Fixer of books

The work of a rare-manuscripts conservator demands broad knowledge, diverse skills, patience, and a touch of ingenuity

Photo: Yolonda C. Jones

Eliza Gilligan often jokes that her job is to read Thomas Jefferson’s mail.

Before her on a large work table in her lab on Grounds lies a piece of that mail, an 1804 letter from President Jefferson to an M. Delacoste, declining the latter’s supplication for funds in support of an “establishment for promoting the science of Natural history in New York.”

It’s a mundane scrap of history, yellowed, falling to pieces, and bearing the telltale discolorations of someone’s well-meaning effort to hold it together with tape. Now those discolorations are Gilligan’s problem to solve. As senior conservator for the University libraries, Gilligan will spend hours concocting just the right “solvent cocktail”—a potent brew that might include ingredients like acetone, xylene, or heptane—to make the splotches disappear. She’ll wash the letter in deionized water to leach out acidification, give it an alkaline bath to protect it from further degradation, then mend it with Japanese tissue paper and wheat-starch paste. Then this minor correspondence, preserved as a usable document, will return to the Special Collections Library to await whatever might yet be made of its contents, for “the researcher who is going to come along and spot the profound or connect the dots between documents,” Gilligan says.

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