Preserving the past: Treating Pyon Su’s diploma

Last month the University Archives was lucky enough to receive the diploma of Pyon Su, America’s first Korean college student. The diploma is in good condition, but has been stored in a roll for many years, and needed to be flattened to be properly preserved. Read all about the preservation process in this guest post from Bryan Draper, Collections Conservator at the University of Maryland Libraries and Margaret Garnett, Graduate Assistant.

Pyon Su diploma
This is the diploma (unrolled) before preservation. Click to see a larger image.

Pyon Su’s diploma is a typical academic diploma, with the standard text and decoration printed en masse on parchment sheets and the graduate’s name added in calligraphic ink before it was signed by university authorities and the university seal affixed.  Then as now, diplomas might be framed for display, but often were rolled up and stored away in closets or attics.  One hundred twenty-one years after it was granted, Pyon Su’s diploma was in relatively good condition, although it had been tightly rolled and slightly “squashed” over time, which caused repeating creases from top to bottom.

Parchment is an animal skin treated with lime and stretched taut on a frame to dry.  This process realigns the skin fibers to create a hard, translucent and flexible material that has been valued as a writing surface since the time of the ancient Egyptians.  With the 12th-century introduction of paper in Europe, parchment began to fall from general use.  However, due to its durability and long history, parchment has continued to be used for important documents such as deeds, certificates and diplomas.

Preserving Pyon Su's diploma
Bryan works to flatten the diploma. Click to see a larger image.

In order to flatten and digitize it, the still-rolled diploma was placed in a humidity chamber.  Parchment absorbs moisture very readily; while too much causes damage to the fibers and encourages mold growth, the right amount allows the fibers to relax and the diploma to begin unrolling.  Once completely unrolled, the diploma was placed between blotter paper under evenly-applied weight to dry.  After several days, the diploma laid relatively flat but still retained the series of creases or ridges.

For its second treatment, the diploma was humidified between layers of damp blotting paper and GORE-TEX® fabric, which allows for very controlled humidification.  As the parchment relaxed, it was stretched with modified bulldog clips attached to the edges and then pinned out to maintain proper tension while it dried.  This method mirrors the manner in which parchment was originally made: by restretching and realigning the fibers, the diploma is returned to a fully planar state. Once it was dry, the diploma was again placed between blotter papers and evenly weighted.

Preserving Pyon Su's diploma
Flattening the diploma. Click to see a larger image.

While the parchment was being treated, the ribbon and seal at the bottom of the diploma were covered by a plastic envelope. Once the parchment had been stretched and dried, the ribbon was similarly humidified between damp blotting paper and GORE-TEX® while the main portion of the diploma was protected by dry blotting paper. Then the ribbon was carefully smoothed and the points around the edges of the seal uncreased before the entire diploma was once more placed under weight. The diploma was briefly removed from under these weights, and several protective layers of blotting paper, so that it could be digitized; then it was replaced under the weights, where it will remain for several weeks before placing in an archival housing for permanent storage.

See more photos from the process below!

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