Six Secrets from Special Collections with Michael Don Fraser

Michael Don Fraser, Book and Paper Conservator, Special Collections Division

In our Secrets from Special Collections series, UNLV Libraries Special Collections staff members divulge what they consider to be the hidden gems of the library, sharing answers, based on their own experiences, to six intriguing questions. Here, Book and Paper Conservator Michael Don Fraser gives us a glimpse into life working among the rare treasures of the library.

1. When you first began working in Special Collections, what was the one item or collection that made your jaw drop, and why? Describe.

Honestly, I love browsing the antiquarian books in our reading room. The Taxe Collection, which is part of our much larger gaming collection, is housed on what I like to call the “Million Dollar Wall.” This exhibit is open to the public, and it contains rare editions of Hoyle’s works on gaming. In addition, we have some samples of fine bookbinding from the 19th and 20th centuries. I’ve visited rare book rooms around the country, and our collection does stand out, especially in this field of study. After 15 years at UNLV, I never get tired of going into that room.

2. What do you think may be the single most overlooked part of Special Collections?

Technical Services. We have a devoted team working quietly behind the scenes to ensure that collections related to Nevada’s history are accessible to the public. My role in all this is the operation of our Preservation Lab. Here, our work is related to environmental monitoring, re-housing of collections, and repairing documents and books.

3. What is the one question you are most asked about your work, or elements that fall within the scope of your job description?

I think there is an instant connection with people when I tell them what I do. They want to tell me stories about things that they have at home, which I may find of interest. These discussions sometimes lead to material donations to Special Collections. Often, people ask me advice on how to care for an artifact in their possession. The number one question that I am asked is, “How do I care for (or repair) a family Bible?” 

4. What is the most fascinating or positive aspect of your job? In answering, describe a little about what you do on a daily basis. What is the most difficult aspect of your work? Describe.

My work will have a lasting effect on Special Collections for decades or even centuries to come. I have to think about our materials along that kind of timeline. All documents have a shelf life, and lengthening the lifespan of a piece of paper is problematic. The chemical makeup of a newspaper clipping, or even a piece of correspondence, usually allows for a lifespan of only a few weeks at most. In fact, newspapers are intended to be trashed as soon as they are read. 

So what do you do if you find something like that in your collection and you want to keep it?  Well, we have a number of tricks in our repertoire. We may de-acidify a document, reinforce it with a backing, or encapsulate it. Usually, some debate will go into determining the best treatment for any given item. There may not be any right or wrong answer. It may be just a matter of judging priorities—deciding how much attention we are willing to give to any single artifact.

5. What are you working on right now? How will it contribute to Special Collections?

Right now, I’m de-framing some awards and certificates that we’ve received for one of our new collections. Unfortunately, most commercial frame work is not of archival quality and may not be the best answer for saving a document long term, especially in an institutional setting. In addition, we do not have the room to store most framed items. Instead, we will re-house these items in an archival quality box, within accepted guidelines. This will help with accessibility for patrons, and with the long term care of the documents.

6. What advice would you give students seeking to isolate a topic in Special Collections using primary source materials?

Be prepared to get dirty and roll up your sleeves. I find it’s best not to have any preconceived notions about a collection. Let your own discoveries guide you in developing a topic of research. Particularly in the area of Las Vegas history, there are so many myths and urban legends that result in preconceived notions that may not be backed up by the facts. I’m astonished by how many researchers have used our collections, and they often come away with a different point of view, contrary to their initial hypothesis.

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