Evan Knight’s Tips for Becoming a Book Conservator

I get asked this question quite frequently, and fortunately, Evan Knight gave a great answer on the AIC Membership Forum. He agreed to republish an expanded version of his original post here. Lots of solid advice. Thanks Evan!

I can relate to this question. Been there. It may seem possible to become a conservator based on experiences alone, but I think that route is more expensive, riskier, and more time-consuming than pursuing graduate school. At least that was my calculus when I decided to pursue a career in the field.

Like any craft or trade, it takes years of practice and study to get ‘good’—that is, to consistently perform ethical, effective, and elegant conservation treatment. Although some trades and/or their unions have apprenticeship pathways into their fields, ours does not. So finding paid local opportunities in the field can be challenging (at any level)—especially for entry-level positions. They just don’t come up very often. Granted, on your own, you might be able to study conservation and take occasional workshops, but they can only take you so far. Workshops don’t bestow certain skills—in my opinion, they can provide excellent training, but it is complementary to your bench work. And academic study, while important too, doesn’t adequately prepare you to perform quality craft work either.

About this field more generally, my advice is that all paths into and through conservation will be a constant hustle. Often very rewarding, but a struggle, nonetheless. Money issues will never go away, even in grad school and afterwards. I had to have second jobs for years, before, during, and after grad school, and anecdotally, several colleagues–some extremely experienced and responsible conservators–don’t make six figures. So the road is challenging and the ceiling can be limited for many of us: something to consider if you might eventually intend to live in a high-cost-of-living location, buy a home, raise a family, take vacations, etc. But such is the nature of our field, and it’s not that different from other related professions in the arts and humanities, and even roles in academia. For better and worse, performing high quality work on exceptional objects is often our greatest motivation and results in our greatest fulfillment.

I was given somewhat similar advice: that I’d never make deluxe money — yet I was still compelled to pursue conservation for books, prints, and archives, even though my undergrad focused on humanities and history. So I went about getting conservation experience, knocking down graduate school pre-req’s, and becoming a competitive candidate for graduate schools.

Early in my 20s, I had a day job in a totally different field, and clung to it as longer than reasonable(!), while finding initial volunteering opportunities on the weekends (at a high-end book bindery) and one day a week at a conservation lab (at an art museum library). I read a great deal of art historical / print history books, and took workshops in box making, book binding, even fly-tying, plus a couple intermediate drawing courses. It’s great that you’re in a city like Chicago — opportunities for hands-on experience in conservation or closely related fields tend to be located near great collections. Whatever collection formats you might wish to learn about or work with, Chicago certainly has ’em. Connect via email and phone with any lab you learn about and let them know where you’re at. Try AIC’s “Find a Conservator” tool, or if you’re a member, the professional directory, and of course, your own internet research into museums, special collections repositories, etc. They might not have something for you right away, but then follow up six months or sometime later; or maybe they can only host volunteers on a certain day of the week. Remember that hosting a volunteer or intern can take significant time and effort on their part, and sometimes they can’t swing it. Private conservation studios can ramp up and down based on certain large projects or grants — as a “technician” or intern or what have you. But without any experience, it might not be realistic either (chicken / egg situation)—though still worth a shot in my opinion. In my experience, most everyone I met in my journey was willing to at least talk with me, help me out if they could, or point me to other opportunities.

To be a competitive candidate for conservation grad school you will need significant academic pre-requisites in addition to conservation experience. Each program has different pre-req’s so learn what they are and plan to ‘fill in’ what you don’t yet have because those are non-negotiable. Chemistry is typically the biggest hurdle. I personally went through 2 years of chem after my undergrad (4 courses in total), which went fine, but I took them at rigorous and expensive schools, which in retrospect wasn’t the most cost-effective choice. I thought Ivy League chemistry would be really useful in the long run of my career but in my experience, they weren’t: save your money and find nearby public options. Long story short, it will likely take a couple years until you will be a competitive candidate, so plan accordingly how you might make it all work – financially, academically, and experientially.

