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.

THE JOB SITUATION

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.

EDUCATION

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.

HEALTH AND SAFETY

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!

TEA TIME

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!

SIMILARITIES

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.