Preservation Week: 5 questions with Aisha Wahab

May 5, 2023
Hannah Moshier
Paper Conservator Aisha Wahab

Each year libraries around the U.S. celebrate Preservation Week to promote preservation activities. You can find all kinds of resources from quick preservation tips to preservation guides by format to resources in multiple languages at the Preservation Week website.

Preserving and caring for our collections requires a dedicated team of experts across the Stanford Libraries. For Preservation Week 2023, the Preservation Department will be introducing some of our newer staff members through a series of Q&A blog posts. We are wrapping up the series with Paper Conservator Aisha Wahab!


Tell us about your work.

As the paper conservator at Stanford Libraries, I mainly work on preserving and repairing the unbound items in the collection which can include maps, documents, works of art, posters, photographs, and papyri. I do work on books and other bound items as well, with most of my working focusing on issues inside the books involving the paper or media. Part of my job is to assist my colleagues in the library with handling, storage and other preservation guidance of the unbound items in the collection, conduct assessments, and treat items that need to be repaired for safe handling and use. It is a hands-on job, working with fine tools, large washing sinks, board sheers, chemicals, scalpels and all sorts of other fun equipment. I often describe my job as a "doctor for paper". My job is to make the collection item a little healthier, happier, and give it as long of a life as possible at Stanford Libraries.


What is your favorite book/item to come across your bench in the past year?

My favorite item that I have had the pleasure to work on this year would be the map I am currently working on. It is a tax map from 19th century Japan of the Omi province that is part of the David Rumsey Map Center collection. It is my favorite item this year because it is one of the most challenging library collection items that I have worked on as a conservator. The map is a challenge to work on because of its size. This map is big! The map is 11' x 17' when unfolded and I lovingly call it "my monster map". To be able to work on the map it needs to be unfolded width-wise and partially length-wise where I can work on it in sections, unfolding along the way.  I have had to commandeer two other tables in the conservation lab in addition to my usual two large tables and create a wider table surface with acid free corrugated boards just to get the map open halfway to work on it. I get my steps in just walking around the partially unfolded map while repairing tears and losses. I am looking forward to seeing this map repaired and back at DRMC to impress all of their patrons and visitors by its size. 

If you want to learn more about the map, there is a blogpost about the digitization of the map with a great image of Wayne Vanderkuil, the lead photographer, standing next to the map to give you a sense of the map's scale.


What is something about your job that people would be surprised to learn?

I use my own saliva as one of the solvents I work with.


Do you have a favorite tool/operation/piece of equipment?

One of my favorite tools would have to be saliva. It surprises and grosses people out, which makes it even more fun to use. But honestly, it's just a really useful and convenient solvent for a lot of things. It has a certain moisture content which is really nice to work with and has enzymatic properties that help break down substances on paper the same way it helps break down food in your mouth. It has helped me remove adhesives and stains off of paper and helped me get blood out of textiles. As a student in conservation, I once was working on a 14th century wool carpet from Iran and cut my finger getting blood on the carpet. I was in a bit of a panic about my mistake, but my mentor told me not to worry and just to get a cotton swab with my saliva and remove it. It was amazing and I was grateful to be able to get the blood stain out of a beautiful and rare work of art. I have appreciated this natural tool ever since. 


Can you recommend some books, websites, or articles about your field?

If you would like to see snapshots of the work that we do in the conservation lab, you could check out our Instagram page @sulpreservation.

A new book that recently came out is Conservation of Books which is a great reference guide for the preservation and conservation of books with contributions from subject specialists around the world. One of our lab's book conservators Kimberly Kwan has co-written two chapters in this book.