Katie Wagner, rare book conservator for the Smithsonian, washes book pages in de-ionized water. (courtesy of the Smithsonian Libraries)

The Smithsonian Institution’s Book Conservation Lab in Landover is where a small team of book conservators and technicians conserve and preserve more than 1.5 million volumes housed in the Smithsonian’s 20 libraries in as close to original condition as possible.

The other day, Katie Wagner, a rare book conservator, worked on Edward Jenner’s 18th century first-edition book about the variola vaccine, known as the cowpox, which became the vaccine for smallpox.

“These are the hand-colored prints in the book and this is the original binding. So what we’ve done is we’ve taken it out. It has some mold damage, and we have washed and dried the interior,” she said. “The plates [pictures], the color, cannot be immersed in water, the way text can be.”

Wagner was preparing to take wheat starch paste and apply thin Japanese paper to edges that are scalloped areas of loss from fingers pressing and lifting pages for centuries. “I’ll custom cut each page or each little piece of the Japanese paper to adhere to this form, so that it’s just attached on the edges but on both sides. So I’ll do that twice.”

Jenner’s book is one of the rare books adopted at the Smithsonian’s Adopt-A-Book event last month, where guests chose books to financially support through the conservation process. More than 20 other rare books that were similarly adopted wait in a queue to get the same degree of skilled attention as the Jenner text. Fifty to 60 rare books are conserved by Wagner each year, and it is the rare case when some part of a book is replaced.

Wagner is assisted by special collections technician Don Stankavage and volunteer Louise Crean. A high linen or cotton content of paper pre-1840 allows Stankavage to submerge pages without color in de-ionized water to reduce stains on the pages before Wagner begins the more delicate work.

Don Stankavage, special collection technician, works on the binding of a rare book. (courtesy of the Smithsonian Libraries)

The Dibner and Cullman Libraries house most of the rare and special collections, but all the 20 libraries contain some special collections material. Vanessa Haight Smith, director of the lab and rare book conservator, who came from the Princeton Library six years ago, works on exhibitions and manages the loan program, in addition to hands-on conserving work. She recently retrieved The Pavilion at Brighton from the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York, one of the Smithsonian Institution’s Libraries, and has taken it from its binding.

“The text block was broken, and this had a thick layer of animal glue, and it had been sewn with something called oversewing, which was putting stress onto the edges of the pages,” says Haight Smith.

Next to The Pavilion lies a palm-sized 15th century book containing the writings of Aristotle. Frayed string struggles to hold thin slats of leather-covered wood; these are its bindings and cover. Haight Smith gingerly opens the leather darkened by time and hands, where a precisely penned manuscript rests, along with a tiny hole in the wood that the team speculates could be from an ancient worm or acid in the wood.

These three books are among the over 40,000 in the Smithsonian’s rare book collection. Books pre-1840 fall into the rare category, but there are a host of reasons, other than age, why a book can be considered rare or significant, for example, rarity, provenance or research importance.

The lab’s tools range from wooden presses that resemble medieval torture devices, to a database of books on loan, to remote environmental atmospheric monitoring of the library collections done from the lab by Phuong Pham. The general collections technician, Pham single-handedly conserves all general collection books of the institution’s libraries.

Pham has a Master’s of Fine Arts in book arts and printmaking from the University of Philadelphia and came to the Smithsonian after working with a collection while in school. Her mission is to “promote access” while preserving the collection. She shows a small paper book shaped like a box, where the lid is pulled up and the book stretches out for reading. Pham folds a small piece of paper, origami-style, to be slipped in and out, creating a lift mechanism to prevent further damage while in use, without using any adhesive.

The lab reviews rare and special books before they are digitized, then they are sent across the hall where the Smithsonian’s digitization initiative is under way. Up to 1,000 pages a week can be photographed from the entire Smithsonian collection and they are usually up online overnight.

“We scan the libraries’ rare materials because they can’t be sent off to contractors,” said David Holbert from the Imaging Center. “We use a phase-one camera with 65 megapixels scan back.” He says, “Because of the speed of the camera, it’s extremely fast, we can do items cover to cover real quickly.”