I’m sharing my response publicly because the dearth of reasonable opportunities at all levels, but especially those at the entry-level, is a profession-wide issue. It seems, to me at least, that most paths into and within our great field require a great deal of time and money at many career stages (not just pre-program), and a laser focus on the profession from an early age. Healthy industries have pro-active employers and active affiliate organizations that systemically cultivate equitable access for opportunities for their workers at every stage of their careers. I don’t know that we’re so healthy and equitable, but I know that many do care, and have worked hard to improve this in our field.

I’m happy to support your journey and wish you luck: slow and steady is my advice, honestly assessing your career interests and prospects periodically along the way (it’s ok to move on from something; or to specialize in something – it’s all a part of growing personally and professionally), while of course to continue earning income in whatever ways that make sense!

Other Resources

AIC’s how to become a conservator

AIC’s 2014 Salary Survey

Evan Knight looking quite proud of his innovative double drop spine box!

Evan Knight is the Preservation Specialist with Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners since Dec 2018 and Proprietor of Knight Art Services LLC since 2021. He is a Peer-reviewed Professional Associate of the American Institute for Conservation (PA-AIC). Previously, he was an Associate Conservator of bound and unbound materials at the Boston Athenaeum, with prior conservation employment at the Northeast Document Conservation Center, the Library of Congress, the Benson Latin American Collection at the University of Texas, and the Municipal Archives of New York City. Additional internships undertaken at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center-Book Conservation Lab, Biblioteca Ludwig von Mises (Guatemala), Buffalo Bill Center for the West, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art-Watson Library.

Montefiascone, Italy. 2022 Summer Workshops

I am thrilled to be teaching at Monte again this summer. I’ve only taught once in person for the past two years. I really miss it. Zoom workshops are better than nothing, but still…. If you haven’t been to Monte, I can vouch for what a great experience it is. In addition to the classroom syllabi, a ton of learning happens in more informal surroundings, like cafes and outdoor bars on the main square. Spending time with a passionate and knowledgeable international cohort has resulted in lifelong friends for me. Montefiascone is a special place — too beautiful — a quintessential small Tuscan hilltop town. And Italy as a whole ain’t too shabby either. I suspect many others are hungry to learn in person again, so contact Cheryl (info below) soon to reserve your place! Jeff

Montefiascone is a small medieval walled city about 100 k (80 miles) north of Rome, on Lake Bolsena. Since 1988, conservators, curators, art historians, book artists, and others interested in books and their history have come together to work, to learn and to enjoy this special place. Participants come to enjoy the medieval architecture, friendly people, a clean accessible lake, books, and scholarship. The Montefiascone Project is a non-profit making organisation, set up to fund the restoration of the Library of the Seminario Barbarigo in Montefiascone. Participants may attend one, two, three or all four weeks.

Costs are £550 (or euro equivalent [about $750 USD]) for each week and include all lectures (which are in English). For more information and to enroll, contact Cheryl Porter:  chezzaporter (AT) yahoo (DOT) com

For the sake of the local community and everyone associated with the program, we must maintain health and safety standards. We will need to be assured that all course participants comply with Italian regulations concerning vaccinations and other travel requirements. 

Current Italian government regulations are available through the Italian Ministry of Health website at: https://www.salute.gov.it/portale/nuovocoronavirus/dettaglioContenutiNuovoCoronavirus.jsp?lingua=english&id=5412&area=nuovoCoronavirus&menu=vuoto

The Italia COVID-19 for visitors page:  https://www.italia.it/en/covid19

25th-29th July

Recreating the Colours of the Medieval Palette: Western, Hebrew, and Islamic

Course Tutor: Cheryl Porter 

This class will study the colours (made from rocks, minerals, metals, insects, and plants) that were processed to produce the colours used by artists throughout the medieval era. The focus will be on manuscript art – Islamic, Hebrew, and European. Participants will re-create the colours using original recipes. Illustrated lectures will address history, geography, chemistry, iconography. And conservation issues. Practical making and painting sessions will follow these lectures. No previous experience is necessary.

