Book Conservation in the US and the UK

The practice of book conservation not only changes over time, but some of the ethics, underpinnings and treatments vary in different countries.  In November 2009, I had the opportunity to install a board slotting machine in England, teach a three day workshop on its use, and give a presentation on the history of board slotting.  During the course of a week,  I had time to talk shop with conservators from a number of institutions, and recorded some of my impressions from these conversations.


Currently, it seems slightly better in the UK than in the US.  No one I spoke to experienced hiring freezes or a forced four day work week during the summer, like many institutional conservators experienced here.  Many of the jobs in the UK are short term or part time, but these were often to get renewed.  Because of their National Health Care system, this employment uncertainty is much more doable than here.   It is a nightmarishly difficult, and sometimes impossible, to rapidly change health care providers here.

Salaries, traditionally lower, seem to be catching up and in some cases equal to what a conservator would make here in the US. Perhaps this is due to ICON’s efforts to establish minimum accepted salary standards.  The cost of living is higher, however.  Salaries for conservators in private practice, however, seem to lag well behind the US, likely because of a much longer craft oriented bookbinding tradition that competes for rebinding and restoration type jobs. Overall,  there seemed to be a less alarming reallocation of funding for digital projects at the expense of treatments. Perhaps the bulwark of a longer tradition of caring for cultural objects provides a buffer against the current rush, at least here in the US, to digitize everything by noon tomorrow.

Because there are so many older books in Europe, the general public considers them commonplace and functional, rather than treasured relics.  I’m not suggesting Europeans don’t value their cultural heritage, but for them, a 19th century book is not all that old; additionally these books can be somewhat slighted because they are a product of technology, not craft.

Conservators tended to be much more international than here.  I’ve met conservators working in the UK from the US, Canada, Serbia, New Zealand, France and Italy. Additionally, I have to confess a degree of jealousy when examining the overall age and quality of materials that my English peers were treating–generally they get to work on better stuff.


Once again, possibly due to the demise of the Kilgarlin Center,  more Americans are choosing to get their conservation training in England.  Camberwell and West Dean both seem to have bumper crops of new students.  There is even a US/ UK alliance between North Bennet Street School and West Dean, though I am unclear if it is official or not: complete the rigorous two year NBSS program, with its emphasis on bookbinding craft skills, then enter into the 2nd. year MA at West Dean for conservation training. It is almost like training in the US is back to where it was in the early 1980’s, with potential conservators forced to devise their own conservation education based on a variety of sources–bookbinding courses, on the job training, internships, an MILS and countless short term workshops.  In some ways this is nothing new– book conservators have always had to be proactive in their education. Given the lack of new, entry level jobs, coupled with the lack of training opportunities and the decrease in funding for treatments, I am growing increasingly apprehensive about the future of book conservation.  Books are rapidly loosing their unique status as interactive, movable functional objects, and becoming more like any other museum object. Will  future book conservators only learn how to safely house and display them?  Will future book conservators be trained in the various MA art conservation training programs; Buffalo, The Institute of Fine Arts, Winterthur, Queens?  The conservators I have met from these programs have been top notch, highly skilled and very professional.   Since book conservation, historically, has been so closely linked to its craft roots, emerging initially in the working library, not in a museum setting, should we consider the preservation of these craft skills a necessary part of an overall book conservation training program?  In many ways, this shift in book conservation education mirrors the shift of the societal role of books themselves.


The EU also brought in stringent (and to my mind sometimes ridiculous) health and safety rules.  Board shears (called ‘board choppers’ in the UK) are retrofitted with a large Plexiglas fin, similar to a Kuttrimmer, to prevent users from putting their head under the blade to align material to be cut.  This often results in a nasty cut on one’s forehead when, out of habit, one tries to align the material under the blade.  Even a Tormek (slow speed water cooled grinding stone) had to be outfitted with an ’emergency’ on-off switch.   Since it is possible to touch the wheel when it is in motion without abrading your skin, I am suspicious about the necessity for this switch.  Quite fortuitously, UK conservators never use sharp knives and scalpels, otherwise they might be required to wear kevlar gloves, a thick leather apron and safety glasses!


