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Shakespeare Unlimited podcast

Inside the Folger Conservation Lab

Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 44

The Folger is the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, and the crown jewels of that collection are the 82 First Folios. To celebrate 400 years of Shakespeare, eighteen of these rare books are traveling the country throughout 2016 in the First Folio! The Book That Gave Us Shakespeare exhibition. But before they hit the road, each First Folio received a little TLC from Folger conservators up on the third floor. In this podcast episode, Renate Mesmer takes us on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Werner Gundersheimer Conservation Laboratory.

Renate Mesmer is the Folger’s head of conservation. Austin Plann-Curley is a project conservator in the lab. Both were interviewed by Neva Grant.

Listen on iTunes, Google Play, Sound Cloud, or NPR One.

From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © March 22, 2016. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. “To Repair Should Be Thy Chief Desire” was recorded and produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington.

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MICHAEL WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I am Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.

The Folger’s rare book vaults have become famous over the years for their vast array of treasures: George Eliot’s hand-annotated Shakespeare, the map Jonathan Swift used when he was conceiving the island of Lilliput for Gulliver’s Travels, Henry VIII’s schoolboy copy of Cicero, and, of course, the world’s largest collection of First Folios, the first printed edition of Shakespeare’s plays.

But four or five floors above the vaults, there’s a room in the Folger that, for some, holds even more fascination, and that’s where we are going in this podcast: the Werner Gundersheimer Conservation Lab on the Folger’s third floor. The place where 400 years worth of books, prints, manuscripts, paintings, and other Shakespeareana go when they need a little TLC, whether it’s to repair and strengthen them when they are too fragile for readers, or to prepare them for exhibition.

The lab is presided over by our J. Franklin Mowery Head of Conservation Renate Mesmer. And for the past year, Renate and her team have had a special task. 2016 is the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, and, as a gift to America, the Folger is sending out 18 copies of the First Folio to museums and libraries in all 50 states and Puerto Rico. The lab on the third floor is where the books go to be cleaned up, shored up, and packed up for their trip. We thought this was a great opportunity to give you a peek at the vital work that Renate and the conservators do every day to keep the Folger collection in good condition.

We call this podcast, “To Repair Should Be Thy Chief Desire.” Renate gave this tour of the lab to Neva Grant.

RENATE MESMER: This is the main lab here, where we have usually four or five conservators work at the benches, and we got this lab in 2006. We used to be in the basement, and now we’ve got this beautiful space with daylight and beautiful Silestone countertops, so we can see paper in transmitted light.

GRANT: You mean the light is underneath the table, right, so that it shines out.

MESMER: Correct, yeah.

GRANT: We should add that the lighting above is quite bright, which, of course, makes perfect sense.

MESMER: Right, it is, and we took a lot of time to actually figure out, what is the best lighting. So, the lighting you see above here is the closest you can get to daylight. It is very bright, but as you will see, it is very fine work, and you need very, very good light.

GRANT: And, of course, someone might say, “Well, why didn’t you just have a lot of windows?” But, of course, actual sunlight could damage the books, couldn’t it?

MESMER: That’s correct. So, usually when conservation labs have windows, they have north-facing windows, and we do have daylight, but the skylights are UV-filtered. But, you know, the intensity is still high. So, to explain that a little bit in lux… Outside, when you have a sunny day, you probably have around 10,000 lux outside.

GRANT: That’s the way we measure light, right?

MESMER: That is correct. Yes, and, here in the lab, it’s around 600. And just to give you an idea, if you are downstairs in the exhibition hall, the light levels are around 30 to 50.

GRANT: What else would you like to show us?

MESMER: Let me show you our photo area, where we document everything, before we even start treating it.

So, we take pictures front, back, sometimes throughout the book, to make sure we have a clear picture of what the item looked like before we started treating it. When we treat it, sometimes there are unique steps, that we take a picture of during treatment, and then when the book is done or when the item is done… I can’t just say “books,” because we don’t just treat books here at the Folger. Then, once we’re done with the treatments, we do the “after” pictures. So, if somebody needs to look it up in 10, 15 years, they know exactly what we did. Did we use paste as an adhesive or gelatin as an adhesive, what papers were used and what techniques were used, and who was the conservator.

