A conservator with a unique insight into history

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The targeted preservation of the old. Conservation librarian David Stokoe has devoted his 40-year career to the repair and preservation of a wide range of unique library materials and collections.

Throughout his career, conservation librarian David Stokoe has had exceptional insight into history.

For the past 16 years, Stokoe has worked at Syracuse University Libraries Research Center for Special Collections and be preservation laboratory. Located on the sixth floor of the Bird Library recently inaugurated Joan Breier Brodsky ’67, G’68 Conservation Lab is responsible for the conservation and preservation of individual items and entire collections, repairs bound and unbound manuscripts, printed books, works on paper, architectural drawings and much more.

Throughout his career (which began at the age of 17 in his hometown of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK) Stokoe had an exceptional grasp of history. Such is the nature of a conservator who has worked in museums, libraries, government archives and academia. Some of the most memorable items that have passed through his hands include the following:

  • King Herod Census Materials
  • 4,000-year-old cuneiform tablets used by shepherds to record their flocks
  • Artwork and writing from internment camps on the Isle of Man during WWII (dwellings then considered a security risk)
  • Early printed medieval bibles and manuscripts from the 14th century
  • An eloquently written letter from Malcolm X, outlining his philosophical evolution on the issue of racism

According to Stokoe, the most challenging project was putting together parts of the epic cartoon strip “Prince Valiant,” created by Hal Foster in 1937. It’s an adventure story that continues through 4,000 comic strips.

“It was originally drawn on large panels with captions pasted on, many of which loosened or peeled off completely over time,” says Stokoe. He designed a table to keep track of all the “orphaned” captions, words, and letters. Much like a giant jigsaw puzzle, Stokoe essentially “rebuilt” the series using printing proofs and enclosing individual sheets in acid-free folders for safekeeping for all time.

A conservator’s job includes everything from repairing torn and shredded paper, removing tape, restoring books, cleaning and chemically treating paper, to preparing items for cold storage storage in a humidity-controlled environment.

With generous philanthropic support, Stokoe has been privileged to work with the most advanced tools in dedicated conservation laboratories including a custom box making machine this makes acid-free archival boxes (it used to take 20-30 minutes to assemble archival boxes by hand; now it takes less than five minutes).

Person scanning copy into computer

For the past 16 years, Stokoe has worked at Syracuse University Libraries Special Collections Research Center and its Conservation Lab.

Syracuse University was recently completed construction on a 15,000 square foot facility that includes refrigerated and deep-freeze vaults to create optimal environmental conditions for materials critical to teaching and research.

Stokoe is responsible for training staff on many aspects of conservation and also teaches a graduate class, Preservation of Library and Archival Collections, which explores preservation environments, disaster planning/response, book and paper repair, and more. That’s why the students in his class are allowed to beat up books: “They each get a hardback and a paperback. We damage the books and repair them. We break hinges and spines, tear pages, remove spines and damage box corners. Of course, this is all hypothetical and you don’t get points for the damage, only for the repair,” he says. He points out that damage done in seconds can take hours to repair.

He brings extensive damage and destruction experience and exceptional detail to the disaster recovery process to classes, lectures and workshops.

“At one facility, we’ve had twenty-nine waterborne emergencies in just five years,” says Stokoe. “Multiple construction projects have contributed to water ingress, burst and leaking pipes, basement flooding and more. We used a freeze drying technique to salvage numerous historically important medieval volumes and other material affected by water damage.” He recalls using duct tape to hang protective plastic tarps and sacks of 26 pounds of dust during more than 2 miles to fill the HVAC renovation work.

Fortunately, his disastrous experiences at Syracuse University were less dramatic but no less interesting. Floating books sometimes come back with mold, stains, and even bugs. “We have to wrap everything up and freeze it at minus 30 degrees for two weeks to kill the insects,” says Stokoe. “Then we have to vacuum and disinfect, but we can recover most of the materials.”

Stokoe keeps detailed notes on each preservation process in a database; Recording every treatment detail is a crucial part of a restorer’s job.

“I keep specific records so someone can check what I did in the future,” he says. “And almost everything I do is reversible. It all requires a bit of physics, math, chemistry, biology, environmental science, mechanics and a lot of attention to quality control.”

Stokoe says the work requires tremendous patience and attention to detail, as it can take months to preserve some damaged materials, but he never gets discouraged.

“Repair is not the last straw,” he explains. “Items that cannot be made accessible can always be stored in their current state in the hope that future technologies will find a way. If I can’t fix it today, I’m hoping for a fix in the future. That means nothing is ever really disposed of due to its current state.”

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