Thursday, May 21, 2020

Preservation Team - Suzy

Preserving our historic collections is a key component of SCHS's mission, so as part of our Preservation Month celebration, we wanted to share some thoughts from the members of our staff who work directly with caring for our collections and historic buildings.

Susanna Fout is the Exhibitions & Collections Manager.

Susanna Fout, Exhibitions & Collections Manager
How is preservation part of your job? What are some of the tasks or activities that you do regularly?
As Collections Manager, a lot of what I do can be described in terms of preventative conservation: monitoring environmental conditions, inspecting and recording object conditions, practicing safe handling techniques, implementing safe storage and exhibition practices. But there’s another aspect of preservation that is often overlooked- and that is preserving an object’s intellectual properties. By that I mean, preserving its story. The who, what, where, and when of an object is just as important as the physical object itself. When new information is learned about an artifact, we record that information and attach it to the object record so that it is easily accessible to future staff, researchers, etc. With incoming donations, this often means gleaning that information from the donor. It's more than just recording “this object belonged to so-and-so, and they lived in Scotia.” It is understanding what that object meant to the individual, or what it says about the time and place, or community.

What led you to a career in preservation?
My love of history began at a very early age, but I never imagined that interest would turn into a museum profession. I was a history major in college and like most students, I wasn’t sure where that degree would lead. I just figured that eventually I would become a teacher. It didn’t take long to realize that teaching wasn’t my strong suit. Luckily, around the same time I had started a work-study for an anthropology professor, digitizing field notes, photographs, and research from a study he had conducted in the Caribbean. I loved organizing, digitizing, and protecting these materials in a way that preserved them but also made them more easily accessible to others. This led to other internships, volunteer work, more academic study, and eventually a career.

What excites you about historic preservation?
The ability to protect our cultural heritage for future generations and sharing that heritage with others is at the heart of why I love historic preservation. But what REALLY excites me is how this field is constantly changing, not only in terms of the technology and methods we use to physically preserve or share our collections, but also in terms of what we determine to be historically significant. We are constantly reevaluating, broadening, and deepening our understanding of material culture to be more inclusive, creating a more diverse narrative that includes all members of our communities. This is especially important for an institution such as SCHS, which has historically focused on collecting objects belonging to the more privileged members of our community. I am excited to be a part of an organization that is striving to be more inclusive - after all Schenectady is, and always has been, a diverse community, a unique blend between the urban and the rural. Our collections should- and will- reflect that.

Finding a home for this refrigerator in the Mabee Farm artifact storage area

 What worries you about historic preservation?
Resources. More specifically, a lack of them. Like many other small-mid sized institutions, we struggle with having the necessary resources to maintain certain types of collections. We have to be more selective in what we collect, and sometimes even turn down donations, simply because we don’t have the space to house certain artifacts, the staff needed to support certain projects, or the budget necessary to conserve damaged artifacts. There are a number of grants and programs available to help alleviate these concerns, but it is still a daily struggle and a worry that is always in the back of my mind.

What is your favorite historic artifact or building?
It's so hard to choose, since there are so many! I will give one personal favorite, and then my favorite at SCHS.

I am obsessed with illuminated manuscripts. It's actually why I chose to pursue a masters degree in Medieval Studies. Manuscripts have this wonderful dual nature as both a written text and a physical object- they are a bottomless repository of cultural heritage. The production of books, their text, the social and economic implications of their use, the artwork- all of it is fascinating to me. My obsession with medieval manuscripts is what led from an interest in working at libraries and archives, to working in a museum with material culture.

In my role at SCHS, my job is both preservation and interpretation. Because of that, I would say that one of my favorite artifacts at SCHS is Loppa, the taxidermy macaw from the Nicholaus restaurant. I talk a lot about how artifacts can tell stories, and Loppa is a perfect example of this. On a surface level, there’s this quirky story about a beloved pet bird that was a bit of a trouble maker, who was then taxidermied and became a mascot of sorts for the restaurant. Pull those layers back a bit and we have larger stories about immigration, the “canal days” and the Golden Era of Schenectady, business and industry, a changing urban landscape- there’s just so much history we can unpack from this one artifact. Also, he’s just kind of creepy and really cool! From a preservation standpoint, Loppa is a bit of a challenge. Taxidermy- especially old taxidermy- can be volatile and dangerous because of the chemicals used. Preservation and conservation of these objects is difficult and expensive.

