In the Latter-day Saint faith, doctrine and history are so intertwined as to be inseparable; one sustains and gives meaning to the other. Mormonism, perhaps, is unique in this respect.
It follows, then, that document preservation would be a vital part of the work of the Church. Journals, photographs, original texts and other items serve as a tangible connection to momentous events, revered figures and cherished accounts of the past.
At the Church Historical Department in the east wing of the Church Office Building in Salt Lake City, senior conservator Chris McAfee and his colleagues are engaged day by day in the work of what Brother McAfee characterizes as making documents "as good as old."
"We're not trying to make an item look new," he explained during a June 26 Church News visit to the conservation lab. "We're trying to preserve the artifact as an artifact, and not just as information."
He displayed a first-edition copy of the Book of Mormon, explaining in a matter-of-fact tone that it is in better condition than when it came in for conservation work.
"We have other first-edition copies in good condition," he said. "So we normally wouldn't repair one."
This copy is special, however. It bears a handwritten notation giving the name of the owner and the date, Nov. 22, 1832. Below that appears this note in a different hand: "The writing above was Joseph Smith's own handwriting the day he gave the book to me."
"So, this bearing Joseph's own handwriting is what makes this important," Brother McAfee said.
He explained that the book was taken apart, washed and deacidified in water with an alkalizing solution. What follows now are repairs. Pages will be reattached at the spine, and the book will be sewn together.
"Then, I will rebuild this cover (currently in three pieces) and attach it to the book. The spine will be a problem, because somebody has repaired the spine in the past, and they have used the wrong kind of glue on it, which has made it really stiff."
A couple of options are available to him: He can attempt to soften the spine and then attach it to the front and back leather covers with another piece of leather. "Another option," he said, "will be to make a new spine that looks like this spine, then make a box for the book that has space for the original spine. So we won't lose the spine; it just won't be on the book."
The new leather spine can then be dyed, speckled and roughed up so as to resemble the rest of the cover.
Boxes are, in fact, an important element in conservation.
"A box does a lot to protect an item from damage and from the environment," Brother McAfee said. "What does the most damage to items in a collection is change in environment — fluctuation in temperature, in humidity. We call the box a microclimate. As the temperature and humidity outside the box fluctuate, they also fluctuate inside the box, but at a much slower rate, so it causes less damage."
He said when he gets calls for advice, as he frequently does, he tells inquirers that if they cannot afford to have a conservator repair an item, they should at least get an archival box for it, as that will keep it stable in its current condition.
Conservation work can entail manufacturing missing elements. Brother McAfee displayed an 1874 copy of The Life and Travels of Parley P. Pratt. From
another copy of the book, he made a photocopy of a missing title page, a page with Elder Pratt's picture and new end sheets, all of which were missing from the copy being conserved.
Torn pages on books, maps and other documents are repaired using Japanese paper, a long-fibered but thin, flexible paper used to mend the tear employing wheat paste, made from wheat starch. The torn edges of the paper are thus essentially welded back together.
"And it's reversible," Brother McAfee said, meaning that a repair made with Japanese paper can be undone.
"Everything we do, we try to make reversible, so we can undo what we have done, or so that a conservator in 50 years can undo what we did to make a new repair, if needed."
Photographic negatives also undergo the gentle handiwork of conservation. Brother McAfee showed a photographic negative that had been restored by his colleague, Russell Fuhriman. It had been part of a collection of acetate negatives that had deteriorated due to a process in which the acetate backing shrinks, but the image does not, resulting in a wrinkled and unusable negative.
Soaking it in water, conservators remove the image from the acetate. They can then either encapsulate it between two sheets of polyester or float it on to a piece of glass.
Brother McAfee showed a print that had been made from a restored negative. The picture is of President David O. McKay seated at a desk with a microphone and turntable in the studio of KSL Radio. Two other men are in the picture with President McKay. Brother McAfee said their identity is not known, nor is the date known when the photo was taken.
"Maybe one of our archivists can figure it out," he said.
Cooperation, in fact, is vital in preserving the past. Conservators at the Church Historical Department have an on-going relationship with Ronald Romig, archivist for the Community of Christ (formerly the RLDS Church) in Independence, Mo., because the two churches have a shared interest in the history they have in common.
"They let us photograph some of their items, and we do conservation for them," Brother McAfee said.
On one such occasion, the Community of Christ sent a journal that had belonged to Book of Mormon witness John Whitmer to Salt Lake City for conservation work, involving the delaminating and rebinding of pages, and reconstruction of the cover.
Of course, papers, books and photos are not the only items of historical import. At the Museum of Church History and Art, "we have an objects conservator, a furniture conservator and a textiles conservator," Brother McAfee said.
Together, items from the past give a sense of presence and reality to the historical record.
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