Deep inside the James Madison Memorial Building at the Library of Congress, in a room restricted to public access, Sara Duke, Holly Krueger and Valeria Orlandini are meticulously preserving newspaper history.
The trio is pushing forward with a five-year-old project to conserve more than 60,000 drawings by the late Washington Post editorial cartoonist Herbert L. Block, known to friends and fans as Herblock.
The project, projected to cost more than $1 million, is funded by the Library of Congress; the Herb Block Foundation also provided $1.5 million for exhibits and to help speed the preservation work. By the time it's completed in 2009, the 100th anniversary of Block's birth, 14,000 finished cartoons will be preserved for public viewing. The team also is conserving 50,000 fragile rough sketches from Block's personal archives.
Block's drawings decried tyranny, abuse of power and social injustice. In his first daily cartoon, in 1929, a clear-cut forest foreshadowed the devastation of the Great Depression. He was an early and persistent foe of the rise of Nazism and is often credited with coining the term "McCarthyism." Sen. Joseph McCarthy began shaving twice a day to rid himself of the 5 o'clock shadow so well documented in Block's drawings. President Nixon canceled his Post subscription after a Herblock cartoon depicted him crawling out of a sewer.
Block won three Pulitzer Prizes for editorial cartooning--one at the syndicate NEA Service in 1942 and two during his 55-year tenure with the Post, where his editors gave him wide latitude. He also was one of four staffers honored by the Post's 1973 public service Pulitzer for coverage of Watergate.
He often sought feedback on drafts of his cartoons from trusted colleagues, including longtime Post reporter and editor Frank Swoboda. "Herb was a humble man," says Swoboda, now president of the Herb Block Foundation. "He would treat young cartoonists like they had won a Pulitzer and make every effort to help people with their work."
Before his death in 2001, Block quietly laid plans for the foundation that bears his name. Almost all of the 18 trustees designated in his will were unaware that he had appointed them as stewards of his legacy. Block secured the foundation's future with a $50 million tax-free endowment from his Post stock holdings, and the trustees met for the first time in early 2002. Within six months they bequeathed his archives to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
The preservation work began soon after in the musty basement of Block's Georgetown home. "We went to the house within a week or two of finding out that we had been given the collection," says Holly Krueger, senior paper conservator at the library. "The original storage was quite humid, but, miraculously, things were not in bad condition."
Duke, a curator of popular and applied graphic art, helped move the collection out of Block's basement. While the final copies of each cartoon were stored in chronological order, the rough drawings were scattered in several small filing cabinets. "We were lucky that there was an elevator in the house, but it was so small that we could only fit the drawings," Duke says. It took two days of careful packing and driving across Washington to get the drawings to safer conditions at the Library of Congress.
Once there, Krueger sifted through the boxes. Some drawings were in very good condition and needed only minor cleaning. Others required repair because of damage to what conservators call "media"--the drawing materials used by the artist to make the cartoon. Block used correction fluid on nearly all of his drawings. When exposed to certain chemicals, it turns black. When applied over graphite, it flakes away. Adhesives, staples, labels and other products also hamper restoration efforts.
Wearing white cotton gloves as she handles the drawings, Orlandini uses a microscope to study each panel before treatment. She applies special adhesive to secure the flecks of white paint. Hydrogen peroxide returns blackened correction fluid to its original white.
Treatments can take up to two days. When the cartoons are finished, each is placed in a custom-made folder that protects it during viewing and in storage.
The folders are stiff, thin backing boards with a sheet of translucent paper that covers the 18-by-24-inch cartoon. "The cover sheet allows you to see the drawing with ease," Krueger says. "It's also smooth, so it doesn't wipe off the drawing."
The folders are filed in special boxes that hold 25 drawings each. These are stored in a climate-controlled vault adjacent to the library's prints and photographs reading room. The library offers appointments to researchers and members of the public who want to view the cartoons. But no permanent workstations are allowed in the vault because of careful controls on humidity and temperature.
The conservation project is unusual for the library, according to Duke. "We don't normally collect archives from artists," she says. "Herblock really had an impact on generations of cartoonists, so we made an exception."
Gill is an AJR editorial assistant.