Letter From a Young Bookbinder Who Maybe Needed More Discouragement

Jen Johnson sent me this letter, in response to last weeks blog post, “letter to a young bookbinder”.  I felt she summed up her experiences thus far quite well, and also hints at some of the larger questions facing the field as a whole.  It is interesting for me — exactly a mid-carrear conservator, 43 years old, 22 years in the field —  to hear from someone at the beginning. Some of the questions are still the same.  She also thought it might be of interest to others to hear her story.  Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) is a blog and resource worth checking out for those considering or entering the field.  Jen is a self described “Bookbinder, Pre-program Conservation Optimist.”  Jen writes:
“Dear Jeff,
I read your recent blog post regarding the dissuasion of eager, and optimistic young binders from entering bookbinding and conservation fields. In light of the upcoming AIC panel discussion,  “Models for Educating Library and Archives Conservators”  I thought you may be interested in briefly hearing about my experience as it pertains to this topic, as you have been tangentially involved.
You may not recall, but we met briefly during the 2008 AIC conference in Denver. You joined the three of us for a drink during one of the evenings, and at some point in the conversation we discussed the pros and cons of being apprentice trained, versus program trained. At the time, I had been considering conservation school, but was still employed as a technician, and looking for a way to move up the ranks. In summary of our discussion, I believe you supported the idea of attending a conservation training program, in particular because the two main programs at Buffalo and Winterthur, were well funded, and it seemed the opportunities for less formal, and less available apprenticeship models were waning. You were not the only conservator I spoke with during the conference who shared this view. While not exactly encouraging, I did not get the sense of any warning regarding attempts to enter the field.
Needless to say, I was not discouraged, and upon returning from the conference I began plans to prepare to apply to conservation schools. I left my technician position in order to take pre-program chemistry, and some other minor coursework. I took unpaid internships. I paid visits to museums, conservators, book repair facilities, sent emails, asked questions and did my homework in the process. I would hardly say I was naïve to the difficulties of entering the field.
The work paid off. I was invited to interview by both schools to which I had applied. I shelled out for airfare, hotel fees, and additional expenses. I was ultimately accepted by the Winterthur program, which I felt was a great accomplishment my first time out.  Then, following years without full income, debt accrued from coursework, and the fact that I have a four-year old son to care for (to be fair this was what did me in) I had to turn Winterthur down, because I couldn’t afford to go.
Now, I am not sharing this with you as an embittered student, chewed up by the realities of the field. Truthfully, I would have liked a better outcome (I am expressing this very mildly), but I am expecting that I will have one next year when I reapply. Oh yes, I am not done yet. What I wanted to say was that, I think there are still those of us out there, who know the realities, who understand the profession (at least as much as one can from the outskirts) and who are as yet, undaunted.
I am so pleased to see this panel discussion on the agenda for this year’s meeting. I feel like the conservators I have come in contact with have gone to every length possible to portray the profession honestly, and also to support those of us who, for whatever reason, insist that we still belong there. I hope that AIC and conservators such as yourself can continue to support emerging conservators. It is an elite field to be sure, and not for the feint of heart, but perhaps that is what makes it so fascinating and special for those of us who want to get in the door.
During my interview at Winterthur I heard someone make a comment about the applicants, and that these people don’t have back up plans. I think that’s true, most of us don’t. Still unlike other professions involving intense commitment for the promise of success, one can wind up failing at pretty much anything, and in this economy who really knows where the pitfalls lie? At least bookbinders pursue their trade with the knowledge that it’s going to be hard, and there will never be enough money to compensate one’s education, efforts and skill. We do it anyway.
I will not be in attendance at this year’s conference because I cannot afford it. I imagine a lot of the folks that are the subject of this panel’s discussion will not be in attendance for similar reasons. This is why I wanted to share this in response to your post. I am really looking forward to hearing the discussion through your blog, and while I have no doubt my story is a common one, you are welcome to share it as part of your discussions. This is what is going on for those of us out here waiting in the wings. Thanks so much for participating in this discussion and helping to promote the issue on our behalf.
I appreciate your taking the time to read my response. I hope to see you in the field in the next few years.
Jen Hunt Johnson
Bookbinder, Pre-program Conservation Optimist
jen (at) redletterbindery (dot) com”

3 Replies to “Letter From a Young Bookbinder Who Maybe Needed More Discouragement”

  1. Dear Jeff and Jen:
    Thanks to you both for sharing this journey in book conservation. I really appreciate your honest discussion of the difficulties and passion necessary to pursue the field. It has been inspiring for me to hear from emerging conservators (I am the chair of ECPN) about their experiences and to see the determination they have to persevere and continue in the profession.

    Jen, I wish you the best as you continue your studies. I hope we will have a chance to meet soon.

    Jeff, I missed you at the AIC meeting in Philly, I hope we can meet up next year, maybe with Dan Cull too.


  2. I just wanted to leave a comment so that you know that there are folks like myself who are reading and appreciating what you post. I want to thank Jen for sharing her story, and Jeff for posting it… I think that honest feedback and dialogue is so important for those seeking advice and deciding whether or not to pursue careers in conservation. It amazes me how many people, even after being warned, are simply determined to work as conservators. But there you go–I guess I’m one of those stubborn people! I feel like I should share my own story (and perhaps I will sometime…) Though it’s definitely a story that’s still in the works… I guess my nutshell story is that after 10 years of training and education in binding/conservation/art I’m still trying to figure out how to make all this book nonsense lucrative, because I sure do love it and am determined to keep doing it…Surely it will work out.

    Still need to catch up on the discussion from AIC… sounds like some valuable discussion is taking place.

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