The targeted conservation of the old. Conservation Librarian David Stokoe has dedicated his 40-year career to repairing and preserving a wide range of unique library materials and collections.

person lifting paperwork into the filing cabinet

Throughout his career, conservation librarian David Stokoe has had an extraordinary window into history.

For the past 16 years, Stokoe has worked in Syracuse University’s Library Special Collections Research Center and its conservation laboratory. Located on the sixth floor of the Bird Library, the recently dedicated Joan Breier Brodsky ’67, G’68 Conservation Lab, is responsible for the preservation and preservation of individual objects and entire collections, performing repairs on bound and unbound manuscripts, printed books, works on paper, architectural drawings and much more.

Throughout her career (which began at the age of 17 in her native Newcastle upon Tyne in the UK), Stokoe has had an amazing window into history. This is the nature of a curator who has worked in museums, libraries, government archives and universities. Some of the more memorable items that have passed through his hands include the following:

  • Materials relating to the census of King Herod
  • 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablets used by shepherds to record their flocks
  • Works of art and writings from internment camps on the Isle of Man during World War II (at that time people deemed a security risk)
  • Early medieval Bibles and manuscripts printed from the 14th century onwards
  • A letter eloquently written by Malcolm X outlining his philosophical evolution on racism

Stokoe says the most challenging project was to put together parts of the epic “Prince Valiant” comic created by Hal Foster in 1937. It’s an adventure story that continues through 4,000 comics.

“It was originally drawn on large plates with glued captions, many of which have peeled off or completely detached over time,” says Stokoe. He has designed a spreadsheet to keep track of all “orphaned” captions, words and letters. Much like a giant puzzle, Stokoe essentially “rebuilt” the series with the help of proofs and put the individual sheets back into acid-free wallets to keep them forever.

The work of a restorer includes everything from repairing torn and tattered paper, removing scotch tape, rebuilding books, cleaning and chemical treatment of paper, preparing items for cold storage in a humid environment. controlled.

With generous philanthropic support, Stokoe was privileged to work with the most advanced tools in special storage workshops, including a custom box making machine that produces acid-free archival book boxes (it took 20-30 minutes to assemble archival boxes by hand; now takes less than five minutes).

person scanning the copy on the computer

For the past 16 years, Stokoe has worked in Syracuse University’s Library Special Collections Research Center and its conservation laboratory.

Recently, Syracuse University completed construction of a 15,000-square-foot facility that includes cold stores and refrigerators to provide optimal environmental conditions for materials that are crucial for teaching and research.

Stokoe is responsible for staff training in many aspects of conservation and also teaches in a graduate program “Preservation of Library and Archival Collections” which covers archival environments, disaster planning / response, book and paper repair and much more. That’s why students in her class are beaten on books: “Everyone gets a hardcover book and a paperback book. We damage the books and repair them. We break the joints and thorns, tear off the pages, remove the thorns and damage the corners of the board. Of course, it’s all hypothetical and they don’t get any points for the damage, just for the repair, ”she says. She notes that damage dealt in seconds can take hours to repair.

He brings with him to class, lectures and seminars with extensive experience in damage and destruction, along with extraordinary details on the disaster recovery process.

“We had twenty-nine water emergencies in one institution in just five years,” says Stokoe. “Multiple construction projects have contributed to water seepage, bursting and leaking pipes, basement flooding and more. We used a freeze-drying technique to save numerous historically important medieval volumes and other water-damaged material ”. He recalls using more than 2 miles of duct tape to hang protective plastic sheeting and fill bags with 26 pounds of dust during the HVAC renovations.

Fortunately, his disastrous experiences at Syracuse University were less dramatic, but no less interesting. Books in circulation sometimes come back with mold, stains and even bugs “We have to pack everything up and freeze them at minus 30 degrees for two weeks to kill the bugs,” Stokoe says. “Then we have to vacuum and sanitize but we are able to recover most of the materials”.

Stokoe keeps detailed notes on each database retention process; recording every detail of the processing is a fundamental part of a conservator’s job.

“I keep specific records so that someone in the future can review what I have done,” he says. “And almost everything I do is reversible. All of this involves a little bit of physics, mathematics, chemistry, biology, environmental science, mechanics and a lot of attention to quality control. “

Stokoe says the job requires tremendous patience and attention to detail as it can take months to preserve some damaged materials, but she never gets discouraged.

“Repair is not the last straw,” he explains. “Objects that cannot be processed to be made accessible can always be preserved in their current condition in the hope that future technology will find a way. If it is beyond my ability to solve today, I am hoping for a solution in the future. This means that nothing is ever truly disposed of due to its current condition. “

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