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CCN Blog: Interview with Nancy Lev-Alexander on Preventive Conservation at the Library of Congress

  

This interview is part of the Collection Care Network's (CCN) blog series, which features interviews with conservators and collection care professionals. The stories and insights shared in these interviews highlight the many aspects of collection care and its cross-disciplinary nature. If you have a project or story you'd like to share or know someone we should feature in this series, please contact us at collections@culturalheritage.org.

This edition of the blog is an interview CCN Editor Wendi Field Murray conducted with Nancy Lev-Alexander, Preservation Specialist / Conservation Division, Library of Congress. 

Nancy Lev-Alexander

Hello Nancy! Thanks so much for speaking with me today! Could you start by introducing yourself, and sharing a bit about your academic and work background, and your professional interests?

Sure, I first came to the Library of Congress in 1991 fresh out of two years of training in bookbinding at the North Bennet Street School (NBSS), Boston. I was hired as a phased conservator– my job involved independently designing and fabricating custom housings for rare and special collections and to assist multiple conservators in the lab on a variety of treatments. I left the Library in 1999 to pursue private work. During these years I served as the Standards of Excellence Chair for the Guild of Bookworkers, working to organize the annual conference. I was invited back to the Library to help coordinate a team of staff whose task was to survey and prepare a vast amount of varied collection formats for relocation to the Library’s high bay, 50F offsite storage facility then in the design/construction planning phase. To condense the story, my direct supervisor left the Conservation Division and I was selected to supervise what was called the Preventive Conservation Section which included environmental monitoring, liaison to facility projects, in addition to the staff working on our collection move, special collections housing and stabilization. I have held a conservation management and supervisor position for over 15 years, most recently called Head, Collections Conservation Section, until I recently transitioned into a preservation specialist role in January 2022.

You have not yet retired, but I understand that you have recently taken a step back from your management/supervisory role at the Library of Congress to focus on another project. Can you tell us more about what you have been up to? 

I have stepped back from my management and supervisory role to help document some of our large programs– particularly those with an HVAC, construction or facility management interface. I am also providing overlap so that as my successor Ken Grant absorbs a firehose of information about the Library, his staff projects, our Conservation programs and multiple facility and exhibit fabrication projects, we stay on top of deadlines to review plans. We simply have too many air handlers and complex construction projects under way for anyone new to quickly pick up all the technical details, not to mention the relationships with our engineering partners. To date (and we’ve been at this transition since mid-January), the overlap strategy is working very well. It is a great opportunity to bring fresh expertise and energy into a section I have been leading for a long time while transferring knowledge in a non-rushed and intentional and enjoyable way. After six months we’ve seen the benefit of combining our different approaches, experience and skill sets. 

If you were to write a memoir about your career, what would the title be? Why?

Maybe the title would be something like You're Asking Me That? When I was a student at NBSS trying to perfect a handskill like gold tooling, I had no idea someone with mechanical engineering credentials would ever ask me to review complex technical specifications and moreover treat my questions and comments seriously. I think many conservators who work in the preventive realm find they need to expand their comfort zone to step up and represent collection needs. At the same time you cannot pretend to know what you don’t. So it has been a long period of reading, spending as much time as possible learning from colleagues with different lanes of expertise and listening in many, many meetings to develop my own style of contribution. I am fortunate to have worked with some of the most patient and thoughtful colleagues in many disciplines. 


Can you describe your most memorable project with the Library of Congress? Why has it stuck with you?

I am not sure I can rank my most memorable project but I will talk briefly about a 2019 project to renovate the Library’s Musical Instrument Vault. This idea for this renovation sputtered along in fits and starts for many years before I took on the role as preservation/conservation lead. A few  aspects stick in my mind. This project would have been well served by a more comprehensive documented analysis to ferret out the advantages and disadvantages of going forward with the renovation in the proposed location. This type of analysis would have created a good risk assessment framework.  I think in the long run the collection is well served, and pushing through doubts allowed us to take advantage of available construction funds.  But I’ll speak for myself in saying that second guessing at times that the design or construction hit rough patches was draining. Actually construction projects undergo this type of risk analysis but we were pioneers so to speak. But I want to end on a more lasting impression. Everyone involved in the project from every discipline really pitched in to do the best for the Library’s storied Dayton C Miller Collection.

I loved watching our lead Preservation Specialist and her team of technicians solve housing challenges to best protect the wide range of instruments and increase productivity in their work. Our entire Conservation Division pitched in to help with interim moves of the collection within the building. 

Left: Annie Immedaita prepares interior box cushion in the instrument vault prior to renovation. Right: Jennifer Lewis prepares instruments for relocation prior to Musical Instrument Vault renovation

Capital Planning is outside my bailiwick– but I will say that really taking the time to explain the requirements or risks from the collection perspective is so critical. Simply passing over a list of collection needs without also engaging in any follow up discussion about how any given requirement will affect cost or construction logistics may lead to unanticipated risks elsewhere in the building and limits the chance to seek the best, and perhaps most sustainable solution. 

Again in the long run the new vault is considered a success and certainly has eliminated or lessened several critical collection risks. We have all learned from the experience and as is usually the case, toughing out a challenging project as a multidisciplinary team builds a foundation of trust to support the next project. That certainly has happened. 

The renovated Musical Instrument Vault


Over the course of your career, how have you seen the field of preventive conservation change, and what do you see on the horizon?

I think there is more acknowledgement of the variety of folks who contribute to this effort from Preservation Specialists to Conservation Technicians. I think the term has broadened to include many activities whose goal is to prevent the need for more costly interventive treatment. Certainly in terms of choosing and employing materials for exhibit, housing, and construction projects, having folks from differing perspectives collaborate helps everyone develop more comprehensive decision-making– less prescriptive, and  able to be responsibly applied to a specific institution's situation. I have been involved with a task group within AIC’s Materials Working Group that is reviewing and updating the National Park Service narrative guidelines. Over what at times has been an isolating 2 years, the regular connection with colleagues to complete group editing has provided a life raft of sanity– I think most of us feel that way.  

What is something that your collection colleagues may not know about you? 

I was a bartender in my 20’s and four decades later still make a great drink. 

As a conservator in a library setting, how do you balance collection protection and preservation with the need for collections to be open and accessible for public use?

Keep in mind public use when applied to the Library of Congress is still more restricted than many (if not most) public libraries. Our Conservation Division works closely with our collection managers to determine the preventive measures like housing or supports that allow them to share these materials with the public through designated event days and for researchers through the reading rooms. This is one of my favorite types of collaborations, as we can enhance the experience of using the Library’s collections rather than being the gatekeepers who  limit their exposure. We also have designated staff teams to evaluate and prepare materials for digitization and exhibition– the highest volume activities for special collections in our Division that increases public access. 

What can the conservation field do to support collection care and preventive conservation in libraries and archives?

Continue to highlight the diversity of materials, needs and strategies to safeguard collections. There are many topics that apply broadly like emergency and environmental management. At the same time there are more focused topics such as strategies to stabilize deteriorating leather in large book collections which have benefitted from panels and specialty sessions at the AIC Annual Meeting. Uplifting case studies where a library or archive has developed a strategy to reduce risk or improve the condition of collections are always inspiring. 

If you enjoyed this post, check out CCN's other most recent blog, an interview with Melissa Thompson and Jenny Yearous on Motherhood in Cultural Heritage Collections.

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