Cheryl Porter is the director of the Montefiascone Conservation Project at the Seminario Barbarigo in Montefiascone, Italy, which she founded in 1988. She graduated from Camberwell College of Arts in 1989 and has subsequently worked in many museums and Learned Societies in the UK and many other countries. She teaches workshops on the history of the uses, and methods of application of colour in manuscripts – Islamic, Western and Hebrew. From 2007-2009 she was Head of Conservation and Preservation for the Thesaurus Islamicus and Dar al-Kutub (National Library) of Egypt Manuscript Project and Deputy Head of the Project from 2009-11. She is a consultant to the Library of Alexandria in Egypt and is currently writing a book based on her manuscript colour workshops.

Early nineteenth century structures. Note the XSL dyed reproduction cloth in the middle, and textured cloth on the right.

1st-5th August

Early nineteenth century American and English Bookbinding: Machines, Materials, Structures, and Tools

Course Tutors: Jeff Peachy & Nicole Alvarado

In England and America, common book structures changed significantly during the early nineteenth century. A typical common calf binding was supplanted by even cheaper, new binding styles, such as paper boards bindings and the three-piece adhesive cloth case. We will examine this time period through PowerPoints, readings, discussions, and the hands-on construction of four models: an English common-boards binding, an American extra-boards binding, an American tight-back cloth binding, and an English cloth case. We will explore methods of replicating plain and textured nineteenth century bookcloth, starting with undyed muslin, which will be useful for conserving and sympathetically rebinding books from this time. Close readings from bookbinding manuals, analysis of bindery images, and the use of historic tools will enhance our understanding of this important and under-appreciated time period.

Jeff Peachey is the owner of Peachey Conservation LLC, which specializes in preserving the intrinsic, artifactual, aesthetic and historic values of books. With more than 30 years’ experience. He has taught book conservation workshops internationally and has been awarded numerous fellowships to support his book history research, including at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center (Italy). He invented the Peachey Board Slotting Machine, which is used in book conservation labs internationally, and designs and manufactures specialized tools for other book conservators. He is a Visiting Instructor for the Library and Archives Conservation Education Consortium graduate consortium. His forthcoming publication in Suave Mechanicals 8 details the bookbinding poetry of John Bradford in the broader context of early 19th century binding practice.

Nicole Alvarado received a B.A. in fine arts with a minor in chemistry from Mount St. Mary’s University in Los Angeles before going on to earn her MA, CAS in Art Conservation at SUNY Buffalo State College.  Nicole is currently the Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Paper Conservation at Los Angeles County Museum of Art. She has previously worked at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ Margaret Herrick Library, UCLA Library, University of Michigan Library, and Huntington Library.

8th to 12th August 

 A Chinese Qur’an

Course Tutors: Kristine Rose-Beers & Cécilia Duminuco, with a lecture from Alison Ohta

During this class, participants will make a model of Chester Beatty Is 1602, a 17th or 18th century Chinese Qur’an with its original binding. This small manuscript is distinctly Chinese. It is covered with fine patterned silk, and the pages are made of soft, fibrous paper. In keeping with many Islamic bindings, it has an envelope flap, but this is squared off, similar to those seen in some south-east Asian Islamic manuscripts. This Qur’an is an example of how aspects of the Islamic book were combined with local decorative traditions influencing ornament, calligraphy and illumination.

Muslim communities have been established in China since the 7th century. According to the historical accounts of Chinese Muslims, Islam was first brought to China by Sa’d ibn abi Waqqas, who came to China for the third time at the head of an embassy sent by Uthman, the third caliph, in 651. Emperor Gaozong, the Tang emperor, then ordered the construction of the Memorial Mosque in Guangzhou/Canton, the first mosque in the country. Although scholars have not found any historical evidence that Sa`d ibn Abi Waqqas visited China, they agree that the first Muslims must have arrived in China in the 7th century, and that the major trading cities, such as Guangzhou, Quanzhou probably already had their first mosques built during the Tang Dynasty although no reliable sources attest to their actual existence. 

