Thursday, June 27, 2013

Preserving a treasure: der deutsche Sprachatlas in Wisconsin

One of the great landmarks in linguistic history was, I'd have to say, the German Linguistic Atlas. This is the famous project where Georg Wenker mailed a set of sentences to teachers all over German-speaking Europe and got them to write down how locals would say them in the dialect of the place. The resulting publication is one of the largest modern books you'll likely ever see.

The UW–Madison's Memorial Library has a copy and it had really deteriorated in recent years, to the point that I wouldn't use it and wouldn't send students to check out this classic work. I mean bad shape, like this:

It turns out that, when library staff checked the atlas, some whole maps were missing.

Luckily, a Reference Librarian alerted Preservation staff and they found funds to do restoration on the book, with support from Rob Howell and Mark Louden in German Linguistics.  Here's a description from an article coming soon in the Friends of the Library Newsletter of some of the work involved:
… conservation work began, to stabilize vulnerable pieces in hopes of minimizing further damage to fragile ragged edges.  This involved dozens of hours spent applying Japanese paper to mend tears and gaps in the damaged originals.   Missing maps and overlays were replaced by full-size printouts from other libraries, and fragments of color photocopies were painstakingly incorporated into the damaged pieces in preparation for facsimile copying.
 The final step was to entrust the atlas to Bridgeport National Bindery in Agawam, Massachusetts, for creation of the facsimile.  This process consists of scanning the item, printing maps onto acid-free paper, and printing overlays onto transparent inert polyester.  In the end, the Library will have a durable copy of the atlas that will serve many more generations of scholars. 
Amazing. Below are a couple of pictures of the repairs, the first illustrating the color photocopying and the second Japanese paper used to mend a damaged original. 

Man, I can't wait to start sending students to use the new atlas. And use it myself.

And yes, before you ask, the material has been digitized and posted in Germany, as the Digitaler Wenkeratlas. While I'm happy to use that source and sometimes it's easier, this is one work where touching the paper and looking at the big map is just not replaceable.  I think you'll soon be able to get at the full newsletter piece here. I hope so, at least.

Hat tips to all the staff who did the work: Laurie Wermter, David Woken, Wayne Gathright, Marta Gomez, Conservator, Caroline Rose and Andrea Rolich.

UPDATE:   The Japanese paper repair image is actually this one, with the text then filled in (thanks, Andrea): 

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