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.


BARTERING BLOCKS: In antiquity, cuneiform tablets hardened in the hot sun. These clay facsimiles—replicas of the originals, which reside in Special Collections—were baked in an oven. Their inscriptions detail a transaction between two individuals exchanging animals for feed.

CHILD'S PLAY: Lothar Meggendorfer’s 1890 children’s book Greedy Julia featured pull tabs and moving parts to tell the story of a little girl, hungry for honey, who discovers a mouse beat her to the honey pot. Only one tab worked on the library’s copy; Minter collaborated with experts at Penn State’s Center for Quantitative Imaging to figure out the pivot points on each page and create a large-scale facsimile that moves exactly like the parts in the original book.

RISKY READS: In the 19th century, many cloth-bound books came in bright colors like this popular emerald green. No one knew until 2019 that that green dye contained arsenic. Kellerman’s team has identified a dozen of these so-called poison books in the libraries. They have been isolated from circulation and require PPE when handling.

RESTORATIVE PRACTICES: Minter’s team restored this 1750s Spanish songbook by removing the binding, mending individual sheets, sewing the book back together and into its original cover, and storing it in a protective quilt case.

A WAR HERO'S WARDROBE: When the Centre received Ernest Hemingway’s World War I jacket and cap last summer, the items were immediately placed in a special freezer to kill the many insects that had made homes inside. After two weeks, the jacket and cap were removed and fully vacuumed to remove any residual larvae and other deposits. The team then made a special storage box that protects Hemingway’s wartime gear from moths, bright light, and other environmental factors that could cause damage, and preserves it for years to come.

NEATLY PACKED: Making boxes for old and fragile books, like this 1815 cookbook (above), is one of the Centre’s fortes. These custom creations, typically made from bookbinder’s board that is cut and fitted to size, help protect unique items including artists’ books and limited editions from Special Collections that are vulnerable to wear and tear. Once a book is placed in its box, the excess space around that book is filled out with Ethafoam, an inert plastic foam that does not harm the item in any way but allows the box to keep its shape.

SKILLED CRAFTSMAN: Minter, who as a young man trained with a bookbinder, continues to hone his bookbinding skills. He enjoys making special design binding out of leather for commercially printed books to create something totally unique. On the book pictured above right, leather onlays produced the letters “RHM.”

PAPERMAKING: During the COVID-19 pandemic, the Centre’s staff became interested in making paper from paper, including paper towels and junk mail. Kellerman would love to explore papermaking further, and one day she hopes to produce it en masse. For now, her team has been offering papermaking workshops in the Children’s Garden at the Arboretum, which are popular with both children and their parents.

FISH FINESSE: Catherine Orochena ’19 A&A, preservation and conservation specialist at the Centre, discovered that the unique properties and aesthetics of fish skin translate perfectly to parchment. She removes the skin from a simple piece of salmon purchased at Wegmans, soaks it in salt water, them stretches it out to dry. The parchment can also be used as book binding.

FROZEN BOOKS: Any books that experience water damage are immediately frozen in the Centre’s special vacuum freeze-drying chamber to ward off mold damage and to prevent the likelihood of the pages become warped.  

WELDING WIZARDRY: Prior to his arrival at Penn State, Bill Minter, the libraries’ chief conservator, designed and developed an ultrasonic welding machine to seamlessly—and attractively—seal fragile paper by stitching two sheets of polyester film around the perimeter of the paper. Minter’s machines are used in libraries around the world; last year, he shipped one to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

UNDER THE LENS: Minter and his team use this recently acquired, high precision Olympus CX43 RF microscope to determine the exact composition of paper and to figure out if it’s made from flax, linen, cotton rags, or wood fiber. The microscope camera’s large field of view can replicate on screen and for a broader audience exactly what the viewer sees.