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  • Photo by Dean Shalhoup

    At her desk in the center of the spacious Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, Senior paper conservator Suzanne Gramly works on removing old glue from a watercolor painting.
  • Photo by Dean Shalhoup

    Claire Grund, an associate paper conservator at the Northeast Document Conservation Center, works with large, historic posters that are undergoing a preservation process at the Andover facility.
  • Photo by Dean Shalhoup

    Using a hot-tipped tool called, simply, a spatula, conservator Suzanne Gramly meticulously removes old glue from a valuable watercolor painting at the Northest Document Conservation Center.
  • Photo by Dean Shalhoup

    Senior Northeast Document Conservation Center paper conservator Suzanne Gramly carefully removes old glue from an original watercolor painting as part of the art's preservation process.
  • Photo by Dean Shalhoup

    The Northeast Document Conservation Center features a hybrid of old and new equipment; this 19th-century cast-iron press is used regularly to flatten wrinkly papers and documents.
  • Photo by Dean Shalhoup

    Senior book conservator Mary Patrick Bogan sprays liquid magnesium salts to preserve the lavishly-illustrated pages of a bound collection of 1864 Harper's Weekly newspapers.
  • Photo by Dean Shalhoup

    Senior book conservator Mary Patrick Bogan sprays a mist of liquid magnesium salts that will deacidify, and preserve, the lavishly-illustrated pages of this bound collection of 1864 Harper's Weekly newspapers.
Sunday, January 16, 2011

Business conserves documents, keepsakes

ANDOVER, Mass – It isn’t a hospital or a physical therapy center, but it’s the place many of the nation’s very old, worn out and feeble go to get better.

Nor is it some secret fountain of youth, but almost all that go in come out looking much brighter – and a whole lot younger.

Actually, the Northeast Document Conservation Center, a spacious collection of offices, research rooms, highly specialized digital photography studios and lab stations, really is a sort of fountain of youth – not for people, unfortunately, but for some of humankind’s most precious keepsakes and all kinds of priceless photos, documents and books.

“We have amazing things coming in all the time from all over,” Mary Patrick Bogan, a senior book conservator, said recently. “They come from historical societies, museums, government agencies and private collections.”

Located on an upper floor of a handsomely restored mill building, the center was founded in 1973, largely out of a growing need for paper conservation among libraries, museums, and historical and educational facilities, as well as towns and cities that needed to archive official reports and important documents.

Behind its creation were officials of the Interstate Library Compact, a New England-wide network of state libraries, who worked together to create a conservation facility whose services would be available to all New England nonprofit groups.

Along the way, the center expanded to cover nonprofits in New York, New Jersey, Maryland and Delaware.

The center has also added an educational component, through which staff members host training seminars, workshops, “webinars” and conferences relating to preservation and the handling of artifacts and documents.

At the helm of the operation is Amherst resident Bill Veillette, a longtime historian, preservationist and author, and former executive director of the New Hampshire Historical Society.

One of the center’s priorities is keeping its techniques and technology on the cutting edge, Veillette said. Until recently, for instance, the center boasted a giant microfilm operation, but as cutting-edge as it once was, the machinery has grown too expensive to maintain, thus fading into the background in favor of digital technology.

Preservation treatments vary widely depending not only on the type of artifact or document, but on its very makeup and condition, Veillette said.

At a long table toward the middle of the wide-open center, senior paper conservator Suzanne Gramly doted over a rectangular work of art from which the mat had been stripped.

The watercolor painting is part of a large collection that came from Florida, she said.

“We get a lot of stuff from Florida. It’s their climate,” Gramly said, adding how the state’s unusually high humidity and strong sunshine cause the mold and light-exposure issues common in artifacts and documents they receive from down that way.

As she proceeded, Gramly used a handheld tool reminiscent of the wands that come in kids’ wood-burning sets, except its “hot” end is flat rather than pointy.

“I’m trying to get all the glue off of it,” she said, a tad irritated that someone at some point chose to mat the historic painting using good ol’ Elmer’s Glue.

Meanwhile, Bogan, who likes the nickname “MP,” spends most of her hours across the room in the book lab, which includes a curious little chamber with a yellowish hue, numerous tubes and gadgets and an odd-sounding ventilation system.

Designed to suck fumes from working materials up and out a large vent rather than linger around the worker, the room has negative air pressure, similar to the force that allows large, bubble-type arenas to keep their shape.

This day, Bogan’s project was to “deacidify,” or remove acid from, each page of a bound collection of all the Harper’s Weekly magazines issued in 1864.

“Sometimes it’s hard not to get sidetracked,” Bogan said, citing humans’ natural desire, especially among historians, to spend time reading or, in the case of Harper’s, pausing to admire the gorgeous sketches and engravings for which the publication is known.

The deacidification process involves spraying a fine mist of liquefied magnesium salts on each page.

“Often, these old papers are very acidy,” Bogan said. “This neutralizes the acid and creates a buffer that stabilizes the paper.”

Looking around and sizing up the tools, machinery and specialty devices stationed throughout the center is a treat in itself. Three centuries’ worth of inventions are represented almost equally, from huge, 19th-century, cast-iron presses to more modern, custom-built washing stations with filtered water to the scanning labs’ brand new software, a sight rarely seen in any type of operation.

The old presses, Veillette said, are nearly maintenance free and all but indestructible, making them ideal for the chief purpose of flattening wrinkly pages or documents and, accompanied by a skilled human touch, squeezing book bindings back into shape.

For Bogan, scrapbooks are the most fun to work on.

“I find them fascinating, she said. “They’re so one-of-a-kind.”

She recalls preserving scrapbooks belonging to Woody Guthrie, Greer Garson and one-time baseball stars Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, the latter of whom lived for a time in nearby Sudbury.

She has seen music manuscripts, comic books and even historic wallpaper come through the center, along with ancient artifacts such as a 13th-century manuscript she recently preserved.

A wide range of things drives people to the center, Veillette said. Historical societies might need items from their collection prepared for an exhibit or may want to hastily preserve a recent accession, for instance, or an individual might have just inherited a precious family heirloom worthy of preservation.

Even items needing help after suffering smoke or water damage come in now and then, he said.

Dean Shalhoup can be reached at 673-3100, ext. 31, or