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Posts Tagged ‘anna shepard’

  1. Conservation Conversations // Lab Coat Daydreams, Part II

    February 6, 2014 by Anna Shepard

    Something I have been thinking about a lot lately, as I while away hours at the bench, is the question of accessibility, specifically within the context of conservation. Recently there was a big hullaballoo at the H when a young woman, who fashioned herself as a “performing artist,” kissed a statue, smearing her dark lipstick across its pristine marble face. For this grand act of vandalism, she was fined a great sum and was required to spend an hour or so touring our conservation lab to get a feel for how complex and careful the work that goes into preserving books and flat paper objects actually is. Clearly the act is not socially acceptable and I think this young woman knew better than to leave such a noticeable mark on a statue, but it made me question the ways in which we are encouraged to engage with beauty and the ways in which we are not. Is there a right and a wrong way to experience beauty? Without proposing anything all that anarchical, I would like to address the parts of my work that break my heart and those that give a greater feeling of purposefulness.


    I was discussing the statue-kissing incident with a good friend and she pointed out that there is an element of embarrassment in the situation that I had not thought of before. As she understood it, the fact that the young woman performed a passionate act, a very active response to the beauty she was encountering, was the root of the evil. She was selfish in her act because it was an uninhibited response that many of us might have liked to perform ourselves if we only felt so free as to do so. It is this recognition of an unharnessed human response to beauty that makes the act inappropriate. In some ways I completely agree with this logic and it makes me consider the role of any museum or gallery space in exposing us to historically important and beautiful cultural relics and new forms of expression. On the other hand, if we all went around touching oil paintings and leafing through the most delicate books, they wouldn’t be around for long for us to enjoy. 

    Much of the work I have been doing lately deals directly with this same issue. I have been working with a book conservator to iron out the wrinkles in a “permanent” library exhibit–the main issue being that most of the books currently on exhibit have been sitting in their display cradles for five plus years. The continual stress on the bindings, in addition to the damage from light exposure to the displayed pages, is now something needing immediate attention. I wonder if it will make any difference to the visiting public that many of the books and original documents will be scans and facsimiles of the originals? Will they perceive this stand-in for what it is and be disappointed or will they be oblivious of the switch? One of the unique perks of working in a conservation lab is that we handle some very interesting and valuable pieces with our bare hands (well-washed, of course) and, though it is possible to gain access to virtually all of our collection by applying to be a scholar, I still wish that everyone could hold these rare books close enough to smell their paper and feel the smooth leather and frayed cloth with their own hands and it’s that part of my work that troubles me the most.


    The privilege of having such intimate experiences with these books and paper objects is the great joy of those working in the field and much of what we do in the lab is done solely for the purpose of making items more available and ready for use. The questions of functionality and usefulness and the longevity of an item are things that must be taken into consideration when dealing with each individually. It is that question: whether to change the structure of something to allow for greater access or to preserve it for undisturbed, safe keeping, that calls us to employ the keenest discernment. Being able to share these pieces of history and culture are what make it all worth while.

  2. 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.


    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.


  • 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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