Cleaning the Rust

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The pictured objects were actively corroding after the flood. To slow that process we put the objects in sealed containers with silica gel packets. The dessicant pulls in moisture so it doesn’t permeate the objects. 

Now we are trying to clean up the effects of the corrosion and stabilize the metal so that the objects can be put on display and preserved. To begin with, we take small knives (carpenter’s marking knives or exactos) and carefully scrape away the flaking rust spots. Some of these objects were painted so we must be careful not to disturb that while we are removing the rust.

Once the large areas have been scraped a brass or bronze (named for the bristles) brush is used to begin to even out the surface. A couple different weights of steel wool are used and finally a coat of oil which is rubbed into the metal with a fine grain steel wool. 

I cleaned the drill bit last week, it took about 4 hours and the coils were very hard to clean. Looking at it now it doesn’t seem like the same object, It is amazing the difference in the condition. It is tedious work, rivaling the basket cleaning, but there is no saliva involved in this project!

Metal Cleaning Party

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Several weeks ago, Steve Stenstrom offered to give us a quick workshop on metal cleaning and preservation techniques. Our best guess is that we have a bout 100 metal items to clean — most are from the African American Museum of Iowa. We really needed his assistance, took him up on his offer, and decided to hold a metal cleaning party.

On Tuesday, Caitlin set up the Oakdale storage room with tables, covered with plastic, and worklights. She also swept out the room and made it look presentable–we have been taking pictures of each item out there and finishing the inventory, so we had a few things to tidy. I was to gather the tools and cleaning items that we might need and bring them out to Oakdale.

Bryan Stusse and I met Steve out at Oakdale Hall around 10:00AM so we could set up the tools and go through items with him. While Nancy and I talked to Steve, Caitlin and Bryan went to meet Leigh Ann Randak, Johnson County Historical Society curator, in order to help her navigate the Oakdale maze.

After we had settled in, Steve gave us an intro lecture, discussing briefly the problems with alloy and non-alloy metals, a little background in metal manufacture, basic tools and solutions for removing corrosion, and then tried to convince Nancy to set up an electrolysis bath in the lab for some of the items. She wasn’t convinced.

Each of us selected a metal object to work on. At the end of the day we had two horse shoes and a knife cleaned and two other items partially cleaned. Our original intent was to start cleaning metal in the conservation lab. After a day of scraping, flaking, sanding rust and other debris from the metal, we decided this particular task is too dirty for the lab and will continue our work out at Oakdale.

We still need to learn how to finish the cleaned metal object to protect it from contaminates. Steve offered to come back another day. His offer was gratefully accepted.

The three photos on the left are courtesy George McCrory, University of Iowa News Service.

Disaster Planning E-Forum a Success!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Walter Cybulski, Preservation Librarian at the National Library of Medicine, and I led a two-day e-forum lsitserv discussion on disaster planning and response. We weren’t really sure how it would work but were willing to give it a try. It was exhausting but well worth it. 

We shared sites for resources; discussed mutual aid agreements, “disaster response” exercises for training, and tips on dealing with a disaster; had lots of ideas and pointed to templates for crafting a disaster response plan; talked about how to deal with water leaks and the virtues of cleaning or not cleaning mud from books before packing up; pondered whether to store record album covers and discs together or separately; had a rather lively discussion about mold clean up; and identified funding for recovery and working with FEMA as an area that needed further action at the national level.

We had 549 subscribers and posted close to 100 emails. The e-forum was free and sponsored by the Association for Library Collections and Technical Services, a division of the American Library Association.

For the archives of this discussion go to:, click on ALCTS (spelled out) under the ALA Division heading, then choose

Saving Working Files Conundrum

Friday, February 6, 2009

Susan Kuecker, African America Museum curator, would like to save her working files. These files have all her research for various researcher requests, grant applications, and projects, collected over eight years. Most of this information is not in her computer. Since most of the items in the files are not unique, she can’t justify spending a lot of money on recovery.

Since the material is not unique, our working premis is that we’ll clean the items good enough to make a photocopy replacement, flattening only when necessary. Our best guess is that there are about 6,000 pages. When I first priced this proposed project out using a conservation lab technician’s time, the price tag was around $24,000. Then I tried the same scenario using student workers. The price tag was $12,000. Still too high. A little light bulb went off — we are interviewing volunteers. Perfect!

After a brief discussion with Susan, we arrived at a plan whereby the AAMI will supply us with replacement folders and photocopy paper and we’ll use a combination of students and volunteers to process the files. Any exceptions (unique brochures, newspaper articles, photographs) will be separated out for a later project. New price tag is under $900. Very acceptable to all!

We’ve begun pulling the material out of the file drawers and putting them into boxes for volunteers to work on. The file drawers are going back to the AAMI. They hope to be able to clean the drawers and repaint for re-use.

