Preserving Our Collection with Appropriate Illumination


Here in Southern Arizona, we couldn’t do without the year-round sunlight. But we couldn’t do without sunblock, either! Like our skin and eyes, library books need protection from sunlight, because both ultraviolet (UV) and visible light can damage paper-based materials. This fall, the Poetry Center completed two important projects to protect our library collections from light-related damage, thanks to a generous grant from the Southwestern Foundation for Education and Historical Preservation, and to the talent and time of the University of Arizona Facilities Management Electrical Shop and local business The Window Covering Company.


Library Specialist Julie Swarstad Johnson likens light-related collections damage to sunburn, and it’s an apt comparison. The amount of damage, if any, seen on the covers and spines of library books relates to the book’s placement on the shelves, the length and intensity of exposure, and the composition of the paper and inks used. Red hues are especially vulnerable. The light pink book spine you see here was originally the same red as the cover of the book.


The Poetry Center’s stunning glass facades allow light to enter our public reading room at many angles. The two most potentially damaging sources of light to the books housed in the reading room are 1) the UV-emitting fluorescent tube lighting above the library shelves and 2) the east wall of windows, affectionately dubbed the ‘Turning Wall’ because of its elegant, gradual angles. Preservation consultant Randy Silverman, who conducted the Poetry Center’s first-ever preservation assessment in 2014 with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, advised that mitigating these two sources of UV and visible light was the most important thing we could do to address the preservation needs of the books in our reading room.


In August 2017, Fernando Lopez and his colleagues at the University of Arizona Facilities Management Electrical Shop started us on the path to making our dreams of appropriate illumination a reality. They replaced all of the fluorescent tube lights in our public reading room with LED lights, which not only are a more energy-efficient choice, but which also do not emit UV light. Thanks to their time, talent, and initiative, we started the fall 2017 semester being well on our way to achieving one of our most urgent preservation goals.


In November 2017, we received the wonderful news that the Southwestern Foundation for Education and Historical Preservation had awarded us a generous grant to address the light entering the Poetry Center’s reading room through the Turning Wall by installing UV and visible light–filtering film to the interior windows. At the end of the fall semester, Tucson business The Window Covering Company applied the film to more than 70 panes of glass on the two-story Turning Wall. This task necessitated a crane, an extension ladder, and a lot of patience.


Applying the film was a multi-step process. Each window interior was individually cleaned. A solution of water and baby shampoo was applied to the window. The film was cut to fit and rolled down over each pane, with the mild shampoo solution helping the film to adhere.


Smoothing the film over the window was a painstaking process to ensure that no bubbles or ripples remained. The next time you visit the Poetry Center, take a look – you’ll marvel at the perfectly smooth surface, rendering the film nearly invisible.


After the weeklong installation was complete, we verified with our handheld environmental monitor that the film was doing its job of reducing UV and visible light in the reading room. Then, we got back to our job of caring for our priceless library collection!


Preserving our collection with appropriate illumination is an ongoing effort that will take many forms and continue over many years, as generations of readers and writers enjoy our library. We are deeply grateful for the generous support from the Southwestern Foundation that makes this important work possible, as well as for the partnership and expertise of our friends at the University of Arizona Facilities Management and The Window Covering Company.