Nels Olson’s new lab is in the library

Materials researcher gives up biotech career to work with books at Library of Congress

The Library of Congress’ Materials Research Laboratory, on the ground floor of the James Madison Building, is where Nels Olson, chief of preservation research and testing, spends his days studying the breakdown of materials in the library’s collections. His work is a necessary first step in conserving and eventually digitizing the library’s collections.

One of the most difficult aspects of his research is preserving the original formats of materials such as film, sound recordings, CDs and DVDs.

“All the people who’ve bought the [Beatles’] ‘White Album’ as many times as I have know that [CDs] break down,” Olson said. A CD’s lifespan is as short as 14 years. “Anybody who’s had a collection of CDs for that long, like me, has started to see their CDs fail.”

Olson joined the agency a month ago after developing devices for biological research. At the biotech company Illumina, Olson provided information and tools that researchers needed to make hundreds of thousands of simultaneous measurements of DNA sequences in the human genome. People use those tools to convert findings from the Human Genome Project into information relevant to personalized medicine.

His new job at the library has a similar purpose. “I’m providing information to the public,” he said. “It’s just providing a different kind of information.”

Olson focuses his attention now on the deterioration of paper, acetate, vinyl records and other materials in the library’s collections. In order to stall the loss of information and, occasionally, transfer that information to sturdier media, he works with mat board, glue, string and computers.

One of the biggest challenges for the lab’s technicians is reconstructing text that an author has blocked out. Another is trying to save printed pages dotted with wormholes and mold. Often the technicians have to use forensic analysis to determine the authenticity of items in a collection. Preparing texts to be scanned and preserved digitally is a relatively new challenge for materials researchers like Olson.

In cooperation with a team at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, Olson is investigating a digital approach to preserving audio records. It requires making high-resolution images of a record’s grooves. A record needle’s vibration in the groove induces the record’s sound. Working with an image of the groove, a computer can simulate a needle’s vibration and reproduce a recorded sound without any physical contact with the original record.

Olson said he is eager to create benchmarks for digitization and imaging practices and make them available to people in government, industry and academia. Statistics on the accuracy of imaging systems are nonexistent or are inconsistent between manufacturers, he said.

In developing standards for preserving digital media, Olson said he will collaborate with the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the American Society for Testing and Materials. Such standards would be useful for the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program, the library’s $100 million program to preserve information that exists only in electronic formats.

Before Olson’s arrival, the laboratory had not been directly involved in the digital preservation program. “But I’m here to change that and give them substantive measurement of their digitization success in ways that a [scanner or software] manufacturer will never tell you,” he said.

Olson’s new boss said he has displayed good business acumen in the few weeks he has been on the job. “He’s got an acute sense of the value of things, both collections and equipment,” said Dianne van der Reyden, the library’s director of preservation. The lab is in the process of updating its scanning electron microscopes, and Olson’s business sense is appreciated, she said.

Van der Reyden also said Olson’s experience in the emerging biotech industry has prepared him to analyze new digital materials that the library is collecting. “It will be very useful to us to have someone coming in from outside the field of preservation science…to add to our base of knowledge,” she said.

Olson’s previous biotech experience was so unusual for a job candidate that library officials asked him during his job interview why he was considering a position at the library. It was easy for him to answer.

“You just read the job description, and you can’t leave it alone,” Olson said. “It’s actually, in some senses, harder than biotechnology,” he added, because it requires expertise in information technology, literature, mathematics, physics, materials science and chemistry.

Nels Olson

Current position: Chief of the Preservation Research and Testing Division at the Library of Congress.

Age: 45.

First job: Boat builder, 1979.

Hometown: Portland, Ore.

Family: His wife, Nataliya, is an engineer who is originally from Ukraine. They have a 4-year-old son, Constantine.

Education: Olson was a Fulbright Fellow at the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm, Sweden, and majored in American literature at the University of Oregon. He holds a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Reed College in Oregon and a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Washington.

Favorite Web site: Google Scholar (scholar.google.com).

Preferred method of digital preservation: His music collection is almost entirely on CDs, but he stores copies on a computer hard drive.

Outside interests: Sailing, travel and languages.

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