African American Objects Ready to Go Home

Friday, January 30, 2009

On Tuesday February 3, 2009,  we will be returning the first finished round of artifacts to the African American Museum. This will include baskets, gourds, feathered fans, sandals, a beaded necklace, a syrup tin, a box of buttons from a local dry cleaner and many other objects. It will be a landmark in the progress we have been making. With so many projects happening simultaneously it is nice to be able to see what we have accomplished so far and to be able to send these artifacts home to their museum.

Boxing Up African American Objects

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Since all the cleaned items will be off to their home, I am taking today and tomorrow to box them up for travel, and also future protection. It is so pleasing to see these items we have lived with snuggled in new boxes, waiting to be picked up. Making the clamshell boxes out of the blue board is also a nice break from what seems like constant cleaning. Some of the items, like the feathered fans, will share housing, but the baskets will be happiest in sturdy boxes by themselves. It will help us, with space (and hopefully the African American Museum, too, that’s the idea), as we can stack boxes, but not items. This was Nancy’s idea, after noticing that the items that had been properly housed prior to the flood fared much better than unhoused, or ill housed, items. 

Washing Music Library LPs

Friday, January 23, 2009

Librarian Anne Shelley brought down a box of soon to be digitized LPs with the request that we clean them. We were happy to do so, as it would give us a chance to make sure that our dish drainer could convert itself into an LP drying rack. I set up the sink with two trays, one with water and a bit of photoflo for washing and a second “water only tray” for rinsing. I removed the LPs from their jackets and swabbed the labels to make sure that none would run in the water–only two seemed ready to run. I then quickly dipped the LPs in the wash, brushing them gently with a soft (tsukemawashibake) brush, one that we normally use for paste linings. I then propped them on the drying rack, perfectly sized for an LP, and let them dry for a short period. Next, I brushed them dry with a microfiber brush designed for vinyl records. Each record then got slipped back into its cover, with a new polyethelene sleeve for protection. This should remove any dust and greasy fingerprints from the surface that might otherwise interfere with the digitization.

Up Close and Personal

Friday, January 2, 2009

I like to wear these magnifying glasses to demonstrate how fashion forward we are at the University of Iowa Conservation Lab. Aside from being extremely attractive they are actually quite helpful in situations like this one. The infamous gourd drum which took roughly 40 hours to complete has hair attached around the edge of the stretched leather on the top which was caked in mud. After all the drum had been through, the hair was barely holding on so it wasn’t going to stand up to any normal saliva swabbing. I had to take a very small brush and a bit of water to try to brush the mud out of the hairs without releasing any of them. The magnifying glasses helped me to see what I was doing so I didn’t damage anything. Once I had brushed out most of the mud I went around the edges with a swab and saliva to get to the gourd and leather underneath and in between hairs.

Cleaning Gourd Drum

Wednesday, December 17, 2008 

This gourd drum, an artifact from the African American Museum is a dried and hollowed gourd, the top has been sliced away to create an opening which has leather stretched across it. Two sticks intersect inside the gourd with the ends protruding from the sides, through the leather as you can see in the picture below. It is also wrapped with cord and there is a wooden handle attached through a hole carved in the bottom.

The cleaning of this particular item is complicated by the fact that there is still hair attached to the stretched leather
of the drum. It is mostly around the edges and was plastered down by the mud and silt that covered the entire artifact. I have been using a variety of techniques to remove the mud from the body of the gourd including a Poly Vinyl Alcohol sponge for the cursory cleaning and then cotton swabs and saliva for spot cleaning.  The hair that remains attached to the leather is proving very tricky to clean. On the stretched leather I have been using cotton swabs and saliva but the hair is barely attached and must be cleaned with extreme care, for this I have been using a very fine brush with small amounts of water. The hair detaches so easily that anything more abrasive will remove it.

The mud is so thick that this method is very time consuming, I have to go over the same areas repeatedly. I cannot however work on the same area for too long because when the area becomes too saturated the leather softens and the hairs release more easily. I’ve been rotating and working on different areas for shorter periods of time.

There will be some residual staining but the drum will be stabilized to the point that it will be safe to handle, and suitable for exhibit display. As of today I have spent roughly 30 hours on the gourd drum and I estimate that it will require at least 10 more hours if not longer.

Making A Difference With Baskets

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The African American Museum has a collection of baskets that were sent to us after being damaged in the flood. In September we were sent to the Campbell Center in Mt. Carroll, IL for training in cleaning and preserving these baskets. This is an example of one of the baskets I cleaned. This particular basket is actually a tray with seven smaller “cup like” baskets nested into it. This picture shows two of the cups, the one on the right has been cleaned, the one on the left has not. This particular basket took roughly 40 hours to clean using swabs and saliva.