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Field to Library: U of I Collaboration for Sustainable Book Conservation

Field to Library: U of I Collaboration for Sustainable Book Conservation

A dynamic partnership in the works at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign aims to prove that paper doesn’t — and perhaps shouldn’t — grow on trees.

The participants? Fresh Press — a hand papermaking studio at the School of Art + Design — and the U of I Library’s Conservation Unit. Using Fresh Press’ trademark agriculturally sourced materials, the organizations will collaborate to craft a new kind of paper that meets conservation standards and can be used to rebind and repair the Library’s at-risk relics.

Despite existing in separate spheres, the organizations have quickly fallen into step with one another, united by the drive to create meaningful and environmentally conscious material. Fresh Press brings the paper, conservators provide the artifacts, and the result is a multilevel experiment in sustainability, conservation and the fusion of fine art and science.

Photo by Jordan Goebig/iSEE

Eric Benson, co-founder of Fresh Press, defines its mission:

“We want to explore papermaking from a more environmentally friendly perspective, and in the process create more sustainable paper products.”

The key to sustainable papermaking is redirecting the traditional supply chain “from forest to farm.” Rather than harvesting trees, Fresh Press works with agricultural biomass; specifically, byproducts of corn, soy, and prairie grasses from the university’s Sustainable Student Farm (SSF). The resultant paper is showcased in local markets or commissioned for consumer, artisanal, and University projects.

Fresh Press paper is music to the modern-day conservator’s ears. Quinn Ferris, Senior Conservator for Special Collections at the Library, has been searching for just the kind of product in which Fresh Press specializes. As a conservator, Ferris devotes herself to the art of preserving in perpetuity the library’s historic artifacts, using durable materials that stand the test of time while maintaining the structural and artistic integrity of the original.

Upon examining Fresh Press paper for the first time, Ferris immediately recognized the potential for a “natural partnership.” She recalls being struck by the fact that the material’s characteristics — relatively heavy, composed of all-natural fibers, and potentially suited for withstanding maximum use with minimal decomposition — almost perfectly matched the characteristics of paper used historically for conservation-friendly binding.

Fresh Press’s accessibility is also attractive to U of I conservators: close communication and geographic proximity make it possible to craft paper that adheres to their unique specifications.

“The opportunity to custom-design a conservation material that we could use based on our particular needs is somewhat rare,” Ferris said.

While this project holds multi-fold benefits for both Fresh Press and the U of I Library, Benson and Ferris are eager to explore its environmental implications as well. Because Fresh Press paper is made from agricultural byproducts, it’s not only waste-free, but also actively removes pre-existing waste from circulation. Agricultural byproducts are often used for tillage, but some waste remains at the end of each season nonetheless.

“Back in 2009,” Benson said, “the USDA stated that only around 70% of crop biomass needs to go back into the soil. Up to 30% can be removed from the end of the harvest and is not needed for soil nutrition.”

In accordance with this data, Fresh Press has been purchasing some excess from SSF each season — and as of yet, there are no negative results to report. On the contrary: Instead of disposing of or even burning excess corn, farmers can sell that biomass to Fresh Press, optimizing air and income alike.

Benson refers to this enterprise as “land stewardship,” stating that “we don’t want to take away what’s needed for the land, but what’s left we want to use efficiently.”

Should this mind-set be leveraged in a larger capacity to disrupt large-scale tree farming practices, it would not only enable better-quality air, farms, and forests, but better-quality paper as well. While not as commonplace, agriculturally sourced paper is actually superior to wood-pulp paper from a quality perspective because of its resistance to deterioration.

“Historic papers produced from cotton and linen rags — even if they’re from the 14th century — are in much better condition than any paper that was made since the Industrial Revolution,” Ferris said. “Lignin (a polymer found in cell walls of wood and bark)-based paper undergoes an acid hydrolysis reaction that causes the paper to break down more quickly.”

Fresh Press co-founder Eric Benson and U of I Library Senior Conservator for Special Collections Quinn Ferris. Photo by Jenna Kurtzweil/iSEE

Ferris noted the historical irony of the Fresh Press/U of I Library partnership. Especially the fact that conservation is necessary in part due to the prevalence of low-quality, wood-based paper:

“The reason we need lasting materials for conservation is because we’ve been making paper-based objects out of wood pulp for so long. What’s more appropriate than attempting that conservation with a material (agriculturally sourced paper) that actively interrupts the problem that we’re trying to work against?” Ferris said. “It has a really nice symmetry.”

Ferris and Benson both appreciate this undertaking’s cross-collaborative, interdisciplinary nature, and its ability to weave art and science together in pursuit of a shared goal.

“Artists were always scientists,” Ferris points out. “They mixed their own colors, and they were aware of the limitations of their materials. We’re taking our new co-engineered material … and holding up that tradition. By celebrating the history of craft production in both book-making and paper-making in the creation of a new conservation paper, we are also honoring the future of stewardship for our cultural heritage legacies.”

This legacy-oriented mindset is something that unites the two organizations, and the desire to foster sustainability—be it in the forests, fields, or libraries—will keep their missions interconnected for years to come.

Fresh Press received seed funding from the Student Sustainability Committee (SSC) in 2012 and continues to apply and receive SSC funding for various projects.

— Jenna Kurtzweil, iSEE Communications Intern