So, this is our wet room.                                                                                     

GRANT: This is your…

MESMER: Wet room.

GRANT: Wet room.

MESMER: And this is usually where we treat paper with water. Sometimes paper needs to be washed, and that’s for removing any acidic components in the paper that could damage the paper any further, or to reduce some staining.

GRANT: What kind of water… Do you just use regular DC tap water?

MESMER: Oh, that would be lovely. [LAUGH] Our water is a deionized, recalcified water. So, it’s filtered, it’s cleaned. And because when you filter water, when you deionize water, you’re also taking out magnesium and calcium, which is actually pretty good for paper, so by recalcifying, we are going to put that back in.

GRANT: Do you submerge the pages in water or do you take something like a squirt gun and just kind of squirt it on or…

MESMER: There’s different ways to do it, but you slowly humidify a paper so it relaxes, and then you might spray it, and then you actually put it in a bath, very carefully.

GRANT: Can you show us the book bath?

MESMER: Yes. Now it’s just…

GRANT: It’s just a big ol’ sink. You can clean a fish in this thing.

MESMER: You could. And then we have a big one here, which is just really covered up, because right now we are not doing any of these treatments, because of our First Folio tour.

GRANT: Above this large stainless-steel sink, there is something that looks either like a… I think it’s probably a dryer, but, it also looks like something you would see in a Dr. Seuss book. It has kind of a whimsical…

MESMER: It is actually called an elephant trunk.

GRANT: Perfect.

MESMER: And it’s a fume hood.

GRANT: I’m sorry. It’s a?

MESMER: It sucks in fumes. If you’re working with anything that you do not want to smell or inhale, like chemicals, you would actually turn this on. And I can do that, it’s just probably very loud, and I don’t know if you want to hear that.

GRANT: I think we do. [SOUND] Do you sometimes get a little nervous handling these beautiful old books?

MESMER: Yeah, I do.

GRANT: Is it a little bit like being a diamond cutter? Where you sometimes feel one false move and you could really… I guess you wouldn’t really destroy the whole thing, but you could destroy part of it.

MESMER: Yeah, of course. I mean, but with any book, I mean it’s not just with the First Folios. Anything that comes up here to the lab, when we start working on it, of course, we do not want to damage it. We want to stabilize and repair it. So, it is sometimes a little nerve-wracking.

GRANT: Do you kind of have to get into a different mindset? Most of us crash into our offices, we kind of hustle into our computers, and we’re like bleh-bleh-bleh, and we start typing away, and it’s not very mindful. Do you have to sort of go through some sort of ritual? Where you get ready to handle these old books?

MESMER: I guess you have to be ready for it. Sometimes we have discussions in the lab about what treatment is the right treatment, and sometimes it takes weeks to make a decision. You don’t just look at a book and go, “Oh yeah, this is what I’m going to do because this is what I did last time.” Every book is different, so you have to always apply a new thought and a new process to it.

GRANT: When you look at a four or five hundred year old book can you sort of tell yourself a story of how it came to be?

MESMER: Right, and that’s the knowledge we have. We look at a paper, we can tell you it’s a handmade paper, it’s a rag paper. And, you know, most of the books we have in our collection here at the Folger are hand-bound. But, of course, you look at something, and you see the leather, you see the material. We don’t probably know exactly what the book, the text, is about, but we can tell you a lot about the material, and how it was put together. Now the, really, the text … we know the title page, and we know the front and back. Often, the center, when it’s broken, we look at it. But, it’s not that we are sitting here really reading it and studying it. We really don’t have the time, and I think we’re also getting a little bit more careful about how much we do on these rare items. Our philosophy here at the Folger in the lab is “fit for purpose.” We do as much as necessary, and as little as possible, leaving that unique old character in place. We’re not rebinding something to make it look new.

GRANT: I think that’s a really important distinction, because many people might assume that the kind of work you do is similar to what an art restorer does, when working on a painting. Or sometimes, you know, you’re filling in on a painting, or you’re doing something to enrich it in some way or to restore it to what it was, so people can enjoy it more, in the setting of the museum. And you’re not trying to do that. You want it to function as a book.

