Eliza Gilligan often jokes that her job is to read Thomas Jefferson’s mail.

Before her on a large work table in her lab on Grounds lies a piece of that mail, an 1804 letter from President Jefferson to an M. Delacoste, declining the latter’s supplication for funds in support of an “establishment for promoting the science of Natural history in New York.”

It’s a mundane scrap of history, yellowed, falling to pieces, and bearing the telltale discolorations of someone’s well-meaning effort to hold it together with tape. Now those discolorations are Gilligan’s problem to solve. As senior conservator for the University libraries, Gilligan will spend hours concocting just the right “solvent cocktail”—a potent brew that might include ingredients like acetone, xylene, or heptane—to make the splotches disappear. She’ll wash the letter in deionized water to leach out acidification, give it an alkaline bath to protect it from further degradation, then mend it with Japanese tissue paper and wheat-starch paste. Then this minor correspondence, preserved as a usable document, will return to the Special Collections Library to await whatever might yet be made of its contents, for “the researcher who is going to come along and spot the profound or connect the dots between documents,” Gilligan says.

Eliza Gilligan Yolonda C. Jones

The University’s Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library holds more than 16 million objects, a vast trove of materials of incalculable scholarly value. Since she was hired as the first staff conservator in 2009, Gilligan has labored piece by piece to undo the ravages of age and handling and to preserve a range of works, from the minutiae of the diary entries of 19th-century University faculty member Socrates Maupin to a 15th-century choir book more than two feet tall. The goal is to allow these pieces to continue to serve as “usable, movable, durable, functional” resources with stories to tell, she says. 

“The expectation is that this book will go back to the library to be used” by researchers, Gilligan says. “It’s about me helping this book realize what it can be.”

To that end, Gilligan has developed a command of an impressively broad range of knowledge and skills. Her expertise is both academic (organic chemistry) and arcane (paring leather), scholarly (the history of bookbinding) and prosaic (“cockroaches have very specifically shaped poop”). She knows that the once-commonly-used iron gall ink—brewed with the plant galls of parasitic wasps—is pigment-based and stable on a page when you wash it, while modern ink is dye-based and runs easily. She knows when to choose the weight of usumino or minogami Japanese tissue paper for mending. She knows gold tooling. She knows tape. “You have to have a breadth of knowledge, but you have to be willing to do the research and the skills training, because you don’t know what is going to come down the pike,” Gilligan says.

To be a conservator, therefore, is also to enter into a world of obscure passions: Gilligan relies upon the rarified expertise of people like Jesse Meyer, who practices the vanishing art of parchment-making in Montgomery, New York.

“Back in the day when leather bookbinding was a thing, tons of tanners could do that,” Gilligan says. “Now there are two or three in the world who will do it to the quality that a conservator or a fine bookbinder would need.”

From Meyer, Gilligan learned why parchment—made from animal skins that have been scraped, washed, cleaned and then stretched very thin and dried—is so durable, and why it was long a bookbinder’s choice.

“Parchment will stand up to just about anything,” says Meyer, who made the limp vellum parchment used for a conservation binding for the library’s 1581 edition of Palladio’s Four Books of Architecture, an architectural treatise that profoundly influenced Jefferson’s architectural designs, especially Monticello and the Academical Village. Rather like the paperback covers of today, limp vellum in the 16th century “was a cheap and popular binding for books that were working copies” rather than library collection pieces, Gilligan says. “Limp vellum bindings travel very well, flex and open well, and can survive a lot of use.”

It is these sorts of choices—deciding what needs to be done with each work, which kinds of materials should be used, how she should proceed to remove this stain or repair that binding—that are as much the focus of Gilligan’s work as the actual hands-on conservation.

“I spend a lot of time,” Gilligan says, “just sitting and looking at a document, going ‘Hmmm, hmmm, hmmm.’”