Muslims in China have continued to practice their faith sometimes under very difficult circumstances since the 7th century. Today, the Muslim population of China is estimated as representing 0.45% to 2.85% of the total population with 39,000 mosques serving this congregation.  This Qur’an represents the Islamic legacy in China and is a unique opportunity to examine this combination of traditions which were carried along the Silk Roads over the centuries.  

Kristine Rose-Beers is Head of Conservation at the Chester Beatty in Dublin and an accredited member of the Institute of Conservation. Her research interests include the conservation of Islamic manuscript material, early binding structures and the use of pigments and dyes in medieval manuscripts. 

Before moving to Ireland, Kristine worked at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge as Assistant Keeper (Conservator of Manuscripts and Printed Books); at the Chester Beatty Library with a particular focus on the Turkish manuscript collection; and at Cambridge University Library. She graduated from the Conservation programme at Camberwell College of Arts in 2002 and is a member of the Board of Directors of The Islamic Manuscript Association, and the Kairouan Manuscript Project.

Cécilia Duminuco is a book and paper conservator. She graduated from the École Supérieure des Arts Saint-Luc of Liège with a Masters in Painting Conservation in 2013, before completing a Masters in the Conservation of Books and Library Materials at West Dean College in the UK in 2015. Cécilia joined the Chester Beatty in Dublin as Heritage Council Intern in Conservation 2015-16, before moving to Cambridge University Library to work on Charles Darwin’s Library digitisation project. She then worked at the University of Manchester, before returning to Cambridge University Library in 2019 to work on the digitisation of Greek Manuscripts. Cécilia has now relocated to Belgium where she continues to follow her passion for early bookbinding, non-Western book structures, pigments in illuminated manuscripts and painted surfaces.

Alison Ohta is currently Director of the Royal Asiatic Society of Great Britain and Ireland.  She completed her doctoral thesis at SOAS (London University) on Mamluk bindings and has published and lectured extensively on the subject.

15th-19th August

Recreating a late sixteenth-century Cambridge bookbinding

Course tutors: Jim Bloxam & Shaun Thompson, with lectures from David Pearson

Cambridge, heavily influenced by its university, has always been a place with books at the heart of its activities; a place where they have for many centuries been printed, sold, bound, owned, stored, read, and used. Our Montefiascone course, a few years ago, was devoted to making a model of a late 15th century Cambridge binding; this year we will analyse a binding style from a century later and construct a model of a typical late 16th century Cambridge binding.  At the end of the 15th century, leather-covered bindings usually had wooden boards and clasps and decoration depended on labour-intensive repetitive tooling using small hand-held tools.  A century later, wood had given way to pasteboard or pulpboard, clasps had been replaced by cloth ties and decoration looked very different; gilt tooling, unknown in English binding work before about 1520, had become common.

The tutors will enable the course participants to make a model binding.  Processes will include sewing the text-block, sewing the endbands, shaping and attaching the boards and covering with calf-skin.  The covered books will be tooled and have cloth ties attached.  The course will be led by a team bringing together the hands-on binding expertise of Jim Bloxam and Shaun Thompson, from Cambridge University Library, and the historical knowledge of David Pearson.  David, a binding historian, is currently working on a project to map the development of Cambridge binding between the 15th and 18th centuries, so that Cambridge work can be better recognised and dated.  He teaches the evolution of binding styles at the Rare Book Schools in London and Virginia. During the week David will give presentations on ways in which Cambridge binding changed during the 16th century and how it fits into the wider context of British and European binding of the time. He will also consider the value of studying historic bindings, highlighting the questions we should ask.

David Pearson retired in 2017 as Director of Culture, Heritage and Libraries for the City of London Corporation, after a professional career of 35 years or so working in various major research libraries in London and elsewhere. He is now a Research Fellow at the Institute of English Studies in the University of London, and a member of the teaching staff of the London Rare Books School there. He has published extensively on aspects of book history, with a particular interest in aspects of the book as an owned and designed object; his books include Provenance Research in Book History (1994), Oxford Bookbinding 1500-1640 (2000), English Bookbinding Styles 1450-1800 (2005), and Books as History (2008). He has taught and lectured in these fields for numerous audiences and is a Past President of the Bibliographical Society. He is currently working on a project on early modern Cambridge bookbinding, to become a book published by the Legacy Press, and the basis of the Sandars Lectures in Cambridge in 2023.

