Furloughed Fed volunteers at local historical society

Meris Westberg lends a conserving hand at the DC Historical Society while
Meris Westberg lends a helping hand at the Historical Society of Washington, DC, during the government shutdown. Photo courtesy of the Historical Society of Washington, DC.

When the National Archives closed its doors on October 1 due to the government shutdown, staff did not know when they would return to work. So Meris Westberg took her skills to the Historical Society of Washington, DC (HSW).

When Westberg joined HSW a few months ago, she had talked to the collections manager, Anne McDonough, about volunteering there. But the hours were similar to her work hours at the National Archives, where Westberg works on books and manuscripts in Hebrew and Arabic from the Iraqi Jewish Archives, so it didn’t seem likely she would be able to give many volunteer hours—until the furlough allowed her the time.

Westberg is a conservation technician, and so with the permission of HSW staff, she developed some short-term preservation projects that would benefit their staff and researchers. She created a Google spreadsheet of over 100 city directories from 1820 to 1900. These books were the “Yellow Pages” of their time, according to Westberg, and they are popular with researches.

The directories were in varying conditions: some were rebound and in good shape, others were falling apart. Westberg examined and noted the condition of each on her spreadsheet and did some light conservation work, including bracing the volumes with twill tape, surface cleaning, and interleaving acid-free paper behind iron-gall ink signatures. She also recommended the care that each volume needed to receive—mostly to rehouse the directory or repair it.

She also helped the library staff assess ways they could improve the long-term care of the collection. She showed the library staff how to make cradles that researchers could use when handling old, delicate books—a simple device that extends the life of older bound materials, especially ones that are frequently used at HSW, such as city directories, prison records, ledgers, and city maps. By using a cradle, researchers help preserve the fragile books through better handling practices and protect them for future use.

Westberg estimates she gave about 40 hours of volunteer time to HSW during the furlough. “It was a good opportunity to put time in and continue using the skills I had learned at the National Archives,” she said. “I was glad to have a temporary home for the time I had off.”

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