Grant Supports Conservation of First Edition Paul Laurence Dunbar Books

In celebration of National Poetry Month, we are excited to share that Special Collections & Archives recently received a LSTA (Library Services and Technology Act) Conservation grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), awarded by the State Library of Ohio to fund conservation treatment for 11 of our first edition Paul Laurence Dunbar poetry books.

The books are currently still in the practiced hands of a conservation firm in Indiana. So, while we can’t share any “after” pictures yet, we hope you’ll enjoy learning more about this project and anxiously await (as we are) news of the results! Again, we are so thrilled to be able to do this, thanks to a grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), awarded by the State Library of Ohio.

One of the books being conserved is this rare 1896 first edition of Lyrics of Lowly Life, inscribed by its author, Paul Laurence Dunbar, to his friend and benefactor, Dr. Tobey:

More About The Project:

The Paul Laurence Dunbar first edition books were selected for this grant project due to their consistent high use in exhibits and outreach, and deteriorating structural condition. The use of these books has always been high, but even more so in 2022 celebrating the 150th birthday of Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906). It seems especially appropriate to address the treatment needs of one of our highest used collections, during the sesquicentennial of the author’s birth. Dunbar was the son of former slaves who settled in Dayton. He was the only African American in his high school class, where he was friends with Wilbur and Orville Wright and was editor of his school newspaper. Dunbar published his first book of poetry in 1893, and quickly became one of the first influential African American literary figures to garner critical acclaim on a national scale. He died tragically young at age 33 after a long struggle with tuberculosis. In celebration of his 150th birthday, events were held locally and nationally. As the namesake of Wright State University’s Paul Laurence Dunbar Library (PLDL), of which Special Collections and Archives (SC&A) is a part, the libraries joined the National Park Service and local organizations in celebrating with a series of 150 events that included a premier documentary screening, book discussion, art expo, music festival, and exhibits.

Many of these events featured the collection of Dunbar signed first editions in this grant proposal. The collection was gifted to Wright State University Libraries’ (WSUL) in 1975 by the grandson of a close friend of Dunbar’s, Dr. H.A. Tobey.  Dr. Tobey recognized Dunbar’s talent early, and encouraged and financially supported Dunbar. In appreciation, Dunbar would sign a first edition of many of his books to Dr. Tobey, now in the care of SC&A. Signed first editions of Dunbar’s books are rare. The books are over a century old and have never received repair or treatment. The novels are in overall good condition, while the poetry books, for which Dunbar is most known, are clearly more distressed and in varying condition, some with detached pages, detached covers, and loose sewing. Toni Vanden Bos, Preservation & Cataloging Archivist, conducted a condition assessment of the books in order to rank them for treatment based on condition (Appendix D).  The assessment includes title, year, inscription, OCLC number, condition, dimensions, page count, and prioritization for treatment. Of the 17 books in the collection, 11 were selected based on condition (nine poetry books and two books of short stories).

Conserving the 11 books will strengthen them so they can continue to be used carefully in outreach and for research by the public, which is core to SC&A’s mission. To minimize stress on the books, they are typically exhibited closed, so the public rarely sees the inscriptions to Dr. Tobey, some of which include Dunbar’s handwritten poetry. Nor does the public often see the photographs that accompany the poems in five of the selected books. The photos depict African American life at the turn of the 20th century, which offers another area of study and insight into the author’s choices. Without treatment, the books will continue to primarily be displayed closed, and any viewing of the inscriptions will be limited. After consultation with HF Group’s ECS Conservation, SC&A digitized the books with our planetary scanner prior to the grant and ahead of treatment, after which any stress from the digitization could be addressed during treatment. This will allow SC&A to put the digitized poetry book pages on SC&A’s Paul Laurence Dunbar website, providing researchers a way to view the poems with the illustrations and the personal inscriptions to Dr. Tobey, without further damaging the books. SC&A would have the discretion to display the original books open and/or use print reproductions of inside pages for outreach and research use.

Toni Vanden Bos, preservation and cataloging archivist, is overseeing the project. ECS Conservation was selected for the project due to a well-established relationship with the bindery, and a positive experience with ECS on a past project. During a consultation, each book’s condition was discussed with the ECS Conservation Manager and Technician, and it was decided that treatment would primarily focus on structural stability over aesthetics in order to stabilize the most books. The grant proposal included structural repair for all 11 books, deacidification of seven books, and spine cleaning for one. Upon recommendation of ECS, custom hinge boxes will be made to protect from light, pollutants, and temperature and relative humidity fluctuations in our reading room, where the books reside in a locked, glass-front wood cabinet. Additional insurance for five books while at the lab, has also been purchased with grant funds. The project commenced in November 2022 by packing and scheduling the books for delivery to ECS; and will be completed by August 31, 2023.  

Additional Information & Links:

This project was supported by federal Institute of Museum and Library Services funds, granted through the State Library of Ohio. The opinions expressed herein do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of IMLS or the State Library of Ohio, and no official endorsement by either agency should be inferred. We sincerely thank the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS), and the State Library of Ohio for making this project possible through the LSTA Conservation grant.

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