Loppa is currently on display in our exhibit “Changing Downtown” at the SCHS museum (32 Washington Ave). Since we aren't open to the public right now, you can view a virtual version of this exhibit at - Loppa’s story is included! You can view some of our other digital exhibits by visiting

What’s been your favorite preservation project to work on?
At SCHS my favorite project has been the reorganization of our storage area in the Franchere Education Center at Mabee Farm. A few springs ago, we relocated all of our artifacts which were being stored in outbuildings around the farm, into our temperature controlled storage. Of course, this meant an absolute nightmare in terms of space, accessibility, and control. We all thought there was no way we could fit these items - some of which are really large, heavy equipment- into our storage areas. I’m a bit of a “neat freak” and I like solving problems, so I had a lot of fun coming up with out of the box storage solutions. A lot of preservation work is a series of small baby steps, conducted over long periods of time, that improve the overall health of the collection. Rarely do we get that big “ahhh” moment where we can see significant change. This was a project where I could physically see progress being made, which was very satisfactory and I am pretty proud of what I was able to complete. Plus, I just really like organizing.

Do you have any tips or suggestions for how our members of our community can support preservation or preserve their own collections/buildings?
One of the biggest ways you can support preservation efforts is by donating your time. When I talk about all the work we have accomplished, none of those projects would have been completed if it wasn’t for the help of our volunteers and interns. Preservation projects are time consuming and having that extra help is crucial.

If you’re looking for advice on how to care for your own collections at home, one of the first things to do is consider their surroundings. You can slow the rate of deterioration dramatically just by taking an object out of an unstable environment. Different objects require different methods of care depending on what the object is made of, but generally speaking, organic materials do not do well in damp or overly dry/hot environments. Unfinished basements, garages, and attics are not good places to store your collections, and when possible, you should avoid using acidic cardboard boxes or wooden trunks/furniture as storage containers. Light is also very damaging to textiles, furniture, and paintings, so avoid displaying these items in direct sun or artificial light. The Smithsonian Museum Conservation Institute is a great resource for guidelines to follow when preserving personal collections:

Suzy co-curated the exhibition "Handcrafted: The Folk and Their Art"

Monday, May 18, 2020

Preservation Team - Mike

Preserving our historic collections is a key component of SCHS's mission, so as part of our Preservation Month celebration, we wanted to share some thoughts from the members of our staff who work directly with caring for our collections and historic buildings.

Mike Diana started at SCHS as a volunteer and intern, worked as a program assistant, and now serves as the Education & Programs Manager.

Mike Diana sharing Schenectady's history with our community

How is preservation part of your job? What are some of the tasks or activities that you do regularly?
While preservation isn't the focus of my job, our relatively small team is always prepared to take on different roles. Much of what I've done with historic preservation relates to the very physical work of cleaning historic structures and rehousing artifacts large and small. With nowhere else for them to go, artifacts were often stashed in sub-optimal locations for years on end. Fortunately, our society now has adequate storage space for everything in our collection but moving it all to our collections space has been a project years in the making. 

What led you to a career in preservation?
My experience as a volunteer and intern at the SCHS was my introduction to preservation. I started with simple collections work and learned the basics of Past Perfect software. I also assisted with a very large project of cleaning out a historic house the SCHS owned on Schermerhorn Road. It had been accumulating junk for years and essentially had to be stripped down to its bare bones. It was dusty, heavy work in dark, dank hallways. Carpets were cut up and tossed out second floor windows into an open dumpster below. It was certainly a novel experience for me.

Do you have any concerns about historic preservation?
The hardest thing about historic preservation is the inevitable truth that not all old objects or buildings can be preserved. Prior to any preservation work comes the initial decisions of whether or not something is worth being saved in the first place or, just as important, can your organization really take responsibility for it. Fortunately, that's rarely my decision to make but I would probably err on the side of taking on too much.