MESMER: Yeah, and I think I want to make sure that’s clear. We are conservators and we are not restorers. Yes, we want to do a good job, and we want the item, after the treatment, to look good. But the main reason why we are even touching it is, we need to stabilize it. We are a research library here, and people use the books. They just don’t look at the binding. So, it needs to function. But, we also want to make sure that we are not destroying any evidence.

GRANT: What do you mean by “evidence”?

MESMER: When you look at the binding, there’s many things in there, marks that tell a story. Well, if I take the old binding off, and say, “Oh, I am going to put it in a curatorial file,” and I just put a new cover around it, so, when you come as a reader, you don’t see that evidence. You have to know that I actually rebound the book and there is an original cover somewhere. Maybe somebody used it to cut something on it. Let’s say, somebody used a pin in the paper, there are holes in it. Do I need to fix these holes? No, because they are evidence that there was a pin at some point.

GRANT: And, of course, notations that a person would have made or smudges, or someone might have been drinking tea or coffee, and something might have spilled on the book. You’re not going to fix that.

MESMER: Sometimes you have to do that, to enhance the visibility of, let’s say, a print or writing. But, on a book, imagine you have 500 pages. First of all, you have to take that book apart to even get to the point that you can start stain reduction, and we’re not going to do that, because then, already, it’s a totally different item once you put it back together.

GRANT: So, while we’ve been talking, we’re here in the conservation lab. There’s a gentleman off to our left, he’s a colleague of yours, and he’s binding a book.

MESMER: He’s actually working on a project, which is the promptbook collection, and he’s preparing and stabilizing these items for digitization.

GRANT: Great, hi.


GRANT: Austin, what’s your full name?

PLANN-CURLEY: My name is Austin Plann-Curley. I’m a project conservator.

GRANT: If we can, can we lean over the book that you are working on a bit? What is this book?

PLANN-CURLEY: So, this is a promptbook. In the early days of the theater, the prompter was sort of like the stage manager, and would whisper lines to the actors who forgot. So, these promptbooks are part of the manuscript collection. They’re annotated.

GRANT: And is this a promptbook from a Shakespeare play?

PLANN-CURLEY: It is. Yeah, this is Richard III.

GRANT: How far back does this book go?

PLANN-CURLEY: Looks like, from the 19th century.

GRANT: It doesn’t look very solid. [LAUGH]

PLANN-CURLEY: Yeah, well, yeah, I mean they’re completely ephemeral. They’re made for a specific performance, so… and that’s really the problem with a lot of the books in this collection. They’re not built to last.

GRANT: And we can see that there are some loose pages here. I mean the book is obviously sort of… it’s come undone, I guess. And your job is to rebind it, not with fresh materials, but sort of using the material already at hand.

PLANN-CURLEY: Well, what I’m trying to do is just to stabilize it for the digitization team here. So, when there are long tears that could easily continue as the digitization people handle it, those are things that I look out for. If there are folds, for example, that obscure annotations, I generally unfold those.

GRANT: Let’s watch you work.

PLANN-CURLEY: Yeah, sure. So this is a printed text that’s in a wrapper. So, the wrapper along the spine, you can see, is splitting and because this portion of the text is not bound in, I have access to the spine. So I’m just going to lay a strip of mending tissue. [SOUND] This is Japanese paper. I’m going to brush out some wheat starch paste onto it.

GRANT: Wheat starch paste?

PLANN-CURLEY: Yeah, it has aging properties that we like. It doesn’t yellow, it’s not acidic. I’ve torn some strips of the Japanese paper, and I have some diluted wheat starch paste. I’m going to brush it out.

GRANT: You’re using a paintbrush, just a small paintbrush.

PLANN-CURLEY: So, I’m going to pick it up with tweezers, quickly.

GRANT: Picking up just a tiny shred of that Japanese paper, which has the paste on it, and you’re…

PLANN-CURLEY: Going to set it on the spine.

