By Miriam Nelson, Head of Preservation, Ohio University Libraries
When you are devoted to the preservation of library collections, there is nothing more gratifying than working on an item that really gets to the heart of that mission. Few things in the Ohio University Libraries’ diverse collection could embody this more completely than the 1873 diary of Margaret Boyd. This diary gives us a glimpse into the experience of not just a student, but the first woman to graduate from Ohio University. The truly wonderful thing about our library is that any student can hold this tiny pocket diary and read about Margaret in her own words and in her own hand, effectively bridging the gap of 140 years of Ohio University history. Interacting with this unique object, we can see ourselves here and now in 2013 as a part of a worthy tradition. Not distanced by the birds’-eye-view of history, but through the experience of a young woman who lived and worked and sometimes wished it were the weekend.
But sharing this diary comes at a price. Organic materials—such as paper, linen thread, hide glue, and leather—deteriorate with time and use. How then do we ensure that this treasure of the Ohio University Archives is available to all of us now as well as all who are to come? How can we be sure it will endure the next century when the first 140 years have not been gentle?
The purpose of an object such as a diary is to be used, to be carried around and taken out when and where the spirit moved the author to write. And the purpose of an object within a library collection is to be read, used, and studied. While such conditions do not lay the best groundwork for long-term preservation, they do inform how we might approach its conservation. It would not be uncommon for a museum painting or a book in a privately owned collection to receive a full restoration, one which would return the object to its original condition. However, an artifact in an archival setting is approached in a much different light. Here the information is not contained solely in the writing. A researcher might note the wear of the leather, the manner in which Margaret wrote clear into the gutter of each page, or the way the ink has faded in certain sections, but remains clear in others. Such things speak to the artifactual nature of the object and the personality of its owner and creator. Taking the possible importance of such evidence into account, the conservation of the diary becomes more about stabilization than restoration.
Yet even stabilization is not without its challenges. Take for example the handwritten text that extends to the very edge of each page; unlike printing, writing ink can be unstable and may run when exposed to even small amounts of moisture. The writing extends to the edge of the pages, which are composed of sheets of paper folded and sewn into signatures. The gathered signatures were sewn together and set with animal glue before they were bound into book form. Usually we would soften the glue with a methyl cellulous gel, but this would endanger the ink and the very essence of the diary. Additionally the paper is very thin—not brittle like much of the paper of its time, but delicate nonetheless. This presents a further challenge in the process of conservation and handling over the years.
This is where the digital surrogate, as it is known, really shines as a preservation tool. The diary may be examined online hundreds or even thousands of times without any wear or risk to the original, leaving the artifact intact for very specific academic use by scholars and the Ohio University community at large. This first and most important step in preserving this unique artifact has already been undertaken. The entire diary has been digitized and made available online. In this way we can increase the accessibility of the diary exponentially without also exponentially increasing damage due to overuse. The University is free to promote this historical object and the Libraries free to share its invaluable content. Furthermore, the digital images enable you to examine the diary in even more detail than you might in person. By zooming in on the full-color scans, one can capture idiosyncrasies in the paper or decipher handwriting that may remain obscure to the naked eye.
For the instances when a researcher wishes to see the diary in person, the most important conservation treatment that the diary will receive is a custom-made presentation box constructed from archival cloth-covered board. This protective enclosure will allow for the safe storage of the diary, protecting its unusually small size on the shelf, and sheltering it from environmental threats. The box is also designed for easy handling to minimize damage when removed. Such a box also plays a bit of a psychological role. The importance of the object is communicated through the design of the box, its value impressed upon the user and inspiring extra care in its handling.
By combining digitization and physical conservation, the Ohio University Libraries seeks to make its greatest treasures available to the best advantage of scholarly research. The Margaret Boyd diary will be on display on the 4th floor of Alden Library on Founders Day, February 18th. The diary also can be found online via Ohio University Libraries Digital Initiatives.
We thank Executive Vice President and Provost Dr. Pam Benoit for funding the physical preservation of this important archival artifact of Ohio University history.
Order of exercises for Ohio University's 59th annual commencement June 26, 1873, the year Margaret Boyd became the first female graduate.
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