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Northwestern University

Just the artifacts

From paintings made of spider webs to colorful lollipops from Kenya, the special collections of Northwestern University Library comprise an array of unique, rare and valuable objects that are the farthest thing from a book. A new exhibit in the lobby of Deering Library addresses the challenges faced by Library conservators when these unusual objects enter a collection.

“Beyond the Book: The Changing Nature of Library Collections” runs from January 20 to May 8, featuring objects like the personal collection of transportation enthusiast William A. Luke. The former bus industry executive donated a lifetime of ephemera related to his field, from transit tickets to official neckties worn by bus drivers. Elsewhere, curators highlight vinyl record albums, wooden signs, a brass saxophone and even a plastic Petri dish (mailed to composer John Cage, and considered “correspondence” in the influential composer’s collection.)

Taken together these objects showcase the myriad skills required by conservators when considering how to care for these objects. For example, visual documentation on display recounts how conservators work with the renowned oil paintings collected and donated by Charles Deering himself, as well as a chalkboard removed from Nobel Prize-winning economist Dale Mortensen’s Northwestern office after his death.

Conservation often comprises digitization and documentation that can increase access to an object while reducing its exposure to handling, said conservators and co-curators Stephanie Gowler and Katherine Risseeuw. Consider the 17 Mesopotamian tablets that have been in the Library’s collection for years; until recently, librarians knew little about the writing upon them or even their precise dates. But as part of a Library’s digitization project, conservators know the dates range from 100 AD to 4,000 BCE. The project also led to new housings for the tablets to increase the odds they can last another six millennia.

For more information contact Clare Roccaforte at or call (847) 467-5918.

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