At first, most people in the United States think that I work in a forest.

“I’m not in environmental conservation. I work in the library. With books.”
–“So you are doing research about the environment?”
“No no, I am not doing research. I am working with books. To make them better. Like a doctor.”
–“Oh, okay. What kind of degree is that?…”

In France, many of my French colleagues have had to clarify that no, they do not work in the food business, since the word for conservation, restauration, shares a common root with “restaurant.” It is an international challenge, then, to have our profession be recognized for what it is.

So on some occasions, I’ve sought more creative ways to explain what I do.

“I’m a book conservator. Do you watch Dexter? Well the serial killer in the sixth season – the one who works with rare books in a museum? That’s kind of what I do.”

Or then again:

“You know that grandmother who destroyed the church fresco of Christ in Spain? Conservators do the OPPOSITE of that.”

Of course, it’s not ideal to be contextualized by a serial killer, or by a well-meaning but unqualified (and ballsy!) grandmother, but I would tell myself that at least these current cultural trends help increase exposure to our field.

Recently, though, I’ve needed no translation…

On my flight from Chicago to Des Moines, the passenger sitting next to me asked me where I was going and what I’d be doing there. I told her that I was going to start an internship in Book Conservation at Iowa State University Library.

“Oh I love books!” She said. “My sister and I read all the time!! How wonderful for you.”

And when I was visiting Iowa City, a new artist-friend asked “Oh, so do you get rid of foxing?” when I introduced myself and my line of work.

Could it be that word is spreading? Or that book lovers and artists, those more apt to be up-to-date about the dangers their favorite works are exposed to, are running rampant in Iowa?

Whatever the case, it’s been a good first week here in Ames, Iowa. I’m settling into the lab, getting to know the team, and spending quality time with a few certain baggy books.

I’ve started with treating a series of quarter leather tightback bindings from the mid-19th century. For the most part, these books are in good condition, aside from the leather spines which are deteriorating along the shoulders and have in most cases detached completely or in pieces.

Archives des Sciences Physiques et Naturelles 1857 v.35 Before Treatment

Archives des Sciences Physiques et Naturelles 1857 v.35 Before Treatment

Archives des Sciences Physiques et Naturelles 1846 v.2 Before Treatment

Archives des Sciences Physiques et Naturelles 1846 v.2 Before Treatment

For a number of these volumes, we determined that the best treatment would be housing, considering the amount of time that would be spent piecing the fragments back together (and the other exciting books that await me!)  So, Melissa suggested making Ethafoam platforms that would nestle into Tuxedo boxes and hold the fragments in place.

Archives des Sciences Physiques et Naturelles 1847 v.6

Archives des Sciences Physiques et Naturelles 1847 v.6

Lovely.

In the cases where the spine is intact but detached from the volume, I’ve opted to line the spine piece with Japanese tissue, leaving flanges to insert under the leather of the boards.

Archives des Sciences Physiques et Naturelles 1846 v.1

Archives des Sciences Physiques et Naturelles 1846 v.1

1846 v.1 Detail

1846 v.1 Detail

It’s been successful so far, and I’m looking forward to continuing with these volumes, and to completing the Baggy Books project.

So here’s to a good first week.  In a fair world, this conservation news would make headlines around the globe! But Dexter and Spanish grandmothers being so scintillating, I’m happy to spread my news this way, on the Preservation Department blog.

Keep it classy, Iowa.

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