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Conservation Conversations // Lab Coat Daydreams, Part I

January 16, 2014 by Anna Shepard

I feel that I should share a bit of my story and recent background in this first post, in hopes of providing some context for what may follow in the next few weeks.

There was a running joke our instructor liked to chide us with, during our training at the North Bennet Street School. He teased that, after finishing our program, we could expect to find ourselves in either a “lab” or a “studio.” Being of a more artsy bent, or at least gravitating more towards the image of the artistic bookbinder that I had visualized at the program’s beginning, I never really considered what life in a book and paper conservation lab might actually be like.

After many slow months of picking up work where I could find it and squeezing in some binding projects on the side, I left Boston and decided to give things a shot in Los Angeles county, where my boyfriend had found steady work as a concert piano tuner & technician. With great luck, after suffering a few more painfully slow (and hot) months, I was hired as a “book & paper conservation technician” at The Huntington Library in Pasadena. I was overjoyed to find work that would allow me to employ the skills I had so recently acquired and in such an incredible setting. While my egoistic inner artist may have wept a few tears at first, I began to see the ways in which I could exercise my artistic license within the context of conservation.

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As with almost any job, there are elements of my work that sometimes feel a little wrote or tedious. O the whole though, I feel lucky to say that I engage creative and critical thinking skills with the majority of the projects that come my way. The nature of the work we do in the lab demands true flexibility and a type of problem-solving akin to what I imagine certain engineers might use. For example, while I may not have the weight of producing complex infrastructures in high-density areas looming over me, as I begin any housing project, I am asked to construct something securely and uniquely designed for each rare book or manuscript’s safe-keeping. I am asked to open my eyes to the unusual aspects of a book and give it the treatment it deserves or, as happens in triage situations, do whatever can be done for the time being.

As conservation staff we are constantly taking into consideration how items have and will continue to age and how we can best aid the longevity of each item so that it may continue to be. Thinking in this way can lead to some pretty heavy pondering – however, if you are as submerged in the art and mechanics of creating something with your hands—directly connecting mind with body, employing experience-based knowledge to your decision making about even the smallest element of a box or binding—you find yourself at the source of budding craftsmanship. And that, after all, is what I fell in love with when this journey began.

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    My name is Erin Fletcher, owner and bookbinder of Herringbone Bindery in Boston. Flash of the Hand is a space where I share my process and inspirations.
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