A Special Song Book from the Illinois History & Lincoln Collections

On Tuesday, February 12, the Illinois History and Lincoln Collections and the History, Philosophy, and Newspaper Library will celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s 210th birthday. The event will take place from 4-6 pm in room 246 of the Main Library and will include several fun activities, as well as a pop-up exhibit of rare and unique Lincoln-themed items.

One special item will not be on display at the birthday celebrations, as it is currently receiving some TLC at the Conservation Lab: The wide-awake vocalist: or, Rail splitters’ song book. : Words and music for the Republican campaign of 1860. Embracing a great variety of songs, solos, duets and choruses, arranged for piano or melodeon. 

Illinois History and Lincoln Collections’ curator Krista Gray shared that during the 1860 campaign, the “Wide Awakes” – political groups of young Republican men marked by a paramilitary style, distinctive garb, and torch-lit rallies – organized on a grassroots basis throughout the north and west in support of Republican candidates, including Abraham Lincoln (Grinspan). This particular song book contains lyrics and musical scores for more than 60 songs from the 1860 Presidential campaign for Lincoln. It has certainly seen better days; the paper is in poor condition, with significant mold staining and damage. The damage is most significant on the front and back covers, but mold spots and tears in the paper occur throughout.

Conservator Quinn Ferris is working to repair the song book; so far, she has frozen the object to deactivate mold, vacuumed the covers to brush away soiling and mold, surface-cleaned the object to reduce remaining grime, washed the pages in several chemical baths to remove yellow degradation products and strengthen the paper, and used gelatin to consolidate flaking materials and create a fungal-resistant coating.

Currently, Ferris is working to repair tears in the pages by using a thin Japanese tissue paper – Yukiyushi – and a diluted wheat starch paste.  This process is called mending, and once it is complete, Ferris will resew the loose pages and text blocks together, reattach the cover using more tissue paper, and create a custom enclosure for the item.

While the finished product might not look significantly different than the initial item (though hopefully it will look less beaten-up), the treatment process involves many precise steps to stop chemical degradation in the paper, stabilize the item, and make it usable to those wishing to see it in the IHLC reference collection. The goal of library conservation is not to return an item to a pristine or ‘original’ condition, but to show its long and interesting life and to make it accessible for patrons to use. Hopefully this special song book can have a long life still to come!


Jon Grinspan, “‘Young Men for War’: The Wide Awakes and Lincoln’s 1860 Presidential Campaign,” Journal of American History 96 (Sept. 2009): 357-378, http://archive.oah.org/special-issues/lincoln/contents/grinspan.html