Jim Bloxam is Head of Conservation and Collection Care at Cambridge University Library. Jim is an Accredited Conservator of the Institute of Conservation. His particular research interests lie mainly in the history of books, their structural qualities and their cultural context. He has taught historical book structures in the UK, Europe, and the US, focusing mainly on European book structures.

Shaun Thompson is a traditionally trained bookbinder with over thirty years’ experience and a passionate advocate for the importance of hand bookbinding skills in book conservation. He has worked for Cambridge University Library for the past 19 years and presently holds the position of Conservation and Collection Care Manager. Shaun’s research interests are in early northern European book structures and he has made good use of the Library’s collections to examine the physical aspects and historical techniques used in medieval bindings. He is also an experienced and highly skilled practical teacher, having taught hand bookbinding to conservation students in the UK, at both West Dean College and City and Guilds of London Art School. He has taught courses at Montefiascone since 2013 and is looking forward to returning to share his ever-widening knowledge and experience.

For additional information, please see The Montefiascone Conservation Project web page and follow us on Facebook for program updates and more.

“An Investigation of Seventeenth Century English Bookbinding Tools in Randle Holme’s Academy of Armory” Now Available!

It’s exciting be published in The New Bookbinder 41 with such a beautiful layout and high print quality!

Publishing a blog post is instant gratification compared to a print article. An Instagram post is an even quicker higher-octane endorphin hit. Writing a print article already feels archaic and process of publishing is frustratingly slow: finding a suitable vehicle, researching a topic, writing, gathering images, requesting (and often paying for) reproduction permissions, formatting, incorporating reader’s comments, working with an editor for additional revisions, triple checking everything, and finally approving a final layout. Then waiting for months while it is being printed and shipped. At least in this case, though, the result is deeply rewarding.

Seeing and holding your writing makes it feel like a thing, not just ideas in your head. It implies a permanence and accessibility. But I wonder how long print — at least for non-fiction scholarly articles — will be used, in terms of people reading, using, and citing it. Many papers I read from younger people only cite the online sources. On the other hand, the transparency of online data is rewarding for the author (as well as profit generating for the corporate overlords…) For example, I will know how many of you read this blog post, how many times it is linked to, what links you click on, and where you are from. I have no idea if anyone actually looked at or read the printed article. Anyway, onward!

OVERVIEW

Randle Holme’s little known Academy of Armory contains the only images of seventeenth century English bookbinding tools currently known. Six fundamental tools described in it are analyzed: a folder, a beating hammer, a needle, a sewing frame, a lying press, and a plough. The context of seventeenth century English bookbinding and other contemporaneous sources are investigated. The relationship between the nature of seventeenth century English books and the tools used to make them is also explored.

FIRST PARAGRAPH SNIPPET

“There are a variety of ways of approaching the history of bookbinding. Examining actual books for physical evidence is, of course, the primary method. But additional context can be gained by interpreting historic images and texts — including, manuals, advertising, trade cards, archival records, etc… — making models of historic bindings, and investigating how traditional tools were used. (2) In the case of seventeenth century English books, there are tens of thousands of extant books, but only one currently known text that contains images of bookbinding tools from this time, Randle Holme’s 1688 Academy of Armory. (3) Just over thirty copies are located in the English Short Title Catalogue, and it escaped the rigorous eyes of Pollard and Potter in their standard reference, An Annotated List of Technical Accounts of Bookbinding to 1840. (4) Analyzing the tools and equipment of bookbinding is one way of understanding how books were made, which is one of the foundations of bibliography. (5)”

PURCHASE: The Designer Bookbinders online shop.

Jeff Peachey “An Investigation of Seventeenth Century English Bookbinding Tools in Randle Holme’s Academy of Armory“. The New Bookbinder 41 (2021):38-48.

Thanks to OG Joel Moskowitz of Tools for Working Wood for introducing me to this text and allowing reproductions of his copy!

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