A Day in the Life of a Library Conservator

It’s hard to say what a typical day in the conservation lab might be, or what skills you will need when you show up for work in the morning. What makes library conservation challenging is that you need to know about not only books and paper objects, but paintings, art on paper, furniture, sculpture, indigenous and folk art, photographs, analog and digital A-V materials, media of all kind from the dawn of mark-making, etc. The list of what we need to know is endless because libraries and archives collect broadly, and the conservation needs of these collections can be complex. This list doesn’t even cover the parts of library conservation that include budgeting, planning, managing people, environmental monitoring, attending meetings, and all those things that keep the Conservation program running smoothly.

Yesterday I was reflecting on the life of a collections conservator as were doing some out-of-the-ordinary work.  I was asked to write condition reports for the three portraits in the exhibits suite. I’m not a paintings conservator, but I do know how to look at an object and describe its condition in enough detail that someone can understand the state of that object now, and determine if any changes occurred in the future. I found the Canadian Conservation Institute’s excellent reference materials online regarding evaluating paintings to be very helpful in my evaluation. I have also collected condition data on the two historic pieces of furniture in that room. I didn’t find a CCI document on writing condition reports for furniture, but they do make available a lot of furniture care and handling information. We have no paintings or furniture conservators on staff, but my skills are such that I can describe them for our records and help facilitate their conservation should the need arise.

When they were ready to go back on the wall, Henry Hebert from Conservation, and Ben Bridgers from Exhibits, rehung the portraits.

Photo Feb 04, 10 24 04 AM
Hanging Dr. Mott’s portrait.

Photo Feb 04, 10 36 47 AM
Hanging Mrs. Mary Duke Biddle’s portrait.

Once the portraits were hung, Henry and Ben, with Val Gillispie, Duke University Archivist, helped reposition the Virginia Woof desk in the Michael and Karen Stone Family Gallery. The desk is part of the newly acquired Lisa Unger Baskin Collection and is now on display as part of the “Heralding The Way to a New World” exhibit. The final thing to do was to help get the lighting levels adjusted for the desk.

woolf desk move
Repositioning the Virginia Woolf desk.

This morning, we helped put the book collections on the shelves that line the exhibits suite. It took about an hour and a half and eight people to finish the job. The exhibits suite is now ready for the weekend’s events.


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