Photographing artifacts for our exhibits and catalog

What is your favorite historic artifact or building?
One of my favorite historic structures is the Widow Jane Mine in Rosendale, NY. The town was built around a cement mining operation and the hills above the Roundout Creek are criss-crossed by old lime kilns and hidden cave entrances. The Widow Jane Mine is just a small part of this historic industrial landscape but it's open and safe for the public. It's an impressive cavern supported by rows of massive limestone pillars left behind by the mine engineers. Much of it has flooded with groundwater making a for a surreal echo chamber of light and sound. Apparently they have concerts there, but I prefer to go just to enjoy the atmosphere of this slumbering place.

What has been your favorite preservation project to work on?
In April of 2018 we had a class of Historic Preservation students from Cornell come to the Mabee Farm to help us with various projects. My team was responsible for cleaning the Inn. The building itself was essentially shuttered by the family in the early 20th century and left as a rough storage place and while the first floor had been restored, the second floor had been untouched. We removed a lot of remarkable artifacts from up there that had been buried in layers of dust. One that stood out was an old oilcloth, probably two centuries old, with it's blue geometric pattern still visible.

Do you have any tips or suggestions for how our members of our community can support preservation or preserve their own collections/buildings?
Only so many old buildings can be designated historic landmarks and saved simply for that reason. In any town or city, there simply isn't the resources or the communal will to support more than a few such projects. But I still think preserving historic architecture is vital to a community's identity. To that end, I would encourage members of the community to go out of their way to patronize business housed in older buildings. There are more than enough mini-malls and prefab chain enterprises wherever you may find yourself. If we don't consciously give new purposes to old buildings, they'll soon be vacant, decrepit and destroyed in that order.

Rediscovering a rare 1700s door: a dirty job, but important preservation work!

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Preservation Team - Hannah

Preserving our historic collections is a key component of SCHS's mission, so as part of our Preservation Month celebration, we wanted to share some thoughts from the members of our staff who work directly with caring for our collections and historic buildings.

Hannah Miller started at SCHS as an intern, worked as a program assistant, and served as the Interim Librarian.

Hannah Miller

What led you to a career in preservation?
I started in preservation by accident. In college I thought I wanted to be a museum curator, so I decided to major in history. I went to Goucher College and they encourage all history majors to try the historic preservation minor. I started taking classes my sophomore year and decided that it was the career path that I would follow. I always had a fascination with house museums and architectural history. Preservation was the combination I didn’t know I was looking for until it was introduced to me. I think historic preservation is a practical implementation of history into everyday life. I wanted a career where I could engage with history but also engage with communities. Preservation fulfilled both of those roles for me.

What excites you about historic preservation?
Historic Preservation excites me because it has so many uses. Preservation has economic, environmental, and community benefits, along with its obvious historic benefits. Preservation affects everyone whether or not they realize it. Most people have interest in one of the areas that preservation benefits, even if they specifically disagree with another. I think it’s exciting to discuss preservation with different people and find out what different aspects excite them about it and what preservation means to them.

What worries you about historic preservation?
What worries me about preservation is connected to what excites me. Preservation has something for everyone, but I don’t think that everyone knows that. Generally speaking I think there is an idea that preservation is only about preserving old buildings for the sake of history and museums. While that may be true in some cases, it is not exclusively true. I don’t think everyone realizes the great environmental impact preservation can have because so many people think it is more environmentally friendly to tear down a historic building to create a more energy efficient buildings. But the waste that creates is massive and it has a very negative impact on the environment when the existing structure can often be used in an environmentally friendly manner. The same can be said about the economics of preservation. People see preservation as costly and don’t realize the real economic impact of historic neighborhoods, which can be great for communities.

Working on a project at Mabee Farm

What is your favorite historic artifact or building?
I have many favorite historic buildings. I get asked this question all the time and I can’t choose one, but will try to limit my list. I have a great fondness for Rosecliff in Newport Rhode Island, which is one of the buildings I looked into for my Master’s Thesis. Notre Dame Cathedral has also always fascinated me, I think its story going from great medieval cathedral to almost falling apart from neglect to great tourist attraction to its tragic fire says a lot about the history of preservation and its value.  Of course the Mabee Farm is also a special place to me. Having spent so much time there I believe it taught me a lot about preservation and how to run successful historic sites.

What’s been your favorite preservation project to work on?
My favorite preservation projects to work on have been about advocating for preservation. Preservation as a career can mean so many different things. I have leaned towards development and advocacy. I don’t consider myself a traditional preservationist in the sense that I always want to find new ways to encourage people to interact with preservation. Any project where I can discuss preservation with new people and get them interested in the field is always my favorite.