The sacrosanct ritual of tea time seemed to promote employee bonding and encourage a general sense of well being,  as well as providing a respite from the sometimes tedious nature of performing  conservation treatments. In general, Europeans have a more nuanced understanding of work. One gets the sense that the workplace was made for people, not people made for the workplace. I suggest this attitude be more widely emulated here, and vow to start with my studio!


Many of the frustrations expressed are quite similar on both sides of the pond.  The most common being the lack of time to actually do treatments, given the amount of administrative duties.  Another is the amount of time that exhibitions and loans take, often to the detriment of treating serious, complex problems on other books.  And there is a persistent sense–sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken– that book conservators, because they work with their hands in a profession closely related to a craft,  are somewhat closer to shoemakers than other museum professionals.

Most book conservators, attracted to this low paying field for a variety of reasons, are personable, intelligent, practical, curious, decent people.  They are the kind of colleagues  one chooses to socialize with outside of professional obligations, often sharing a love of good food, as well as a deep, often thankless commitment to preserving the most perfect and durable technological invention of all time:  the book.

I suspect there are many familiar with both the US and UK conservation worlds, and am interested to hear some other comparisons and perspectives.

The American Institute for Conservation has also compiled information about conservation education.

17 Replies to “Book Conservation in the US and the UK”

  1. Thank you for this. After finishing undergrad, I’ve been working while working toward the prerequisites for the Kilgarlin Center, but now I’m not sure what to do. I have time, as I’m nowhere near being ready to apply to the Kilgarlin Center (if it indeed does reemerge), but if you have anything more to say about conservation education, I would love to hear it, and I know I’m not the only one.

  2. I’ll see if I can think of anything to add. Personally, I’d be curious to hear from some recent grads of the aforementioned programs.

  3. Jeff,

    Well put.. This may be a little long-winded BUT… I’m a West Dean Alum, but not a product of the NBSS/West Dean relationship. I’m fairly certain that said relationship remains unofficial, although the instructors at WD recognize the skill NBSS students bring with them into the WD program. Having worked along side these NBSS transplants I think the WD instructors tend to tailor their 2nd year with more Science and Conservation Methodology/Decision Making rather than focusing too much time on already well developed hand skills.

    There are definitely strengths and weaknesses to many of the schools you mentioned. The EU seems to be moving in a direction where all conservation education is standardized or certified to a point that one gets the same education no matter the school. Im not sure this is a good thing. One of the great qualities of this profession is that so many of us come from such unique and often innovative learning environments.

    I’ve met new conservators who can craft beautiful and historically accurate bindings but are perplexed by fairly rudimentary treatment decisions. Similarly and somewhat more often, I have encountered new conservators who can compose beautiful treatment reports but couldn’t tell you what paper grain is let alone what direction it travels. I would tell anyone looking at schools to pick their strengths and seek a school that will build on their weaknesses. I am unable to think of one school that is well-rounded in both application AND theory. If you think your fairly versed in theory seek a school that is bench intensive or vice versa. I think any conservator will tell you that real learning begins after school at your first post, along side seasoned professionals who can help guide your thinking AND your knife.

    I think your absolutely right about being pro-active in ones education, but I think one must remain equally pro-active in seeking employment. I think book conservation may be one of those fields where networking, communication and participation can be more valuable than the name of the school on your resume.

    I would tell anyone just starting or finishing to join an organization and GO TO MEETINGS. Find reasons to get your name on a list, or in an email. Ask questions. Visit labs. Its such a small world it doesn’t take much before you know someone or have heard of someone in just about every Lab.

