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The Fix: Museum Day Live – Exploring Careers in Libraries and Preservation

In anticipation of Smithsonian Libraries’ participation in this year’s Museum Day Live events on Saturday March 12th, we wanted to highlight Library Preservation work at the Book Conservation Lab here at Smithsonian Libraries, and draw attention to the varied interests and skills that are inherent to Preservation work and are important and driving forces in preserving library collections for the future.

Smithsonian Libraries’ Book Conservation Lab is a place of intersections. Books from all 20 Smithsonian Libraries’ branches come here to undergo conservation treatment, as needed. At any given moment there are books ranging in subjects from Art & Design and the Natural Sciences to How to Read Airplane Blueprints. Sometimes harmonious themes crystalize: a beautifully illustrated botany book rubs shoulders with a book on textile, floral designs from the Cooper Hewitt Museum.

botany and chm
Left: Floral patterns; Textiles from India from Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum Library. Right: 19th century botany illustration from Botany Library.


The floral and textile theme continues with a plate from Blacks in the History of Fashion, from the newly established National Museum of African American Culture Library, showcasing a design by Ann Lowe:


Ann Lowe design: National Museum of African American History and Culture Library.
Ann Lowe design: National Museum of African American History and Culture Library.


Just as the Book Conservation Lab can be a connecting point for the many branches that comprise the Smithsonian Libraries, the Book Conservator’s work itself relies on a synthesis of disparate knowledge and skills: Historian, Detective, Scientist, and Artist.

Read a case of detection that is not just an aside to conservation work but a necessity that informs a sympathetic treatment. Or see an example of artistic craftsmanship required to camouflage repairs; work as beautiful, in and of itself, as the original being repaired.

Damaged books and manuscripts possess many conservation challenges. Most are due to the extremely varied sources of materials used to print and bind books, and to the many regional and historical variations in techniques that must be considered during the treatment process.

For example, paper can be made many different ways, with cotton, or linen, or wood pulp, which all determine the approaches taken to mend damaged pages. Sometimes the leaves that make up a textblock are parchment (animal skins processed to be thin enough for writing and printing) or papyrus.

Books are also printed or illuminated with various inks and pigments, which need to be accounted for and tested to ensure that they are not adversely affected during treatment processes.

Once these printed sheets are bound up together, usually by sewing with thread and needle, they are protected by covers and these covers are often made with boards covered in leather, gilded with gold. Understanding the science and art of leather tanning , for example, can be an advantageous addition to conservator’s tool kit.


A book’s textblock being sewn over cord in a sewing frame
A book’s textblock being sewn over cord in a sewing frame.



Books can be also unique pieces of art themselves.

An artist’s book in the American Art Museum/Portrait Gallery Library, by Carolyn Shattuck.


And books are mechanical structures. They are meant to be used, opened, closed, and placed on shelves or in cabinets to be stored. All of these facets, and more, add up to the challenges met every day in the Book Conservation Lab. Solving unique problems usually requires the Conservator to pull from variety of tools and techniques to synthesize a treatment course.

And the conservator’s tool-kit continues to grow. Though traditionally book conservation was a practice taught and worked by master book binding craftspersons, in the last 50-60 years it has become more of a science that incorporates more and more global techniques. For example, traditional papers and adhesives from Asian cultures are now used as best-practices to treat western papers and bindings. And conservators use modern scientific processes like Spectrometry (Infrared, UV, and X-ray fluorescence) to help determine appropriate courses of treatment.

As many items are now digitized to increase patron access and even more works are being originally created and produced in the digital format, the efforts of Digital Preservation are of increasing importance. Computer Sciences are integrating with collections management and preservation practices.

And don’t overlook Preservation Services’ efforts to support exhibitions and disaster recovery responses. Read here about the libraries’ Conservators’ work in Haiti after the devastating earthquake in 2010.

Preservation work is varied and interconnects with many different fields of study. Chemical sciences, artistic hand skills, history, history of art and cultures, and even computer sciences are all important parts of Library Preservation work.

If you visit a museum or institution this March 12th for Museum Day Live, remember the Preservation efforts behind the scenes and all the different ways your own personal talents and strengths could be used by Libraries and Museums; how you can fit into helping preserve and make accessible the world’s heritage. If you’re in the Washington, DC, area, we encourage  you to visit our staff, who will be located in our four exhibit spaces and in the Smithsonian Castle, to learn more about careers in museums and libraries.

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