There’s something undeniably alluring about the past. Even in our frenzied chase for the future — designing computers in our basements and making waves in the stock market — we somehow still find ourselves stumbling into vintage stores, lingering over dusty books and running our fingers through moth-eaten velvet. Part of it is pure nostalgia, an unshakeable longing for the retro, the rustic, the renaissance — but no matter if you are a multimillionaire or a whimsical 20-something, there are no flights to ancient Greece or Paris circa 1950. Instead, we must learn our history through the artifacts left behind, dug up and dusted off.

If you are Bill Gates, you may spend nearly $31 million on “The Codex Leicester,” the most famous of Leonardo Da Vinci’s scientific manuscripts. Or perhaps you are a literature fan like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, bidding $6 million on an original copy of Shakespeare’s “First Folio.” Or maybe you are just a whimsical 20-something with an empty wallet and a hungry mind, reaching for the new and finding the old — as I did at the University’s Department of Preservation and Conservation at the University Library.

If it sounds like the kind of place where old Egyptians bring their dead to be mummified, you’re not too far off base. Instead of preserving artifacts to be buried, however, the University conservators are preserving ancient texts, books and photos to be brought back to life, either for circulation or restricted use in University libraries, as well as for personal requests. They are the behind-the-scenes wizards responsible for making documents legible under thick museum glass, keeping aged encyclopedias from falling apart on the Hatcher Graduate Library shelf and resurrecting panoramic photographs of Detroit circa 1860.

“This is why we have the coolest job in the world,” said Shannon Zachary, the head of the department of preservation and conservation, smiling. “We get to do what no one else can.”

I arranged to meet Zachary at the department lab on a frigid morning in early February — the hour when the conservators were usually the most busy. Despite its library affiliation, the lab is fairly far from campus, tucked behind Elbel Field and the train tracks. As I hopped the rusted tracks at sunrise, I envisioned myself on the set of “National Treasure” — standing in a sterile white room, snapped into latex gloves and surrounded by peeling yellow documents whose secrets could be revealed only by magniscope. These dramatic expectations dissolved quickly as I entered the building and wasn’t met with a thick FBI-issued vault, but rather a homey workshop that hummed with the energy of an art studio.

It was clearly still early. The large wooden work tables were mostly empty as I weaved around them, making my way to Zachary’s office in the back corner. Stretched from floor to ceiling of the workshop were racks of material rolled up like wrapping paper, waiting to be sheared off and stitched onto battered books. Atop the tables were extensive collections of exacting knives and massive paper cutters, stiff boards and spools of thread for book spinal repair and an expensive-looking camera with a giant bulb. Jutting into the center of the room were makeshift cubicles designated to each conservator, cluttered with mismatched stacks of ragged books and grinning family photos.

A flash of color from one desk caught my eye — at least 200 plastic figurines, in varying degrees of vibrance and age, peered out from the shelf. It was as if I had stepped into Santa’s workshop, except the toys were not flashy and new and looking to be loved — rather, they were well-worn and faded, waiting to be shined again.

The objects that come to the Preservation and Conservation lab are divided into two categories: circulation and special collections. Falling under the circulation group are materials sent in for maintenance — specifically damage prevention or damage repair — for the primary purpose of extending their library shelf lives. The necessary repairs can vary greatly from book to book, making the conservators take them on a case-by-case basis. Though this attention to detail is a trademark of the department, with only two full-time book repairers and just eight workstations, it seems impossible to maintain every University book without some North Pole magic.

“Every repair is handmade from start to finish, so we give priority to rare and special books, or those with spindly and complicated bindings,” Zachary said. She then picked up a red encyclopedia from the table.

“Everything else — standard-issued books like this, with just a little wear and tear — are shipped to our friends at a commercial binding company in Cleveland, Ohio, where they usually repair some 35,000 books a year. You can understand why we don’t want to send our fragile books to that assembly line.”

Another reason to keep the book in the lab is if there is a specific repair requested. Jeff Gilboe, one of the two full-time book repairers, works primarily with circulation materials — books needing damage repair and prevention, to be then put back on library shelves and into students’ hands. He was instructed to attach a pocket to the hard-backed interior of a University bird guide, slim enough to fit a bookmark. He demonstrates his process with expert precision: measuring the pocket dimensions onto sturdy paper, cutting, hinging the paper onto the cover flap securely. The request seemed strange to me — were there secret bookmark pockets all over University materials? I asked what other special orders he received.

“The library folks love to add things to their books,” Gilboe said, laughing. “I have replaced pages, put in reading supplements and refurbished bindings in leather.”

His eyes shone with the passion of someone who has been working for nine years, yet is still just getting started.

“We have these weekly meetings where new stuff is brought in. There’ll be a really damaged book and everyone asks, ‘Should we commercially rebind it?’” Gilboe recounted. “I’ll usually just tell them that I can do the whole book.”

The other side of Preservation and Conservation, special collections, is much more private in comparison. Materials that fall under this category are, naturally, special: internationally treasured book collections, valuable manuscripts and scores of archival material. The Special Collections Library does not circulate, but some materials can be viewed in the reading room on the eighth floor of the Graduate Library. And unlike the “Restricted Section” of the Hogwarts library — which must be snuck into under the cover of an invisibility cloak — all students are welcome to view the special collections, though they must request materials ahead of time.

