Deering to display exhibit on library collections

Jacquelyn Guillen, Reporter


Students may be tempted by the Vin Fiz wine and Barack Obama lollipops on display in Deering Library, but they aren’t for consumption. The items are a part of the library’s new exhibit, “Beyond the Book: The Changing Nature of Library Collections,” which features unique objects acquired by Northwestern and aims to illustrate the diverse array of items libraries collect.

The exhibit, which is set to open Jan. 20 and runs until May 8, was curated by the Northwestern University Library Preservation Department. It contains items from across history, such as a board game called “Sexism,” cobweb portraits from the late 19th century, Mesopotamian clay tablets, glass lantern slides from the early 20th century, letters to and from composer John Cage and the hard drive of former economics Prof. Dale Mortensen, recipient of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences.

“These are pretty rare collections that are very unique to Northwestern,” said Stephanie Gowler, project conservator in the Preservation Department and co-curator of the exhibit. “The strengths of our collections is here.”

Katherine Risseeuw, preservation librarian and co-curator of the exhibit, said they receive items from other curators and department heads within the library. The items from this exhibit are from NU’s five special libraries: the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies, University Archives, Music Library, Special Collections and the Transportation Library.

Gowler also said the items on display can be used to learn about certain topics in a different way.

Some examples include the Obama lollipops and biscuit wrappers on display. They came to NU when David Easterbrook, former curator of the Melville J. Herskovits Library of African Studies, traveled to Africa with graduate students and various vendors with whom the library works. The lollipops are from Kenya, and the biscuit wrappers are from Ghana. While there are written documents about Obama’s impact in African communities, these items help show how the communities represent him within their cultures, says Risseeuw and Gowler.

Most of time, the Preservation Department receives books, papers and sometimes photographs. For books, the department cleans the pages or re-attaches a book cover if it’s damaged, but it has to research different preservation methods when it receives objects.

“We want to alter the object as little as possible and we don’t really want to alter it,” Gowler said. “We want to leave it as is but also make it stable so that it’s not going to fall apart further.”

One item on display that was repaired is an original animation cel from Walt Disney’s 1939 “The Ugly Duckling.” Based on research into the materials, it is believed the animation cel is made from cellulose acetate, which breaks down over time. Risseeuw and Gowler said when the department received the object, the duckling and frog character on the cel were not attached to the background illustration, and they had to come up with a solution to reattach the characters.

To do this, Risseeuw and Gowler said they researched how animations worked during the time period, how the cels were created, how the materials break down, what type of paint was used and various other topics in order to figure out how to safely repair it. In the end, the department attached two sheets of polyester film to keep the characters in place.

“We want to be sure that what we’re using is not going to react with the materials, discolor them, change them,” Gowler said. “We try to use materials that have been tested to show that they will age well.”

For some items more difficult to preserve, such as the old cassette tapes and open reel tapes on display, the best option is to digitize the information, said Risseeuw.

Other items may require a box or storage compartment that the department calls “housings” to preserve the items. These “housings” keep light and dust out, while also providing support for the object.

These items aren’t for display only, and certain objects are even available for students to check out of the library.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @jacqui_guillen