Deborah Howe is Collections Conservator at Dartmouth College Library. I connected with her to talk about her work, the items in her collection, and how conservation has developed during her career.
I imagine that there are some interesting items in your collection- can you tell us about them? What sorts of stories do they tell?
Great question. There are really quite a lot of very interesting items here at the Dartmouth Library. Of course the first types of items that come to mind are items in Special Collections. And how true it is indeed; that there are fantastic items with great stories there. But often it’s the books that come through the general collections that are yelling out their stories. Frequently, I look at these covers which are so worn and tattered that I can only wonder what this or that book went through and where it has been. A case in point is this volume from 1736. As you can see from the picture the corners have been beautifully repaired by my colleague, Stephanie Wolff, however, when it arrived, the corners were completely missing which you can somewhat see on the back cover. Also of note is the incredible patina of the cover, one would be hard pressed to even come close to recreating it. So just looking at this book I ask myself what travels has it had to come here in such a state? It’s all so curious.
On the other end of the spectrum, I just worked on an anatomy volume illustrated by Gautier D’Agoty. This was done in 1746, with the text by French physician and anatomist Guichard Joseph Duverney. These anatomy volumes were used for teaching, thus their large size, so students could see them while dissecting cadavers. While working on this volume, which had to be resewn, I could see evidence of severe water damage as well as what appeared to be splattered blood stains, once again begging the question what this book had experienced and where it had been. It’s hard not to be a bit like book crime scene investigator.
We all come to our respective fields for a reason, and I’m wondering—what drives and inspires you about your field of conservation?
One of the main reasons I love book conservation is the tangibility and immediate connections we have with books. It is immensely satisfying when I can take a damaged binding that has fallen apart and has either sentimental value or artifactual merit as a research tool and restore it back to a functional state. Books are so much a part of who we are as a society that it is hard to imagine who we might be without them. The other wonderful aspect of the field is the people. In the many years I have been in this profession, I have formed close friendship and associations with my colleagues, who I can call on at any time for advice or information. Working together as a collective group, there is so much opportunity for teaching each other and sharing knowledge, and of course it’s pretty amazing to get to handle some of the treasures that come across my bench.
Are there any developments in the field that are of interest to you right now? How does your work now tie in with these developments?
What is so great about being able to reflect on the past 20 years or so is the ability to see and have lived through the changes in the field, not only concerning treatments but also in attitude and perspectives. We live in such a time of accelerated change that now the world of technology has seeped into this field. A small example is that I am now able to reproduce marbled endsheets and print mending tissue with designs to help make my repairs more harmonious. On the other end of the spectrum with the advent of digitizing, the priorities of what types of material receive treatment have changed. We now think about digitizing an item if we disbind it, a new step and consideration in the treatment so to speak. This enables the information to be accessible to a much broader audience which is remarkable. I myself love to peruse the digital collections of manuscripts from the British Library or look up a certain type of binding on some of the offered data bases. I also love it when I can take a photo of something I’m working on and send it to a colleague to get some feedback in a matter of a few hours.
How has the Guild of Book workers been of help to you in your career?
The Guild has been a great resource for helping me move into my career. The annual meetings are a chance to learn new techniques, talk with the presenters and interact with other professionals in the field. The year Standards was in Chicago I assisted with the planning and it was a great way to get involved and help the organization. It’s a place you can go to get information and share your knowledge and I often consult the directory to look up names and contact information. Over the years I have made good friends and colleagues through the organization and would encourage people to contribute to its growth and get involved. Every time I attend a meeting it’s a wonderful reunion of like-minded people who care about books and enjoy what they do. As most organizations, the Guild has gone through changes. When I first joined, most of the members were conservators and fine binders, and now there is a new contingent of artist’s books and letterpress. So I think people might get something different out of it now than I did when I first joined.
Do you have any advice for aspiring conservators?
I think one of the aspects of getting into this field is to love it and find the joy and excitement it can bring. This will show as you go out into the field and make connections. Unlike painting conservation, book conservation deals with items that are part of our blood and everyday life and I think we find such a strong connection to that. If you are starting out, try to meet and learn from as many people as you can and be humble at every step. I remember when I went to France to study and I had already learned some conservation, I was trying to impose what I knew onto what was being taught to me and it was not a good approach. My bench mate suggested I sit back and do what was being taught to me and take from it what I needed. It was sound advice and I still reflect on that to this day. Be a good listener. Everyone has a slightly different way of doing something and you will find what way works best for you. Also, I would say try to make as many mistakes as you can as this is where the real learning comes, trying to fix what you’ve done, sometimes the treatment comes out better because of it! That and a lot of repetition will get you far. Remember how many times you had to fall off your bike before you could balance it. Well, it can be a little the same way for bookbinding, and then even when you find your balance you may still fall down! I also found that taking on all types of jobs was beneficial; often a job for an edition binding may teach you something that may carry over into a conservation project. It’s one of the aspects of the field I like; that you can work on old books but also explore the binding of new ones. And if you are inclined to teach, it’s another way to really embrace techniques and skills.
—Interview conducted by Olivia Rose Muzzy, November 2013