A conservator leans over and aligns a page in a plastic cover on a machine that will seal it.

Closing the Book on “Shadows from the Walls of Death”

By Stephen J. Greenberg ~

Regular readers of Circulating Now are by now quite familiar with the eerily (but not inappropriately) named Shadows from the Walls of Death, the collection of arsenic-laden wallpaper samples published in 1874. Earlier this year we reported extensively on the rare book, arsenical green in 19th century wallpapers, and our efforts to digitize it. But what about the physical object? There is little point in holding such materials in the collection if they cannot be made accessible to researchers as needed. A digitized copy has been made available via NLM Digital Collections, but to fully comprehend the size of the original volume, to appreciate the brilliance and stability of its arsenic-based pigments, and for future research questions yet unknown, access to the original volume is required.

NLM decided to make the book safe to use by disbinding the original pages and individually encapsulating the pages in an electrostatically sealed 3 mil polyester film enclosure. In this procedure, the enclosures are welded shut; no glue has the archival properties to make a safe and permanent seal. The welds are almost invisible and very strong. They are, in fact, stronger than the polyester itself. The sealed pages are then placed a new, custom-made binding with aluminum posts like a traditional photograph album.

Holly Herro, NLM Senior Conservator, and Kristi Wright, NLM Contract Conservator, have been working to create the new, safe environment for the pages.  The post binder was fabricated in the NLM Conservation Laboratory, and custom-sized polyester sleeves, sealed on three sides, were ordered from a commercial supplier. The pages were carefully slipped inside the enclosures, so that only one side still needed to be welded shut.

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That task requires a very specialized piece of equipment called a Minter Welder (named for its inventor, William Minter).  NLM doesn’t own such a device, but the Smithsonian Libraries Research Annex, located in Landover, Maryland, does, and their staff generously made arrangements for Holly and Kristi to bring the pages to the Annex and seal them.  Smithsonian Libraries also possesses books with traces of arsenic (for different and somewhat mysterious reasons), and this was a fine opportunity to share information.  These picture show Kristi and Holly, with assistance from Smithsonian staff, doing the actual work of adjusting the Minter Welder, sealing the pages, and placing them in the binder.  The book is now back at NLM, and available for use by researchers.

Many thanks are due to Katie Wagner, Noah Smutz, and Vanessa Haight Smith of the Smithsonian Institution Libraries for their invaluable assistance in closing the book (but only so it can be opened safely in the future!) on Shadows from the Walls of Death.

Interested to see up-close the historical text described in this blog post? Come for a visit! The History of Medicine Reading Room at NLM is open from 8:30 to 5pm (EST) Monday through Friday except for Federal holidays. Access to this book is provided through LocatorPlus, the Library’s online catalog. For questions about this book and other historical collections, including how to consult them, please contact the History of Medicine Division Reference staff at NLM Customer Support or call (301) 402-8878.

Stephen J. Greenberg, PhD, Stephen J. Greenberg, PhD, is Head of Rare Books and Early Manuscripts for the History of Medicine Division at the National Library of Medicine.

Photographs of the conservation process by Stephen J. Greenberg


  1. Thanks about the kind of work you are ENGAGED IN, It will ensure availability & accessibility of this RARE BOOK to generations to come. Simultaneously it will enable them to INTERPRET the ‘SAME -BOOK’ in the LIGHTOF WISDOM PREVAILING IN THEIR TIMES + DERIVE IT’s ESSENCE for their TIMES & BEYOND>

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