Perhaps the most fascinating materials in special collections are the lengthy, tangled scrolls of papyrus, inked with ancient symbols and religious scripture. The University currently holds the largest papyrological collection in North America — roughly 6,500 linear feet of archival material. The collection was first introduced to the University in the 1920s, when Francis Kelsey, a former professor of Latin, (for whom the Kelsey Museum of Archaeology was named) purchased large quantities of ancient papyri from Egypt, much of which is still being held in a pressurized vault in the Graduate Library. Since then, conservators have been arduously working to piece together the papyri — a task so monumental, so fragile, that I’d imagine it would be similar to a painter unveiling a masterpiece composed completely of pricks of his brush.

For Leyla Lau-Lamb, the other book repairer, conserving papyrus is an art — and she is unquestionably a master, albeit an unconventional one. Upon first meeting, Lau-Lamb struck me as an eccentric genius in the flesh: petite and bespeckled, long silver hair tied at the nape of her neck, wearing an oversized sweater emblazoned with a star and fuzzy striped tube socks.

“I don’t wear gloves,” Lau-Lamb said, when asked to describe her process. “People are always surprised, since these are very old and fragile documents. But this isn’t a visual task; it’s a feeling one. The papyrus that comes out of the vault doesn’t look like a scroll — it’s more like a tangled knot of fibers, not a document. I use my fingers to feel my way into it, very carefully, distinguishing between fibers making up the vertical and horizontal layers of the page.”

Lau-Lamb’s 25-year-old method, though unconventional, works — so much so that 10 years ago she published a papyrus conservation guideline for the Advanced Papyrological Information System (known as “APIS”) that was printed in 25 countries and is still actively used. Lau-Lamb laments our society’s lack of proper schooling in papyrological conservation, despite the abundance of archives to uncover.

“There are hardly any places to study conservation, in today’s society and especially back in my day. Then, there were two places to go: England’s British Library and a conservation workshop in Berlin. So I went to Berlin for training,” Lau-Lamb said.

She then grinned conspiratorially, “What we need is to grab the interest of more young people like you. Someone needs to keep resurrecting these old documents.”

To help foster education for budding conservators, the Preservation and Conservation Department offers the Cathleen A. Baker Fellowship, an annual $10,000 award that enables conservators of varying expertise to work in the lab and gain hands-on experience in the conservation of paper-based collections. The department receives applications from conservators across the country, with each applicant essentially pitching his or her project — past Fellows’ projects have included broad investigations of new conservation techniques, as well as the specific use of starch paste in book bindings — with the ultimate goal of benefitting both the Baker Fellow and the University.

This year’s Fellowship was awarded to Halaina Demba, whose project focus is on library and archive conservation. When we were introduced, Demba was holding a thick, faded-blue cookbook titled “American Frugal Housewife,” for which she was reconstructing a binding. As she flipped through the aged pages to show me where the sewing in the spine had unraveled, I noticed that the pages were littered with splotches. I asked if she intended to remove the stains, figuring that it was common practice in paper preservation.

“Definitely not,” Demba replied, surprisingly. “Especially in a case like this, where the words are still clearly legible. These stains — mostly oil stains, it looks like — are what give a book, particularly a cookbook, its character. I’ve found little bits of onion stuck to pages, and I keep them too.”

I laughed, at once amused and slightly disgusted.

“There’s a difference between an exhibit and an artifact,” Demba continued. “Documents that are on exhibit are there to be read — people want to know what the U.S. Constitution says. Here, we work with artifacts. We want them to maintain their utility, of course, but more importantly we want them to maintain their integrity. When you wash pages of their oil stains and onion bits, you lose this integrity.”

What happens, then, if the purpose of the object is to be looked at? Senior conservator Tom Hogarth specializes in preserving 19th century photographs. Like Lau-Lamb, Hogarth beats his own path — dressing in a bright yellow Hawaiian shirt to offset his shock of white hair, he introduces himself as a “black-and-white guy.” His current project is mounting an 1860 panoramic photo of the Detroit River, taken from the Canadian border, to an archival board.

Like a sly magician, Hogarth pulled back the tissue covering the old picture for me, pointing out the tiny names of the ships and marveling at the photographic details that were revolutionary for the time period.

“Back then, people didn’t have smartphones that could take panoramic photos,” Hogarth said, a wistful tone in his voice. “They took photos shot by shot, then pasted them together to make this — it took time. It was an art. Nowadays, my granddaughter can do it.”

What Hogarth’s granddaughter can’t do (at least not yet) is conserve the original panorama so it lasts forever. In reality, only a handful of people in the world can do what the staff at the Department of Preservation and Conservation do — preserve our history, close the gap a tiny bit more between the past and our fast-paced world of fads and forgetting.

Perhaps our fascination with the past can be summed up by this question, the one I can’t seem to shake: Why does a graying panoramic photograph of Detroit bring me to tears, when a modern version of the same picture wouldn’t get a second glance?

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