Preserving the Past, for the Future
At the Penn State Libraries’ Preservation, Conservation & Digitization Centre, experts lovingly care for old and rare books, photos, maps, and other items, ensuring they’ll be available to future generations.
Sue Kellerman was attending an American Library Association conference in New Orleans when she took a call from colleagues at the Penn State Libraries informing her that a “minor” crisis had occurred in the stacks. It was June 23, 1993, and Kellerman—who worked at the time in acquisitions but was also the libraries’ point person for conservation and preservation—immediately flew back to University Park, where she discovered that the crisis was far from minor: A water main break on Curtin Road had caused a major flood, damaging thousands of books.
For several days, library staff worked around the clock to contain the catastrophe, carting out thousands of waterlogged books, placing them in Housing and Food Services’ freezers in the hopes of preventing mold formation, then crating the books and sending them off to a professional vendor to be dried out using vacuum-freeze drying.
“It was all hands on deck,” Kellerman ’79 Lib says, “but the library staff is so passionate and dedicated that out of the 36,000 to 40,000 books that were damaged, we only lost three.”
The crisis would serve as a catalyst for the creation of a dedicated center for conservation and preservation, something Kellerman—the Judith O. Sieg Chair for Preservation—had long believed a necessity. The university libraries boast a magnificent collection of books, and the Eberly Family Special Collections Library in particular houses over 200,000 printed volumes, more than 25 million archival records and manuscripts, and millions of photos, maps, prints, and audiovisual items. “It’s great to have a fine collection,” Kellerman says, “but we need to take care of it properly.”
Shortly after the flood, the libraries named Kellerman a part-time preservation officer. But it wasn’t until 1999 that things really got going. That year, Kellerman assembled a team of eight library staff members, and she was given an unexpected opportunity to present her vision of what a preservation program would look like to the spouses of the Library Development Board. “They were meeting at the Nittany Lion Inn, and the dean told me I had nine minutes—not eight, not 10—to present,” Kellerman says. She asked one of her colleagues for a World War II silk map from Special Collections, the sort pilots would carry in their pockets if ejected from their planes, and she told her audience, “These are the kind of items we want to preserve.”
That evening, Judith Sieg ’59 Com, who was at the Nittany Lion Inn, donated a large sum of money that helped kick off the preservation program, and she endowed the chair that is now Kellerman’s. In 2013, the libraries applied for and were awarded a $1.25 million grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to establish a full-time senior conservator position, which Penn State matched dollar for dollar. “We were able to start new programs like deacidification, which neutralizes the acid found in paper so it doesn’t continue to get brittle—lots of things were happening,” Kellerman says.
With funding in hand, next on her list was to hire a book conservator, and Kellerman knew that she wanted to hire Bill Minter, a much-sought-after book and paper conservator. Minter, who had trained in Chicago with an old-world Irish bookbinder, was also the designer of an ultrasonic welder that encapsulates fragile items between two sheets of Mylar, an inert polyester resin, and keeps them intact. Today, about 200 such machines are in use around the world, including one at Penn State.
In 2019, five years after Minter came on board as senior book conservator, the libraries purchased and renovated a dedicated space for Kellerman and her team. Located off Science Park Road in State College, the Preservation, Conservation and Digitization Centre has been fitted with traditional machinery and sophisticated equipment to perform a range of functions for the Penn State Libraries and the broader community, from traditional bookbinding to disaster response to the long-term preservation of print and digital material, including for rare and special-format items.
Kellerman and Minter gave us a tour of the Centre and pinpointed some of its unique items.