GRANT: Placing it very gently along the spine of this…

PLANN-CURLEY: And then just tap it into place here, going to put a piece of interleaving over it. [SOUND]

GRANT: Just a very thin piece of paper. It looks like cigarette paper, almost.

PLANN-CURLEY: And then these are heated blotters. So this is to absorb the moisture and dry it as quickly as we can.

GRANT: And I’ve just noticed you have a little heating pad here.

PLANN-CURLEY: Yeah, it’s a little lap heater. I don’t know if that’s something we developed here, but we warm our blotters and…

GRANT: How long does it take to repair a book like this?

PLANN-CURLEY: Oh, I’ll probably spend a half hour with this one. I mean, we’re doing very little with this collection.

GRANT: Thank you very much for showing us this.

PLANN-CURLEY: You’re welcome.

GRANT: Renate, let me ask you this. What’s your official title? What’s on your card?

MESMER: On my card? It’s Head of Conservation at the Folger Shakespeare Library.

GRANT: How does someone get into this line of work?

MESMER: All right, so, my parents told me, “Girl, you need to find a job.” And in Germany, where I grew up, it’s an apprenticeship that you do.

GRANT: And how old are you right around this time?

MESMER: Sixteen, actually. No, actually I was 15, and… Yeah, and they said, “Just look around,” and I really had no idea. At some point, I talked to the baker in the bakery, of which we were living above. And I knocked on the door, and I said “Hey, do you take apprentices?” And he’s like “Yeah, why?” And I said, “Well, I’m looking for an apprenticeship,” and he said, “Yeah, no, no. You do not want to do that, because you really have to get up at three or four in the morning, or on Saturdays you have to show up here at one in the morning, and all your friends are partying.” And he said, “But, why don’t you go across the street? There’s a bookbindery, and a frame shop, and a gallery, and he takes apprentices.”

GRANT: It sounds like you lived in sort of an old-fashioned little town. You know, with a bookbindery across from the bakery.

MESMER: Well, I have to burst that bubble. It actually is a city, and actually, quite an ugly city. It’s a very working city. And so, yeah, I applied, and he had me come over. We had a little interview. We sat down, and one thing he said was, “Show me your hands.” And I showed him my hands, and he touched them, and he goes, “Good, they are not sweaty. You can be a bookbinder.”

GRANT: But, of course, it probably takes a lot more than not having sweaty hands. You have to have calm hands; you have to have patient hands.

MESMER: Steady hands, and I think the right mindset, because in conservation, you can’t rush anything.

GRANT: Okay, so, Renate, where are we going now?

MESMER: Okay, let me show you a First Folio, and, as you can imagine, we’re not just having them out there for everybody to look at them. So, let’s go to the vault.

GRANT: Where are we going?

MESMER: We’re going into the conservation vault, and now I can show you what the code is.

GRANT: Is the password “password”?

MESMER: It’s “Folio.”

GRANT: [LAUGH] So I see several books here on what is just a standard library cart. I sort of imagined, kind of, almost like a throne room, and I’m not kidding. I mean, I didn’t know what I would see when you opened up this vault. This is just part of the library. There’s a library cart here. It looks like something you would see in my old junior high school, and there are several books on the cart. Are they all First Folios?

MESMER: They are actually all First Folios, because we have to prepare for the next several sites, and so they’re here. So next week, they’re going to get photographed and we’re going to get ready for the next host sites.

GRANT: Okay, so this is the one that you picked up. It’s got a beautiful, sort of burgundy covered binding.

MESMER: Yeah, let me tell you a little bit more about the binding. But, first, I need to get this out, safe and sound, and I would like to put this on the table. You can help me by closing the door.

GRANT: Sure, happy to. Okay, we’re back into the lab now and the First Folio is going on the table. And before I forget, remind us how many Folios, when all the Folios are here in the library, I know some of them are already out in different parts of the country, but when all the First Folios are here. How many does the Folger have?

MESMER: The Folger holds 82 First Folios.

GRANT: Which is more than any other institution in the world, right?

MESMER: Correct.

GRANT: And the total number in the world?

MESMER: Two hundred and thirty-three.