  4. Thanks for the info. Great advice about picking a school that builds on your weaknesses.

  5. As a recent graduate of the Kilgarlin program, I think the program was unique in two ways: first, in its focus on working objects as opposed to art objects (as you mentioned, Jeff); and second, in its focus on collections care as opposed to exclusively single-item treatment. While the first focus may be most closely replicated at North Bennet Street, the second focus isn’t so easy. Perhaps combining library preservation studies with training at North Bennet would come close, but that’s an awful lot of graduate-level work (and loans). If the Kilgarlin program permanently ends, it leaves an awkward empty space in American conservation education.

  6. This is a very interesting posting! And now I must add another long-winded one. I honestly think conservation education is one of the sorest subjects in our profession, especially when it comes to book conservators. I have found that many people feel a strong, lion-like ferocity that one program (or no program) or way of training is the best. I went to an art conservation program with the intention of focusing on books and it is not an easy path to travel. I don’t regret my decision for a single second, but having to be proactive is an understatement.

    I think that the possible demise of the Kilgarin program is a tragedy, but in a way I also view it as a wake-up call. I enjoy seeing people begin to brainstorm alternatives. Perhaps rather than viewing library/book conservation training as a thing attained only through a few avenues, we need to start questioning whether there may be alternatives that are just as enriching and beneficial to our profession. As unrealistic as it may sound, maybe new educational programs should be created. Should the training programs as we have known them for so long really remain the same forever? Who were we fooling thinking that change would not occur in conservation education during a time of great transformation in libraries and other cultural institutions?

    We do need to change our thinking about the future of libraries, but I think we still need conservators who are well versed in all areas of book conservation, from collections care to the treatment of rare books. One program is never going to “create” a conservator who is an expert in everything. Some programs may develop conservators suited for collections care and treating books as working objects, while other programs will develop conservators well suited for single-item issues. I agree with Justin that one of the great qualities of our profession is that people come from all different backgrounds, and it’s something we encourage where I work.

    Jeff wrote: Will future book conservators be trained in the various MA art conservation training programs? If books are truly “…losing their unique status as interactive, movable functional objects, and becoming more like any other museum object” then maybe people should start to take a closer look at the feasibility of the art conservation programs for the education of book conservators. But those art conservation programs are going to have to make some major changes to the curriculum if they ever hope to cover the valuable information that has been included in the traditional book conservation programs, such as Kilgarin and West Dean.

  7. Jeff

    Speaking from a book & ephemera collector/library & archives type of background, your post is thought provoking as are the responses. Having watched two former employers divest themselves of significant numbers of volumes from their shelves, all in the name of electronic progress, I too wonder at where the “Kingdom of Books” is headed. I’ve spent way to many hours knocking my head against a wall of bias when it comes to the notion that the PDF can replace a book, pamphlet or report.

    Likewise, the notion that a library can divest itself of books based solely on the idea that copies of the books can be had on-line from the publisher, is, ridiculous. Publishers are not carved in stone. Not that stone is immutable or ever-lasting.

    Even now the change to POD as a means of producing books means a move to glued bindings. I wish I had a reasonably priced POD provider that could produce a sewn hardback instead of a glued binding. Alas, such is not the case.

    I truly hope that book conservation programs prosper and expand their scope. At least before the day comes when books are science fiction paraphernalia instead of commonplace items of enjoyment. He said grumpily.


