Q: I have my grandmother's 105-year-old notebook with her beautiful calligraphy. The ink is fading, and the pages are becoming more and more brittle. What is the proper way to preserve it? And is there someone who could digitize the notebook and make high-quality copies of the pages without damaging it?
A: A project like this, with great sentimental value, warrants the help of a professional conservator who specializes in preserving works on paper. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works offers a "find a conservator" service on its website (conservation-us.org) that allows you to search by specialty and Zip code. To be included in the list, conservators must have been trained to use materials that are chemically stable and as reversible as possible, and their protocol always involves providing written and photographic documentation of what they do. Their goal is to stabilize and preserve, not necessarily make documents look new again.
The Washington area, with its wealth of museums, is particularly well endowed with suitable specialists — a search on the AIC website turned up 23 conservators specializing in books and paper within 20 miles of Rockville. But many have email addresses indicating they work at the Library of Congress, the Smithsonian Institution or other agencies.
One book and paper conservator who takes on individual projects is Ewa Paul in Fairfax (703-488 -8626; evaartconservation.com). Like other conservators, she typically begins a project with a free consultation, although if she has to travel she might charge for that. She'd discuss options, and if you wanted to proceed, she would draft a formal proposal with prices. Paper conservators in the Washington area generally charge $100 to $140 an hour, Paul said.
The treatment would begin by documenting the condition of the notebook via photographs. Then Paul would test the materials to determine things such as the type of paper and whether the ink is sensitive to solvents. The actual conservation might include treating the paper to combat acidity. After the treatment, she would take another round of photographs and give you a report detailing all that she did.
Paul looked at the picture you sent. Judging just from the small section visible in it, she wrote in an email, "I can tell that the paper is in rather good condition, and so are the inks." But she would need to examine the whole notebook to make a recommendation about the best way to digitize it. If the pages are fragile, she suggests having a conservator do the scanning. If the pages are in good condition, you might be able to do it yourself.
For the scanning, you might want to follow standards that the Library of Congress uses when it scans documents for people who want copies of books or papers in its collection. The library scans at a finer resolution, called DPI, or dots per inch, for small pages than it does for large pages on the assumption that people may want to enlarge small pages more when making prints. For pages 4 inches by 5 inches, the DPI setting would be 1,400. But for pages 5 inches by 7 inches, or 8 inches by 10 inches, it would be only 600. Make at least one copy of your scan and store it in a different place. And, because file storage systems keep evolving, transfer the images to a current storage system every five years or so. You might also want to make a paper printout and save that.
The Library of Congress offers tips for digitizing personal documents at digitalpreservation.gov/personalarchiving.