotch #805 archival sealing tape.
  • Create an archival fluted box to store the sealed package.

And here is the final result! Now this collection can be easily accessed by patrons in a manner that is safe for all, and will ensure the longevity of the item.



Harlem on My Mind: Abram Hill

Audio clips from oral history interviews contained in the Special Collection Research Center’s Works Progress Administration (WPA) oral histories collection were recently featured in the final installment of Harlem on My Mind, a segment of the Into America podcast with Trymaine Lee. In this final installment of Harlem on My Mind, Lee learns about the legacy of playwright Abram Hill, who used his work to center Black characters, Black audiences, and Black communities unapologetically.

Hill worked with the WPA’s Federal Theatre Project until the program ended in 1939. In 1940, Hill co-founded the American Negro Theater, also known as the ANT, which would become a launch pad for stars like Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier. Hill’s name and legacy is not widely known today, and Lee devotes much of the podcast to sharing Hill’s voice and reflections.

Thanks to a Recordings at Risk grant from the Council on Library & Information Resources (CLIR), SCRC recently digitized the WPA oral history collection audio and interview transcripts, featuring persons who were associated with various WPA projects in the 1930s, including the Federal Theatre Project, Federal Art Project, Federal Music Project, and Federal Writers Project. The digital project will be made available via a new website later this spring.

Join SCRC for “A History of Homecoming”

Mason Homecoming 2021 kicks off this Friday, February 5 and runs through Sunday, February 14, with a variety of virtual events for you to enjoy from home. Find out more on the Alumni Homecoming 2021 page, check out the many offerings, and register to attend one or more events.

The Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center (SCRC) was invited to join the annual celebration and to share their historical expertise, highlighted with items and stories from the University Archives and other special collections of note.

Lynn Eaton, Director of SCRC, and Bob Vay, BA ’92, MA ’99, Technology and Exhibitions Archivist, will be participating in a special event, “Mason 101: History of Homecoming,” on Thursday, February 11, 5 – 6 p.m., where they will provide a history of Homecoming and moderate a discussion with alumni panelists, who will share their experiences and insights from multiple decades of Homecoming gatherings. A question and answer segment will immediately follow the program.

To learn more and to register, visit the Alumni Homecoming site.

Guidelines for visiting the Special Collections Research Center

The Libraries’ Special Collections Research Center is open on an appointment-only basis for the Spring 2021 semester. Researchers requesting an appointment will need to know what collections they are interested in, the boxes or books they would like to use, and the estimated amount of time they will need to do their research. Currently, in-person appointments are only available to Mason students, faculty, and staff.

SCRC staff will offer virtual services and consultations to assist patrons with research, to help navigate finding aids, to discuss research projects, and to answer questions about the new policies and procedures. Virtual research consultations are available to all and may be requested by emailing SCRC will work to digitize materials if possible; however, digitization will depend on preservation issues, size of request, copyright, and staff availability.

Guidelines for in-person appointments:

  • Available for Mason students, faculty, and staff only.
  • New researchers will be required to fill out the Researcher Registration form online prior to their appointment.
  • Appointments must be made at least 72 hours in advance and are dependent on staff availability, the number of other appointments scheduled, and availability of the requested collections (as all materials will be quarantined for 72 hours after each use).
  • Visitors are required to wear masks and adhere to social distancing measures, as outlined in the university’s health and safety guidelines.

Questions? Please contact SCRC at

Note: Policies, procedures, and available services are subject to change at any point during the semester, based on university and library operations status, state guideline updates, and SCRC staff availability. Thank you for your understanding.

Libraries and OLLI partner to host discussion on Equal Rights Amendment

Photograph of U.S. Representative Patsy Takemoto Mink of Hawaii in front of the U.S. Capitol Building. Photo Courtesy of SCRC.

On Tuesday, November 17, the Libraries and OLLI will host “The Equal Rights Amendment,” a virtual event, from 3:30-5 p.m. This event is open to the Mason community, but attendance is limited – please register here to reserve your spot, and a Zoom link will be sent to you prior to the event.

A panel from Mason’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) will focus on the pivotal years 1970-82 and share their individual, first-hand experiences lobbying and marching for the Equal Rights Amendment in the Virginia and DC area.

The panel will be moderated by Laura Moore, adjunct faculty with the Department of History & Art History at Mason. The event will be recorded and added to the Special Collection Research Center’s (SCRC) Oral History Program collection.

“The Equal Rights Amendment” marks the fourth annual special oral history collaboration between SCRC and OLLI. The program is funded by a Special Project Grant awarded to the University Libraries by OLLI Mason.