  8. Jeff,
    This is a great post. I should probably add my own long winded comments but I’ll have to be brief for the moment.
    As the bookbinding department head at North Bennet Street School I want to confirm that the relationship with West Dean is both informal and at the same time active. By informal I mean that there is no automatic acceptance system for NBSS grads. By active I mean that several NBSS grads have been accepted into the second year at West Dean, including one this current academic year. We at NBSS have been proud to hear from the tutors at West Dean that our graduates bring a great deal to the table with their bench skills.
    Bench skills have been the focus of the NBSS curriculum for the entire life of the program (which is approaching it’s 25th year). I personally think the school has been wise to maintain this focus, and I think it has always been seen as one step on the path of training. I remember speaking with Chela Metzger (currently at Kilgarin) years ago about her own training and she told me how much she valued her NBSS training as an important element of her own education. But it wasn’t the beginning or end of training.
    Jeff wrote: “It is almost like training in the US is back to where it was in the early 1980’s, with potential conservators forced to devise their own conservation education based on a variety of sources–bookbinding courses, on the job training, internships, an MILS and countless short term workshops.”
    I think training has been like this all along. I think that many people have perhaps allowed themselves to believe in a mythical single program/magic bullet that will make a bookbinder or a book conservator. I think that the demise of the Kilgarin program is a tragedy, but the void will force us all to think about training more creatively and expansively. It is a life-long process in spite of the many people I’ve met that are impatient with the idea that it takes 20 years to be a professional with 20 years of experience!
    All of the programs have strengths and weaknesses, as somebody else pointed out. I agree that it is wise to look for the training that attacks your weaknesses. I also think that students should plan to devote some time to the process and accept that they will have to cobble together the right set of programs and workshops to meet their specific career goals. And I hope that potential employers (if any break out of their hiring freezes) recognize the value of a range of training options over the magic bullet solution.
    I guess that ended up being long winded anyway. Now I’m late for a meeting!

    Jeff Altepeter

  9. Jeff, I just give a pointer to your (IMHO great) post to some of my regional friends. I.e.: One is a practicing book- and paper conservator and completly german educated. The other is an english educatied bookbinder in germany with conservating interests. Hope they will find the time to add their own thoughts.

  10. Thanks for the thoughtful post Jeff. I wrote about my feelings on why collections conservation training, and the Kilgarlin Center in particular, are important over at Preservation and Conservation Administration News. I think we need to have this conversation on a national level, not just in our blogs and personal communications.

    I was hoping that some group at ALA PARS would be talking about this at mid-winter, but haven’t seen any agendas yet. There are many ways to get into this profession, we should support that sort of diversity. Graduate schools make it a little easier on people in that they don’t have to do it alone, but that is only one way to the bench.

  11. I encourage everyone to read the post by Beth. Well said, with supporting statistics that hopefully will persuade some. I was rereading AIC’s Defining the Conservator, and it reminded that apart from the historic, artifactual and intellectual value of physical books, part of the job of the conservator is to simply make these objects available to future generations simply for enjoyment. Humans enjoy things, and “old things” give us pleasure in numerous, unquantifiable ways. This seems obvious, but the way things are going….

  12. Hi Jeff,

    Wonderful post, now I don’t do book conservation but as an objects conservators I can see many of the issues raised parallel this aspect of the field. I thought the comment about Europeans not thinking books from the 19th C to be old was both hilarious and true. The subjectivity of the concept of “old” is something I never really considered until I came to the US and discovered just how new everything is, and how slightly old things suddenly take on greater meaning. Fascinating.

    One other issue of difference I thought worth mentioning is that conservators in the UK are far more likely to be in trade unions than in the US, at least those working in institutions – especially local government institutions. (When I worked in the UK I was in the trade union UNISON). I’d therefore expect that there would be more organized resistance to pay cuts/shorter weeks/etc.

    Although the UK has a health care system (I refuse to call what the US has ‘health care’, when its clearly an insurance scam writ large) the unemployment benefit system is a struggle, although at least you know in the UK you can get ‘housing benefit’ (rent paid) so you wont end up homeless – as so many people who can’t pay their medical bills are in the US!

    To comment on your health and safety point; in the UK the stringent nature of ‘Health and Safety’ is seen as comical, and the EU’s rules are seen as far more stringent that the UK, its a standard skit of comics. However, to think about it seriously when you consider that in the UK the HSE reported 226 deaths at work in 2003 (sorry couldn’t find up dated stats) [works out somewhere in the region of 1.2 or 1.3 per 100,000 workers] I think its interesting to compare to the USA for 2005, BLS reported a total of 5,702 work-related fatal injuries and a rate of 4.0 deaths per 100,000 workers.
    So, that means that somewhere in the region of 4 times as many people die at work in the US than the UK.