Do you have any tips or suggestions for how our members of our community can support preservation or preserve their own collections/buildings?
The best way to preserve your own houses is to research everything you do to a historic house before the work is done. Often mistakes are made in historic homes by using materials that are not compatible with your structure and in the long term will cause more damage. So do your research first and your house will be happy for another 100 years! There are a lot of great organizations in this area that specialize in preservation. The best way to support those organizations and the communities that they support is to use their resources and share them with others. By doing this we can grow support for preserving communities in our area, which gives it the great charm that it is known for. Preservation can only succeed with the support of its community, the best way to keep preservation going is to show people how preservation can be great for them and their community.

Thank you to Hannah for sharing her passion for preservation with SCHS!

Monday, May 11, 2020

Preservation Resources for Paper and Photo Collections

Thank you to everyone who joined us on Friday for the Preserving Paper and Photo Collections Facebook Live. You can check out the video on the Schenectady County Historical Society’s Facebook page, under “Videos.” This blog post complements that video by providing a few more details as well as links to further resources.

The goal of preservation is to extend the lifespan of historic and archival materials by mitigating the factors that cause deterioration. The main cause of deterioration is acid, and other factors include light (especially UV light), improper or excessive handling, high temperatures and humidity, fluctuations in environment, pests, mold, water, and fire.

Basic rules for preserving paper and photo collections:
  • One of the golden rules of archiving is to never do anything that is irreversible.
  • Do what you can. Don't be overwhelmed by the process, the cost, or the idea of doing it 'exactly right.'
  • Label as much as you can, especially on the outside of enclosures (e.g. folders and boxes). Try to answer the five W questions. Putting this information on the label will make it easier to organize your collection and reduce the amount of handling you'll need to do in the future.
  • Keep like with like. Organize your materials by type and by size to maximize your supplies and storage.
  • Remove fasteners like rubber bands, paper clips, and staplers. These will damage your materials over time; causing weak points, discoloration, and rust transfer.
  • Find the 'goldilocks' level of fullness for your boxes (i.e. a box that is not too full or too empty). A box that is too full will put uneven pressure on the materials inside and require some force to get documents from it, while a box that doesn’t have proper support will cause documents and photos to bend and warp.
Key terms:
  • Encapsulation -- A conservation treatment where an original item is housed in an enclosed archival plastic envelope; not the same as lamination or sleeving. Learn more:
  • Enclosures  -- A container used to store materials. Examples of enclosures include sleeves, boxes, canisters.
  • Lignin -- A molecule found in wood-pulp paper. It plays an important part in binding cellulose molecules together, but it also releases acid when it breaks down.
  • P.A.T. Passed -- Photographic Activity Test is a standard procedure (ISO 14523) to check for potential chemical reactions between materials used to make enclosures and photographs stored in those enclosures. Enclosures that carry the label "P.A.T. Passed" are considered stable and are recommended for archival storage, especially photos and photographic films.
  • Acid-free or acid neutral -- Material, usually paper, with a pH of 7.0 or greater when manufactured. Acid-free papers are distinguished from papers that contain a residue of the acids used to break up wood fibers during manufacture. The residual acid continues to attack the paper fibers, making the paper brittle over time. Archival papers are typically made from alpha cellulose, are lignin free, and often contain an alkaline buffer to counter any trace of acids used in processing or environmental acids.
  • Buffered -- A buffer is a solution that can neutralize acid. Enclosures that have been treated with an alkaline solution made from calcium carbonate or magnesium carbonate to compensate for residual manufacturing acids or from acidic environmental contaminants.
Basic rules for storing materials:
  • Store materials in a cool, dry, dark place with stable temperature and humidity. The ideal is a temperature between 65-70 degrees and humidity between 35-50%, but stability is definitely key.
  • Avoid storing your collection in basements, attics, or garages. 
  • Dust your storage space regularly, including the outsides of boxes. 
  • Think carefully about the enclosures you use for your collection. Folders should be acid free and buffered. Use cardboard boxes instead of plastic tubs. Purchase supplies that match the size of your materials (e.g. legal-sized folders for documents that measure between 11 to 13.5 inches long). Folders and sleeves should be longer and wider than the items inside them and items should fit comfortably without folding. Folders and sleeves should fit snugly inside of boxes.
  • Plastic, transparent sleeves (e.g. polyethylene sleeves) should be for materials that you plan to use or display often so you don't need to remove them from their enclosures or handle them directly. Not all plastics can be safely used. You might have figured this out the hard way when opening an old photo album only to find the plastic brittle, yellowed and sticking to the photos. The types of plastics that you want to look for are polyester, polypropylene and polyethylene.
  • When planning enclosures, measure three times. Measuring at multiple points ensures precision and will help you choose the correct enclosure.
  • Most materials can be stored vertically inside folders and boxes. Large or heavy items should be stored horizontally to prevent them from curling or squishing under their own weight.
Safe handling:
  • Gloves or no gloves? For most archival materials, clean, dry hands are more appropriate than gloves. Photographic materials, metals, and some fragile materials should be handled with gloves. Gloves can be cotton, latex, or nitrile. Latex and nitrile gloves should be the powder-free kind. Read more about the use of gloves in archives:
  • Don't eat or drink while working with materials.
  • Avoid wearing scents, lotions, and hand sanitizers.
  • Make copies of fragile materials so you don't need to handle the originals directly.

