Indiana University       Research & Creative Activity       January 2001 • Volume XXIII, Number 3

A Canary, a Sutra, and the State Constitution

by Douglas A. Wissing

The conservation laboratory at IU Bloomington’s Lilly Library is 450 square feet of brightly lit space, tucked into a corner amid treasure troves of rare books. A binocular microscope and state-of-the-art book preservation equipment share the room with antique bookbinding tools and hides of animals rolled and hung on the wall. An ornately bound sixteenth-century British law book awaits return to the shelves, its massive repair complete.

Jim Canary’s worktable has a certain mild disorder that reflects an engaged mind. Photos of family and friends hang on the bulletin board beside a frayed Tibetan nomad’s sun visor and a yellowing newspaper clipping that reads, “Hey Dad, Let’s go to Katmandu!” Small Buddha statues sit at the back of the table, along with a small gray pagoda.

Nodding toward the pagoda, Canary, head of conservation at the Lilly Library, says, “Empress Shotoku, 770 A.D., big smallpox epidemic in Japan. They made a million of these, put printed Buddhist sutras inside. Sent them all over the country.”

He pulls out the sutra (teachings or precepts), a thin sheet of ancient handmade paper printed with Japanese script. It is one of the earliest pieces of printed Japanese text; indeed, one of humankind’s earliest examples of printing. To Canary, it’s another preservation puzzle.

“See those small dots?” Canary asks, pointing to rust-red pinpricks on the surface of the sheet. “They’re from the backing sheet someone put on to preserve the sutra. We’ve got to figure out what it is and get it off.”

As head conservator, Canary faces a lot of puzzles like this in the Lilly Library, a mind-numbing repository of 400,000 books, 125,000 pieces of sheet music, and more than 6 million manuscripts, the vast majority of which are rare or irreplaceable. But Canary also has a lot of less glamorous jobs that are just as essential to the conservation of the Lilly’s amazing collection.

Two floors below ground, in the depths of the seven-story building, the library’s basement is a marriage of the SS Lusitania and a space shuttle, with the original 1960 boiler watched over by a complex computer control system. It’s where Canary begins his day, going over the printouts that give him the precise condition of each floor’s temperature and humidity throughout the day and night.

“The most important element in conservation,” Canary says, “is a good room. You’ve got to start at the building level.”

On top of the building, actually. A couple of times a month, Canary clambers on the roof, making sure there are no problems that can result in the conservator’s nightmare: leaks. But he has backup should something happen.

“We have protocols for water damage,” Canary says. “Twenty-four hours a day we can call IUB’s Physical Plant, and they’ll have a truck here to haul stuff over to Food Service’s blast freezer. We’ve put forklift-loads of books in the blast freezer before. You freeze the book, and it stops mold and buys you time to figure out a plan.”

The folks at the Lilly understand the crucial importance of Canary’s work. Obviously, if they can’t conserve the material they collect, it is an exercise in futility and a very expensive one at that. Joel Silver, interim director of the Lilly Library, says, “Jim’s work is extremely vital. One of the things that makes him so valuable to a collection like ours is his wide-ranging interest in books, both Eastern and Western.”

James Canary is head of conservation at Indiana University Bloomington's Lilly Library.
Photo Chris Howell, Bloomington Herald-Times

Beyond his consuming conservation work on the Lilly’s collection, Canary also recently restored one of the two extant copies of Indiana’s 1851 Constitution, a document so prized by the state archivist that he arrived with a State Police officer to take the completed work to back to Indianapolis. Canary also repairs rare books in his Cold Mountain Bindery at his rural home in Monroe County.

Canary maintains a connection to his other great interest, Tibet, through his work with the International Tibetan Archive Preservation Project in Lhasa. The project is beginning conservation on 3 million Tibetan government documents, some more than a thousand years old. Canary’s been to Lhasa six times now and is currently training five Tibetan women in the rudiments of document preservation.

“Conservation is a nonstop thing,” he says. “It’s the kind of work that just grabs you. There’s no end to the learning.”


For more information:
Lilly Library

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