Bellows Falls Company Saves Damaged Rockingham Documents

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(Host) Earlier this month a burst pipe unleashed a flood of water in the local history room of the Rockingham Library.

Crates of histories and genealogical archives were sent to a restoration company in Illinois. But for a number of damaged documents, help was much closer. A professionally trained paper conservator has a workshop on Main Street in Bellows Falls.

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Keese) The pipe burst on a Sunday. When workers arrived on Monday, the research room was flooded and water was streaming down over the shelves.

The Rockingham librarians acted fast. Within hours 38 crates of bound volumes were loaded onto refrigerator trucks – a precaution against mold — and headed for a facility that specializes in freeze-drying water-damaged documents.

The remaining pieces went to a local business called Works on Paper. The owner, paper conservator Carolyn Frisa, went to work that day on an album of photographs.

(Frisa) "We were able to take them out of the binder right away and lay them out to dry on a special type of cloth. If they hadn’t been caught right away and they had dried in their plastic sleeves there’s a very good chance that the emulsion from the photographs would have stuck to the plastic and been destroyed."

(Keese) Frisa studied paper conservation in London and pursued her craft at some well-known conservation centers before setting up her own studio in Vermont.

She’s restored priceless historic manuscripts and prints, and letters with just sentimental value.

The photographs from the library are dry, but still need work.

(Frisa) "You can see that they’ve curled and sort of cockled unevenly and some of the ink inscriptions have bled, but they’re still legible."

(Keese) The next step is to re-moisten the photos in a controlled way to get the fibers lying in the right direction. That can mean a water bath…

(Frisa) "You can also spray relax the paper fibers … and spray it again on the reverse."

(Keese) After repeated treatments, the photographs are sheathed in spun polyester fabric and flattened in a barrel-shaped iron press.

(Frisa) "This is what’s called a copy press. So these will stay in the press for about two weeks."

(Keese) The pictures will be re-housed in special sleeves that will help them last longer than they would have if the accident had never happened.

Frisa holds up another Rockingham Library artifact – a  19th century map with a wavy dark stain where water from the burst pipe pooled under the frame.

The stain shows where the water deposited loose particles caused by interactions between the paper and some acidic cardboard used behind it.

Those acidic reactions were turning the map dark and brittle well before the library mishap.

(Frisa) "A lot of the things I work on – I’d say 90 percent of things that come in that have been framed at some point, have this problem."

(Keese) So Frisa will wash the map repeatedly, after careful testing, to stabilize the paper, and pull up most of the recent stain and much of the older acid damage.  

Then the map will be reframed using acid free mat boards and UV-filtering. Good to go for another century.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese.

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