Common preservation supplies:
  • Pencils --  Avoid using pens or ink on archival materials or when working with archival materials. Soft lead pencils work best. 
  • Photo marking pencil -- never mark your photos on their faces. In many cases, you can label photos on the back with a regular soft lead pencil, but you may need a photo-marking (e.g. Stabilo-All pencil) pencil to mark photos with coatings.
  • Boxes
  • Folders
  • Sleeves
  • Copy paper
  • Unbuffered tissue paper
  • Tweezers
Vendors for supplies:

Common preservation concerns:
  • Newsprint -- Newsprint, which must be produced as economically as possible, has more lignin in it than finer papers. At the mill, the wood that will be turned into newsprint is ground up, lignin and all. Lignin eventually turns paper yellow because of oxidation. The lignin will absorb more light, giving off a darker color. If newsprint were kept completely out of sunlight and air, it would remain white. After only a few hours of sunlight and oxygen, however, it will start to change color. Make copies of newspaper clippings and store them separately from the originals. Any materials that are stored with newsprint will absorb acid from the newsprint and will deteriorate faster. Once copies are made, you can choose to discard the newsprint original or store it in a folder away from light and heat. Learn more:
  • Smells -- First, be sure the smell is not the result of an active problem (e.g. mold) and that materials are stored in an appropriate location. There may not be a way to remove the smell completely, but using dryer sheets (without dyes or fragrances), baking soda sachets, activated charcoal sachets, or unscented clay kitty litter can clear up most of the problem. Learn more:
  • Rolled or folded items -- Folds and rolls cause weak points where your documents or photos will eventually break. It's best to store materials flat, unfolded and unrolled, whenever possible. There are a couple of techniques to help with unfolding, unrolling, and flattening. The least technical is to use weights to gradually flatten the item. You should avoid folding or rolling in the opposite direction as this will stress weak points and may cause breaks. Learn more:
  • Fragile items -- Items that are torn, brittle, very old, and made of thin or delicate materials require extra care when storing and handling. Make copies so you won't need to handle originals except for special occasions. Use sturdy mats and folders to provide structure and support in storage. Consult with a conservator about options for repairing or stabilizing fragile items. Never use tape or glue on original materials. Learn more:
  • Displaying items -- Items may be displayed, but should be placed away from direct sunlight and heat sources. Items on display should be rotated so that they get a break from the stress of being on display. You may want to create a high quality copy for display instead of using the original. Learn more:
  • Insects and other pests -- Depending on the type of pest and the size of the problem, you may need to consult a professional exterminator and/or conservator. Focus on resolving the source of the problem, creating a safe storage environment, and preventing future damage. In many cases, pest damage is not reversible, but light cleaning may help remove debris and discoloration caused by pests. Learn more:
  • Nitrate film -- Nitrate film was manufactured between 1890 and 1951. It is extremely dangerous and should not be stored in your home. Its gases are toxic and combustible. If you have nitrate film, you really need to find a home for it at a repository with proper cold storage facilities or properly dispose of it. Learn more:

Links to further resources: