Rare scrapbooks that document African American life in the United States from 1890-1975 are being preserved with support through a “Save America’s Treasures” (SAT) grant. The project is a collaborative effort with Emory University Preservation Office, Digital Curation Center, and the Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL). The SAT grant is awarded through the Department of Interior and the National Park Service, in collaboration with the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS).
The African American Miscellany Collection housed at Emory’s Manuscript, Archives, and Rare Book Library (MARBL) contains a wide array of materials spanning 1848-1980 related to African American history and culture, including a scrapbook of Atlanta resident Walter Brown. Brown was a lead waiter at Anthony’s Restaurant in Atlanta, Georgia and was also a self-taught artist. His scrapbook contains several of his drawings, but the majority of the very large format volume is a collection of Christmas cards Brown received from restaurant patrons. The 1940s era scrapbook is a wonderful window into the culture of the time period as the cards have captured a glimpse of the mid-century graphic design and use of language.
Pressure sensitive adhesive tape, in this case masking tape, was used to secure the greeting cards to the substrate pages of the scrapbook. Though the scrapbook was in relatively good condition for its age, the masking tape was in various phases of deterioration and required several different approaches for removal.
Masking tape, first created in 1922 by Richard Drew of the 3M Corporation, is essentially composed of a paper carrier with adhesive applied to one side. Over time, the paper carrier becomes discolored and brittle either due to the acid in the paper or in the adhesive. The adhesive layer also changes over time, in its first phase becoming more tacky and very difficult to remove, then a second phase of losing some of its adhesive properties and migrating into the substrate pages to which it is attached, and a final phase of losing all adhesion leaving behind a dry, often crackling residue on substrate pages. Each phase can require a different approach for removal including mechanical or chemical solvent methods. Mechanical methods, such as using a micro spatula tool to gently lift and peel away the tape, can sometimes damage the surface of the substrate pages as the adhesive from the tape may cause fibers to delaminate from the surface. Solvent methods, on the other hand, require careful testing to ensure that the solvents will not damage the materials from which the adhesive tape is being removed.
As with most conservation protocols, the conservator must weigh the options to determine if treatment of an object will either stabilize and prevent further decomposition or damage or if instead the treatment may in fact cause greater damage than leaving materials as they were found. For example, removing a rusting staple from paper and replacing it with an inert type of paper clip will prevent further damage to the papers being secured by the staple. However, removing masking tape from a fragile substrate material when it is at its tackiest stage of decomposition may in fact do greater damage than leaving it in place.
In the case of Walter Brown’s scrapbook, the tape was in various failing states ranging from very tacky to completely dry with no adhesive properties remaining. The carrier paper of the tape had yellowed and in most cases become quite brittle. The substrate pages were in relatively good condition and not too fragile for mechanical removal of the masking tape, but the surfaces of the greeting cards varied (i.e. coated, uncoated, pigmented, etc.) which presented another challenge for removal to figure out the best method for each type of card. Fortunately, the masking tape was not adhered to text or obscuring information, thus avoiding another challenge if text or information would have been disturbed in the removal process. For these reasons, the best solution was to remove the adhesive tape so that no further damage from it could occur.
In keeping with the mission of the SAT project, any necessary reformatting of the scrapbooks is kept to a minimum whenever possible. Brown’s scrapbook binding was fully intact and sturdy enough for use by patrons, so the binding itself was not disturbed during stabilization or preservation. However, in an effort to preserve the aesthetic experience of Brown’s scrapbook, it was digitized before most of the tape removal was completed.
At the beginning of the stabilization process, a protocol was established to allow any tape to remain as long as it was not obscuring information and it continued to serve its purpose of adhering the greeting cards to the substrate pages. If the cards were loose or partially loose, the adhesive tape was removed and the card was secured to the substrate page before the scrapbook was transferred to the Digitization unit for processing. A few of the greeting cards needed minor mending or flattening in order to capture the best possible digital images.
A heat sensitive adhesive material that is manufactured in sheets and can be custom cut to size as needed, was used along with a tacking iron to re-adhere any loose greeting cards prior to digitization. The same process was used for removing all of the remaining masking tape and securing the greeting cards once the scrapbook was transferred back to the Preservation Unit. The tape was mechanically removed with the aid of a micro spatula tool, adhesive residue was removed with gentle abrasion or use of a rubber cement pickup eraser, narrow strips of heat sensitive adhesive material were cut to size for each card, and the tacking iron was used to activate the adhesive material to secure the cards to the substrate pages.
The aging masking tape will no longer be a threat to Walter Brown’s scrapbook, which has now been stabilized, digitized, and preserved. As a final step, it will be housed in a custom-fitted archival box and the returned to MARBL for use by researchers and other patrons.