    Obviously this is not very scientific study, and is based simply on 5 mins on google, but I wonder if this data would stand up (even as a vague trend)? If it does it means roughly 4 times as many workers are killed at work in the US than in the UK!!!

    IMHO… work really shouldn’t kill you! And to my mind that’s also where the Tea Break comes in. Relieve stress, relax and communicate with fellow workers, have some tea and cake. Everyone likes tea and cake, surely. 🙂

    Cheers, Dan

  13. Because if you live in the Americas only looked to Europe? America we are all from Canada to Argentina, and Mexico was founded the first printing of the continent, this side of the sea there is considerable efforts to care for our library heritage, only needed a little empathy.

  14. UT Austin iSchool has made it official. They announced they will no longer be offering certificates of advanced studies in conservation or preservation administration. Instead, they envision integrating these into the regular library school curriculum. It remains to be seen what this means. You can read the announcement in full.

  15. Dear Jeff
    Thank you so much for your post. My own training as a Book Conservator has been as you stated a matter of charting your own training. Mine has been first through the undergrad degree in paper conservation, then Camberwell bookbinding and book restoration (aeons ago) and then one amazing year working with an English Master Binder. That was then followed by private practice in hand binding, edition binding and book conservation from case bindings, 16th century to 20th century books to the truly terrifying treatments of reversing “Conan-the Barbarian” fix-ups to Great Grandma’s Bible! Why is it Family Registers are always such a mess? As a training ground it has been invaluable as the solution often required considerable thought, ingenuity and application of hand skills.
    I digress… long winded point is that Book Conservators take a path of life long education be it from traditionally trained bookbinders, our fellow conservators and any other person who crosses our path – we need to critically evaluate of course but it is surprising the insights one gains.
    As for hand skills – my own training in hand bookbinding was a great grounding – lumpy paring was not acceptable which meant that your paring had to improve and which meant that your knife had to be sharp and that meant you had to learn how to sharpen your knives and so on. Unfortunately the repetitive world of hand bookbinding/ editioning where these skills were gained is fast disappearing. For a book conservator though the training this provides is invaluable, both in terms of hands skills and learning construction, folding, joining, gluing, cutting, sharpening and measuring skills.
    I think the advice about choosing courses to help bring your weaknesses up to speed is good advice and as well join the professional organisations and keep an eye out for workshops etc. You get to meet people from all round the world!
    Morning teas and afternoon teas are a great time to chat and unwind – just keep the cake to dull roar the cockroaches etc love cake crumbs!

  16. I have just come across this blog albeit very late in the day (I see it started in 2009!) and have read the content with interest. I am where many of you have already been before: trying to decide if an MA conservation course is right for me and if so, which one (BA in graphic design, book artist, former art teacher). Right now I type from London, where I have lived for over twenty years. I have very recently been researching Camberwell and West Dean courses and was glad to see them mentioned here. (Jeff, I also read your article about your experiences in the UK.) In addition to being a resident in the UK I’m an American citizen, so I thought it would also be an idea to see what’s on offer in the US. I’m wondering if there is anything new to add to the conservation edcucation/employment situation in both countries and if anyone could answer the following questions:

    Who else works in conservation, e.g. organic chemists (and therefore who else am I competing against for jobs)?

    With an MA in conservation, would I be a ‘leader’ or a ‘helper’ compared to someone with a different qualification?

    How well prepared would I be after the course? I know course content was discussed above, understand that it could be dependent on many factors and have read the advice about addressing my weaknesses, but thought I’d ask anyway in case anything new could be added.

    Have there been any developments as to whether we should be doing library science degrees?

    Are there any libraries that run conservation courses? (I contacted the British Library thinking they would, but they don’t.)

    Are there any apprentice schemes out there?

    Someone mentioned joining groups/organisations to network. There seem to be many! Are there any that anyone can recommend (both UK and US)?

    Thanks for your informative posts and anything further anyone can add. I’m glad I came upon this site (better late than never).

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