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.

Stainless Steel Trindles for Sale; and, Where did the Word “Trindle” Come From?

A pair of stainless steel trindles.

Trindles are used for flattening the spine of in-boards bindings after the boards are laced on, and prior to cutting the foreedge in a plough. This gives a smooth foreedge, without “stepping” of the signatures, which can result when rounding and backing after cutting. I recently designed some modern trindles in stainless steel. Essential for historical models and modern fine binding. 7 x 1.5 inches.

Available to purchase here.

End of sales pitch.

What’s up With the Word “Trindle”?

Usually, when a lecture or article begins with a dictionary definition of a particular term, I eye the closest exit or quickly switch tabs. After reading Arthur Green’s historical, technique based article on in-boards edge cutting and trindles in the new Suave Mechanicals 7 I found myself wondering about the origins of this unusual word.

My first stop: Mr. OED! The two volume quarter-scale print version with magnifying glass in a slipcase was one of the few books I brought with me in an overstuffed VW bug when I moved to NYC in 1989. Anyway — according to the dictionary — the word “trindle” has been around for centuries, most of time referring to proper names, or an object that is round or cylindrical.

From a google ngrams search, there is a reference dating from 1695 mentioning “trindle-pins” which may be some sort of fastening device for ships or buildings. This may lend credence to Green’s argument that Dirk DeBray’s use of long needles to flatten the spine are earliest trindles. For me, these two tools, while performing more-or-less the same function, are morphologically too different to be called the same name. Not every tool used to hit a nail is a hammer.

An early reference to trindles in Google Books. Source

Within English bookbinding literature, the earliest reference is found in Parry’s 1818 The Art of Bookbinding. They are simply described as “… two flat pieces of iron made the size and form of a folding -stick, to place between the back and boards of the book, before cutting the fore-edge (pp. 1-2). Folding sticks of this time are usually described as about 6-7 x 1 inches, and made from wood, ivory or horn. Trindles are one of the few tools Parry not only names, but describes how they is used. An implication they were uncommon at this point in time?

A few years earlier, the 1813 Circle of Mechanical Arts describes trindles without using the word, instead simply mentioning the technique as “… introducing 2 pieces of thin iron 4 or 5 inches long near the head and tail of the book, between the paste-board and the back…” (p. 77) Sounds like a trindle to me!

Two button sticks from my collection. The one on the top is roughly 7 x 1.5 x .039″

The top of the image is the quintessential trindle shape, roughly 6.75 x 1.5, and made by the English firm Bodil Parker brass foundry. They are quite thin and deflect when used to flatten the spine of a book, resulting in a foreedge that is less round than the spine when removed. The one on the bottom is more sophisticated, and has an English patent number that I can’t find information on. (Can anyone help?): “Patent No 116972/17” The various curves around the edges fitting around brass buttons of various diameters. The legs of this one would make it very difficult to use in bookbinding.

An American(?) hinged button stick in my collection. Super flexible.

In the 20th century, museums and manufacturers generally refer trindles as button sticks (or less commonly, button guards). They tend to be associated with military use, dating to around WWI, and made from brass. Brass — as opposed to the thin iron usually mentioned in bookbinding literature — makes sense in that it would not scratch the buttons, since they are made from the same material.

Google ngram for Trindle, which may or may not refer to bookbinding, declines right around the time the guillotine, out-or-boards schoolbook binding styles, and publisher’s cloth case binding becomes predominant, and trindles would have no longer been necessary. Hum. Source

Questions remain. Did bookbinders coin this term in the second quarter of the 19th century? Was it used in the trade commonly earlier? Why would binders create a new term for the more common term “button stick”? Is it workshop slang? Bookbinding does have its own idiosyncratic colloquial terminology. For example, most trades use the term “tommy bar” for a long tightening rod, which bookbinders call a “press-pin”. The search continues. Happy trindeling.

New Design Delrin Hera. Two Versions. Just in Time for a Holiday Gift 2021!

This is one of my most used tools. It almost always seems to be in my hand while working.

The white version is very flexible at the tip, making it ideal for delicate tasks, lifting fragile materials, pigment consolidation, and pressure sensitive tape removal. The super thin, translucent tip bends to almost 90 degrees, allowing precise control of downward pressure while sliding under the tape carrier. It is also perfect for gently releasing tissue repairs from remay or hollytex.

The black version of Delrin is stiffer than the white, and the tip of this tool is thicker and stronger. It is useful for lifting, inserting adhesive, smoothing repairs, general smooshing, scoring, folding, marking, holding repairs in place, rebacking, etc… . Other uses. 

If you can’t decide between the two versions, the only reasonable option is to purchase both. The non-reflective surface is easy to photograph. Delrin does not rust and is food safe. But I doubt it tastes very good. Delrin, approximately 7 x .25 x .25″

PURCHASE HERE

NB: if you are interested in learning to make your own tools, we will make both of these (and 8 other tools) in upcoming Delrin and Bamboo Toolmaking workshops. More info here!

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