Claudia Powell collects, protects, preserves Missouri history

Sunday, October 11, 2009 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 1:42 p.m. CST, Tuesday, February 9, 2010

COLUMBIA — Claudia Powell has combated armies of rubber bands, paper clips and cardboard for more than three decades to protect and preserve Missouri’s most fragile history.

With those years of document and manuscript preservation behind her, Powell has become a guru in the safekeeping of the millions of papers at the Western Historical Manuscript Collection. As a specialist in document preservation, she pieces together the pages of crumbling history and removes stains caused by age, poor storage and various harmful, extraneous attachments.

If you go

What: Claudia Powell, the document-conservation specialist for the Western Historical Manuscript Collection, will discuss basic care of paper documents.

When: 8:30 a.m. Oct. 31

Where: Tiger Hotel

“We have millions of pieces of paper, so I will focus in on one collection at a time,” Powell said. “It’s kind of depressing, because there’s so many pieces of paper. I think a person could kind of get down in the dumps thinking about how much needed to be done.”

During her career, Powell has salvaged letters and documents that have passed through some of America’s most famous hands. She has preserved evidence of Mark Twain, Meriwether Lewis, Ulysses S. Grant and other historical figures, but doesn't get lost in the history.

“I am not particularly a history person,” Powell said. “While I’m interested in it, it’s not my thing in life. I think that’s a good thing for a person in this position. When I’m working on the documents, if I stop to read everything, I’d never get anything done.”

Becky Schroeder, a longtime supporter of the collection, said Powell’s talent and love for her work are essential to the organization's success.

“The preservation is the most vital part from the point of view of the history of the state,” Schroeder said. “If these papers disintegrate, then the history of the state is lost. The way she puts the torn pieces together is just an incredible feat.”

However, Powell’s expertise stretches beyond history’s most prominent figures, and into the hearts of local families.

“The mission of the WHMC is to collect papers and documents from people as important as the governor and as unimportant as we are,” Schroeder said. “They have most of the governors papers, and she’s restored many of them, too.”

Powell said she is thrilled when families care enough about their history to seek guidance in preservation. Earlier this year, Powell pieced together fragments of Columbia resident Susie Keepper’s ancestry. When Keepper stumbled upon family documents rolled up like a scroll in her parents' garage, she looked to Powell to restore the written proof of her family’s history.

“They were not creased," Keepper said. "When they are rolled up in a circle and they have been in an unstable atmosphere and condition, when you try to unroll them they have a tendency to break apart.”

With Powell’s help, Keepper preserved four fragile fragments of her family’s history. After Powell restored the documents, Keepper framed and displayed her great-grandmother’s 1892 marriage certificate, her great-great-grandfather’s 1912 death certificate and two official post-office documents from the late 1800s.

“They were kind of crumbling, actually,” Keepper said. “They were almost like a puzzle, and she had to put them back together.”

Document repair like the work Powell did for Keepper takes time and energy, but simple preservation can be achieved in the home. Powell will speak about preservation at The State Historical Society of Missouri's annual meeting Oct. 31 at the Tiger Hotel.

Powell plans to advise against the use of paper clips, rubber bands and other harmful, extraneous attachments. She said paper clips leave rust marks, and rubber bands deteriorate and then adhere to the paper.

Tears should not be mended with self-adhesive tape. Instead, they can be restored with mending tissues and water-soluble paste. This alternative method repairs the documents without causing unwanted yellowing to the surface of the paper.

Encapsulating documents in individual mylar sleeves is safer than lamination. The adhesives in lamination prevent the documents from ever escaping the shielding.

“That’s the whole purpose,” Powell said. “Anything you do in preservation, you want to be able to undo.”

Lamination is not the only armor to be feared. While cardboard keeps paper crisp, acids from the cardboard can migrate into the documents and cause them to become acidic. If a piece of paper is acidic, then it’s begun the process of eating away at itself. Consequently, it will lose all its strength and begin to crumble.

Newspaper clippings are difficult to maintain, because they are printed on wood-pulp paper. To keep these documents in their original forms, they need to go through the process of deacidification.

Powell paints or sprays Bookkeeper, a chemical solution, to neutralize the acids in the papers. Bookkeeper leaves a buffering behind to prevent future acid attacks on the paper. The solution will not restore the clips but will keep them from further deterioration.

Powell also insists upon careful storage of precious documents.

“I like to tell people their papers are usually happy where you’re happy,” Powell said.

Both people and paper are more comfortable in air conditioning and humidity-controlled environments. Hot and dry storage areas cause papers to turn brittle. Damp and wet areas can oftentimes cause mold, which is difficult to remove.

“Obviously, we are in the business of collecting collections,” Powell said. “It’s important that it’s taken care of so that it remains history.”

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