GRANT: So that’s pretty amazing, and so we are looking at one. Let’s look at the spine.

MESMER: It’s in red gold leather, heavily gold tooled, and on the spine, you can see raised bands and you see the title “Shakespeare.” And the binding itself is a 19th century binding. That’s much later.

GRANT: So, when was this published?

MESMER: The book was printed in 1623.

GRANT: Right, and why then, if they were all, all of these were made in the same year, but they all look different?

MESMER: Well, because first of all, when they were printed, they were not all bound. Somebody would get a copy and the owner would say, “Okay, I would like this bound in a certain style.” And I would have to really think hard; I believe we have at the Folger one or two that might be in their original binding.

GRANT: But this one is not?

MESMER: But all of the others are rebound, and mostly 19th-century bindings.

GRANT: Ah, interesting. Yeah, because I would think that that… I mean that binding looks beautifully preserved, right?

MESMER: It is. People knew what they had in a First Folio and they took care of it.

GRANT: So your job is to make sure, this book, this beautiful book, is in good condition. Excellent condition, so it can travel, right?

MESMER: Correct.

GRANT: So, just eyeballing this book, to my eyes, it looks like it’s in beautiful shape. And I’d say “Oh, I can just throw that in my suitcase, and I can take it to Chicago with me. It will be fine.” What do you see?

MESMER: What do I see? I see the same thing, that it’s in great condition. So, in this one, what we’re going to do is take the pictures, make sure we got all the condition written down. And the next step is that we are going to invite a mount maker to measure the book. We open the book to the opening page, which will be “to be or not to be.”

GRANT: Can we do that?

MESMER: We can. Give me a second, I have to set this up, so I don’t damage the book.

GRANT: Short of dropping it or sneezing on it, how could we… I don’t want to, but I mean, how could we possibly damage this book?

MESMER: I show you. If you don’t open it well, you could break the joints. You could even break along the spine line. There are so many ways to damage a book.

GRANT: So, it’s more fragile than it looks, I think, is what you are saying.

MESMER: Yes, and it’s much harder to actually handle it without creating any damage.

GRANT: Can you tell me about this paper?

MESMER: The paper is rag paper. It’s handmade, beautiful. It’s very thin and it is in good condition, and then you see… So, here we’ve got “Enter Hamlet.” And then Hamlet’s “To be or not to be—that is the question,” and this is the opening that was chosen for all the sites for this traveling exhibition.

GRANT: Okay, you’ve just put it on a mount. What looks to be made of, almost kind of a fiberglass or something?

MESMER: Yeah, so this is what we call its book cradle or book support. And in order to make sure that the book stays safe, we are strapping it on, and every cradle is different for every First Folio. Every First Folio has a different dimension in width and…

GRANT: So every cradle has to be sized?

MESMER: It is custom fit.

GRANT: To fit each book?

MESMER: Each book. By dimension, but also the opening angle. Not every book opens the same, and the paper doesn’t always want to open where you want it to open. And then you can see that “To be or not to be” is towards the gutter. Now, if you want to show that, you want to make sure that people can actually read it. So, the cradle sometimes needs to be tilted slightly, in order for you to actually be able to see this part of the page.

GRANT: The gutter is the part of the book that’s closest to the spine. So, this particular First Folio is not in its custom cradle, but when it is, we’ll be able to get… the speech will be better displayed. It’ll lie flatter.

MESMER: A little bit flatter, but we at the Folger, when we do our exhibitions… For books, we do not necessarily open up a book more than 110 to 120 degrees. We never open a book 180 degrees, because it really breaks the spine.

GRANT: So we, right now, are very lucky in this lab. We can, you know, I can lean right over this book, I can peer in and I can get an inch away or closer. But, of course, when it goes on display, it’s going to be behind a glass case, correct?

MESMER: Yes, it’s in an exhibition case that we designed and we built it. It’s made from, I want to say aluminum, and it has a plexi top. It’s not very big, but it has enough space for the book, for a label, and a data logger that can monitor the climate in the case. And a very important part in that case is that we have a drawer for a desiccant that can help to control the humidity in the case.

