The journey to becoming a book conservator is long, like all fields in conservation and requires an understanding of many arts. There are vastly different paths you can take to achieving an education, but it all begins with a love of the book.. It could be the simple comforting pleasure you get holding a book in your hand, smelling the ink on its pages or admiring the special technique used to bind it all together. A book has a function. It is meant to be handled and goes through more abuse than paintings or sculptures. Your perspective begins to change once you realize that you are conserving something that will be touched repeatedly throughout the years to come. The older the specimen the better condition it is, hopefully, stored in, but remember, its primary function is to be opened and admired.
My journey began in graphic design and the desire to create great graphic novels in the art world, but my eyes were opened one semester when I signed up for Art of the Book, changing my perspective on the book world. A form of art, bookbinding, unraveled before my eyes and it was then that I knew my career of working with books had become more focused. A book conservator’s skills all begin with bookbinding. The continual practice of dexterity is vital to your success, but bookbinding encompasses so many other faces. Woodworking (pesky wooden panel covers), hand-crafting the perfect tool to add to your arsenal of conservation, leather paring, embroidery, paper making, etc. It’s good to sign up for all types of workshops. I’m sure metal working is in there somewhere. Vocational schools that offer 2 to 4 years training are the American Academy of Bookbinding and the North Bennet Street School.
It is also important to be involved in your book community, big or small. There are book lovers out there in every neck of the woods and learning about rare books, special editions, history behind printings, and the evolvement of the book over time are important to understanding the era a book comes from. What type of paper and bindings were popular during the 17th century? What is the base of the ink used? Can you remain true to the book’s original heritage? These questions you must ask yourself when approaching any conservation treatment.
I am just at the beginning of this journey and the sources of information on bookbinding and workshops are in no short supply. Book arts and bookbinding do not always go hand-in-hand in book conservation, but there are many book art centers around the country that offer classes in bookbinding, letterpress, printmaking and more to get you started learning the fundamentals. The west coast has the San Francisco Center of the Book and the east coast has the Center for Book Arts in New York City. Be sure to check out local community colleges, as they can hold one day workshops in their art departments. Talk with local rare book dealers and don’t forget about your local library. Often times, preservation departments are hard to find on library sites so be prepared to email a lot of questions. If a library doesn’t have an onsite lab, then find out where they are sending their books out for treatment. Check with your State Archives offices for internships with works on paper.
One question that has been brought to my attention repeatedly and I’ve yet to find an answer for, is if you want to go into book conservation should you be getting a master’s in library sciences? This is where I am having a moment of hesitation because I have started my graduate studies strictly in art conservation and the option of library sciences was only recently presented. If you have the desire to work strictly in a library as a conservator, is an MSLS required? I’ve learned quite a bit and gleaned a lot of information from a variety of sources, but with questions answered more are bound to arise. I believe it’s important to remember that everyone’s journey into book conservation will be different and finding the best path for your needs and goals is vital. There are no concrete paths, but you must hone your skill. Don’t be afraid to reach out and ask questions. If all else fails, remember to read, read, read. Know your history and truly embody what the book is all about.