The conservation program at the Virginia Historical Society started in 1989, when a one-year grant from the Department of Education enabled the Society to hire a conservator, Stacy Rusch, to conduct a condition survey of its extensive rare book collection. Initially equipped only with a tiny wash basin and a vintage desk that looked as though it had seen hard service during the last world war, Ms. Rusch was also able to apply grant funding toward such essentials as board shears, a phase box maker, a "Kutrimmer," and a large worktable to start stabilizing the book collection.
Though the grant ended after two years, there was never any question of the Society abandoning its conservation efforts. It launched a drive to more than double the square footage of its facilities and include among its many new amenities a state-of-the-art conservation laboratory. The initial plans for the laboratory were ambitious, but because of the generosity of the Gwathmey Trust and James River Corporation, the Society was able to build and equip facilities that met and even exceeded initial expectations. Designed specifically to conserve books and flat paper objects, which constitute the vast majority of the Historical Society's collections, the lab was completed in early 1992.
Though the lab was complete, fully underwriting its operating expenses remained a challenge. To this end, the Society applied for and received another Department of Education grant to conserve and rehouse 1,800 Confederate imprints, one of the 20 finest such collections in the nation. This two-year grant (1992-93) also included funding for a second position, and Holly Herro was hired as conservation technician.
The Confederate imprintsÑthose items published in the Confederate States of AmericaÑincluded a variety of broadsides, pamphlets, general orders, and bound materials. Because these materials are inherently fragile and difficult to deal with, the advice and assistance of Tom Albro, Head Book Conservator of the Library of Congress, was essential to the project's successful completion. Anyone interested in learning more about this project is invited to call the VHS conservation laboratory for more information (804/342-9674).
During the past year the Conservation Laboratory began offering contract conservation services to the general public and other institutions, both as a service and as a way to offset costs incurred in other conservation projects. The VHS conservation staff has also been hosting workshops to educate the public and small institutions about the preservation and care of paper documents and photographs. Most recently, the conservator has begun rehousing and conserving the Virginia Historical Society's manuscript collection of more than seven million cataloged items.