Emma Nichols never expected the beans to squeak. There were 392 of them in total, each concealed within brittle paper packets containing anywhere from one to 42 legumes of varying sizes and provenances. No one had paid much attention to them for more than a century, but now the beans needed to be sorted, counted, and preserved for posterity in the digital realm.
“I devised a method of cleaning them using a polyurethane sponge between some tweezers,” says Nichols, a Book and Paper Conservator at the Cambridge University Library. Beans, it turns out, have a tendency to go flying if not carefully held, so she fashioned a makeshift silicone-tipped shaper. Essentially a brush handle equipped with tiny silicon hairs for grip, the tool kept her tiny subjects locked in place while she primped and polished. “Much to the amusement of my colleagues, [the beans] made little squeaky noises.”