GRANT: By desiccant, do you mean those little, sort of, sachets that you find in your sneakers or other things, it always says “do not eat” on it? But I guess it’s designed to eliminate humidity.

MESMER: Yes, that is the idea. The one that we are using, we call it silica gel. It absorbs moisture, but it can also release moisture. So, it keeps it leveled.

GRANT: We’re standing here looking at a book that was published in 1623. Do you ever find yourself wondering about all the people who’ve touched this book, read this book, over all those years?

MESMER: Yeah, I do.

GRANT: This is not the kind of book that you curl up with in bed and read. This would have stayed in somebody’s mansion on a shelf and just been there to look impressive and to make that person feel wealthy and learned, right? But, they wouldn’t have necessarily brought it out and read it.

MESMER: Yeah, it’s not a prayer book. Yeah, and you can tell from the binding, it’s meant to be on a shelf and be looked at. It’s a fine binding. And also, you can see the pages are still in very good condition. They weren’t read that much.

GRANT: So, a person wasn’t leafing through it and using a bookmark and drinking coffee, while they were poring over it. This stayed on a shelf and then it was handed down to a son or daughter, and then it was sold to Henry Clay Folger for thousands of dollars, right?

MESMER: Yeah, I don’t know about the handing down. I know that Folger bought the First Folios, but the handing down, in what hands it was? I don’t know, and I actually don’t think too much about it. There are other items we have here in the collection that make you wonder way more.

GRANT: Are you going to get to travel with one of these?      

MESMER: Yes, I actually got to install the first First Folio, and so I did travel and I will travel a little bit more.

GRANT: Oh, that’s great. Where did you go? Where was the first one?

MESMER: The first site was in Oklahoma, Norman, at the Sam Noble Museum.

GRANT: And so you came and then you made sure that the book was safely installed on its cradle, in that temperature-controlled case, and then you just took a deep breath, got back on the plane and thought, “It’s going to be fine.”

MESMER: Yes, I took a selfie and then I left.

GRANT: You took a selfie. I love it. So there you are in Norman, Oklahoma, you’re just about to say good-bye to this first First Folio on display. Did you feel sort of like you’re dropping your 17-year-old off at college? And you’re saying good-bye to a child, or not really?

MESMER: Because you are saying that… we have a lot of other Folger staff members traveling, and I sent them off with a book, because the book sits in the vault, and then I have to give it to them, and lately I feel like I’m sending off my kids to college.

GRANT: How many First Folios total will be sent around the country?

MESMER: Eighteen are going to be traveling over the period of a year.

GRANT: And when these books land in their intended museums or libraries or what have you, the people there must be really excited?

MESMER: Oh, they are beyond excited. They are so happy to actually have a First Folio there; I can’t even describe it. I also went to Notre Dame and the excitement there, and what they did for the opening and the programming, etcetera, they’ve done around the book, and that’s something to remember. This exhibition is about the First Folio, but it’s not just about the physical book. It’s about all the programming that’s done, the educational component of this exhibition, and besides the book, the original, there’s a panel exhibition that is around the book.

There is so much to it, and I have to say people are extremely excited when you come, and you’re like, “Here it is, here’s the First Folio.” They grin, they smile, they are just so happy about it. And to think that, actually, a First Folio is coming to your state. I don’t know what to say. They are just so excited about the whole idea of that. And I met a few people, and they were just like, “Where is it? Where is it? Can I see it? Can you show me? Can I get a private tour?” And unfortunately, I do have to say, “No, I am very sorry, but you can see it once it’s in the case.”

GRANT: Thank you so much for spending the time here this afternoon to lay this all out for us. It’s been great.

MESMER: You’re welcome.

WITMORE: Renate Mesmer is the J. Franklin Mowery Head of Conservation at the Folger. Austin Plann-Curley is a project conservator in the lab. Both were interviewed by Neva Grant.

“To Repair Should Be Thy Chief Desire” was recorded and produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington.

Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library, home, as we have just made abundantly clear, to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection. You can find out more about the Folger at our website, For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I am Folger Director Michael Witmore.