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Rescuing the Red Cross

When five photo albums documenting the activities of the Indianapolis Chapter of the American Red Cross arrived in the conservation lab looking a little worse for wear, conservation staff jumped into triage mode. The albums, with their brittle paper and failing adhesive tapes, were too unstable to be handled by library patrons or to be scanned safely, putting them at the top of the conservation priority list. Stabilizing all of the albums would have been a massive undertaking for just one conservator, so in order to make our way through the albums most efficiently, we worked as a team to develop a treatment protocol that could be divvied up into discrete steps and set up work stations around the lab, allowing multiple staff members to work on the project simultaneously.

The albums contain silver gelatin prints which have been attached to the album pages with adhesive tape. Over time, the tape has deteriorated – the plastic carrier has yellowed and become brittle and the adhesive residue, in some instances, remains tacky and has begun oozing out onto the photos. In other cases, it is brittle and dry, causing the carrier to fall off and putting the photos at risk of being lost.

Red Cross Albums 1
Before treatment: The albums document the activities of the Men's Service Center during the 1950s. In this album, the adhesive remains tacky and is still holding the photos in place, but it has yellowed and begun to ooze. Oozing adhesive can cause the photos to stick to one another, damaging the image layer.

The first step was to disbind all of the albums; this makes both the tape removal process and the scanning process easier. However, we like to retain the original format of an object whenever possible; this is especially important when there are captions or other notes written directly on the album pages. For the three albums with handwritten notations, we mended the pages and reattached the photos. After scanning, these albums will be re-bound. The other two albums did not have anything written on the pages. Conveniently, these were also the two albums where the tapes had failed completely. We decided to remove the adhesive residue from the photos and house them in polyethylene sleeves rather than retain the original album structure. 

Red Cross Albums 2
Before treatment: In this album, the adhesive has completely failed. Since there are no handwritten captions written on the album pages, and since many of the photos are loose and no longer associated with their original locations, the decision was made to simply remove all the photos (and, in some instances, typewritten captions) and house them in polyethylene sleeves rather than retain the original album structure.

Once the albums were disbound, it was time to remove the old, yellow tape. The album pages were placed on top of a small heated mat for a few seconds to reactivate the adhesive; this allowed conservators to slide a microspatula under the carrier and pop it off after just a few seconds. The remaining adhesive residue was removed by applying organic solvents with cotton swabs.

Red Cross Albums 3
Piles of discarded tape.

Red Cross Albums 4
Adhesive residues were removed with organic solvents.

After removing the adhesive, the photographs were reattached to the album pages with photo corners. The black album paper – ubiquitous in commercial photo albums of the early and mid-20th century – is very soft, with an almost fuzzy surface texture. This makes it difficult to stick the adhesive-backed photo corners to the pages. To overcome this, we stuck the corners onto sheets of thin, black-toned Japanese tissue paper, giving them a paper backing which could then be attached to the album pages with wheat starch paste. The torn edges of the pages were mended with the same tissue. The albums are now safe to handle and are on their way to be scanned.

Red Cross Albums 5
After treatment: The tape has been removed, the photos have been reattached with photo corners, and the album pages have been mended with Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste. The album is now ready to be scanned and added to the IHS digital library. After scanning, the album will be rebound in its original covers and stored with the rest of the Red Cross collection.


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