Monthly Archives: January 2016

Tough Call: When to Call a Conservator

Conservation services are offered by trained professionals in the field of conservation of historic works, artistic works, and cultural property. Conservators specialize in one of three main branches: paper, paintings, and artifacts. Many institutions have conservators on staff, though private conservators and contractors can also be contacted to complete treatments and offer recommendations.

If you do not have a conservator on staff, you may be wondering when you would need to contact one for assistance.


Photo credit: IAEA Imagebank

Questions to ask before contacting a conservator:

  • Are there any trained staff members onsite that can assist?
  • Conservators can be costly. Is funding available within the budget to hire a conservator?
  • Does the item require treatment immediately to remain chemically and physically stable?
  • Does the collection contain a variety of mixed media (textiles, paintings, wood artifacts, and textual records)?

When should you contact a conservator?

  • If your collection is threatened by an environmental disaster
  • If items have been vandalized
  • If items are going on exhibit or display
  • If items of high priority require treatment for stabilization (historical value, informational value, legal value, evidential value, monetary value, intrinsic value)
  • If items require treatment prior to going on loan
  • If there is a suspected pest outbreak in the collection
  • If you are redesigning your archives’ collection space and require advice on storing items with unique housing requirements

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Fire can cause significant damage to an archival institution. Fire damage to archival records can come in many different forms, such has burnt records, smoke and soot damaged records, wet records caused by fire suppression efforts, heat affected records (brittleness) or a combination of some or all of the above. This blog post is specifically about soot.

What is soot? Soot is a black, chalky material made mostly of carbon particles which is produced after an incomplete combustion of hydrocarbons. Coal and wool are examples of material that produce soot during the incomplete combustion process. Soot is abrasive and sticky. It is very difficult to remove all soot during clean up due to its sticky nature. It is extremely important to ensure you have clean hands and gloves while handling soot damaged records or while working in soot affected areas as you can very easily transfer soot from your hands/gloves to archival records. These particulates can soil and chemically damage archival records. It is best to remove soot as soon as possible.

Burnt book

Photo credit: Sarah Wynne

Do not remove soot from wet records as you could smudge the soot and push it further into the paper fibers. Safety dry your records before removing any soot. You may wish to vacuum freeze dry your records if you do not have time to dry them right away. This method of drying may also lift the soot to the surface of the record, which will help in removing the soot.

Carefully brush large pieces of soot off the paper with a boar bristle brush or with the nozzle of a HEPA vacuum. Do not use a soft bristle brush or nozzle as you may rub the soot into the paper fibers. To remove small soot particles, dab an Absorene dirt eraser over the affected material. Replace the eraser when it becomes soiled.

This is a great video from Heritage Preservation about removing soot from objects:

Remember: Always consult a conservator before cleaning any archival material affected by soot.

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