It’s officially called the Summer Literacy Clinic, but there’s much more to it than one-on-one reading and tutoring. True, when you enter the library of Roberts PreK-8 School in the Syracuse City School District (SCSD), you see third- and fourth-grade…
A Conservator With a Unique Window Into History
The purposeful preservation of the old. Conservation Librarian David Stokoe has dedicated his 40-year career to repairing and preserving a wide range of unique library materials and collections.
For the last 16 years, Stokoe has worked in Syracuse University Libraries Special Collections Research Center and its Conservation Lab. Located on the sixth floor of Bird Library, the recently dedicated Joan Breier Brodsky ’67, G’68 Conservation Lab is responsible for the conservation and preservation of individual items and entire collections, carrying out repairs to bound and unbound manuscripts, printed books, works on paper, architectural drawings and much more.
Throughout his career (which began at age 17 in his native Newcastle upon Tyne in the United Kingdom), Stokoe has had an extraordinary window into history. That’s the nature of a conservator who has worked in museums, libraries, government archives and academia. Some of the most memorable items that have passed through his hands include the following:
- Materials relating to King Herod’s census
- 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablets used by shepherds to record their flocks
- Artwork and writings from internment camps on the Isle of Man during World War II (housing people deemed a security risk at that time)
- Early printed medieval bibles and manuscripts from the 14th century onwards
- An eloquently written letter by Malcolm X outlining his philosophical evolution on racism
Stokoe says the most challenging project involved piecing together parts of the epic cartoon strip “Prince Valiant” created by Hal Foster in 1937. It’s an adventure story that continues through 4,000 comic strips.
“It was originally drawn on large boards with stuck on captions, many of which became loose or completely detached over time,” says Stokoe. He designed a spread sheet to keep track of all the “orphaned” captions, words and letters. Much like a giant jigsaw puzzle, Stokoe essentially “rebuilt” the series with the help of printers’ proofs and rehoused individual sheets in acid-free portfolios to preserve for all time.
A conservator’s work involves everything from repairing torn and tattered paper, to removing scotch tape, to rebuilding books, to cleaning and chemically treating paper, to preparing items for preservation in cold storage in a humidity-controlled environment.
With generous philanthropic support, Stokoe has had the privilege of working with the most advanced tools in special conservation laboratories, including a custom box-making machine that makes acid-free archival book boxes (it used to take 20-30 minutes to assemble archival boxes by hand; now it takes under five minutes).
Recently, Syracuse University completed construction on a 15,000 square foot facility that includes cool and cold storage vaults to provide optimal environmental conditions for materials that are crucial to teaching and research.
Stokoe is responsible for training staff in many aspects of preservation and also teaches a graduate class “Preservation of Library and Archival Collections” covering storage environments, disaster planning/reaction, book and paper repair, and much more. That’s why students in his class get to beat up on books: “They each get a hardback and a paperback book. We damage the books and repair them. We break the joints and spines, tear pages, take spines off and damage the board corners. Of course, it’s all hypothetical and they don’t get any points for the damage, just for the repair,” he says. He notes that the damage inflicted in seconds can take hours to repair.
He brings with him to class, lectures and workshops from vast experience in damage and destruction, along with extraordinary detail on the disaster recovery process.
“At one institution we had twenty-nine water-based emergencies in just five years,” says Stokoe. “Multiple construction projects contributed to water ingress, burst and leaking pipes, basement floods and more. We used a freeze-drying technique to rescue numerous historically important medieval volumes and other material affected by water damage.” He remembers using more than 2 miles of duct tape to hang protective plastic sheeting and filling bags with 26 pounds of dust during HVAC renovation work.
Fortunately, his disaster experiences at Syracuse University have been less dramatic, but no less interesting. Circulating books sometimes come back with mold, stains and even bugs “We have to bag everything and freeze them at minus 30 degrees for two weeks to kill the insects,” Stokoe says. “Then we have to vacuum and sanitize but are able to recover the most materials.”
Stokoe keeps detailed notes on each conservation process in a database; recording every treatment detail is a critical part of a conservator’s job.
“I keep specific records so someone in the future can review what I did,” he says. “And almost everything I do is reversible. It all entails a little bit of physics, math, chemistry, biology, environmental science, mechanics and a lot of attention to quality control.”
Stokoe says the job requires tremendous patience and attention to detail as it can take months to conserve some damaged materials, but he never gets discouraged.
“Repair is not the final straw,” he explains. “Items that cannot be treated to be made accessible can always be stored in their current condition in the hope that future technology will find a way. If it’s beyond my capacity to fix today, I hope for a fix in the future. That means nothing is ever really disposed of because of its current condition.”