This blog post series will look at United States citizens who trained abroad and are currently practicing conservation in the US. The goal of these interviews is twofold: to provide pre-program students with a starting point for understanding international training through a range of student perspectives and to bring awareness of overseas conservation training programs to conservators practicing in the United States. It is the hope that the discussion of international training will answer questions and start an open dialog of the challenges and benefits of training abroad.
This blog series takes the form of interviews with established and emerging conservators who have trained abroad. Each interviewee offers their personal and professional perspective. So, while themes are apparent throughout these interviews, no single interview can summarize all the challenges and rewards of international training.
These interviews do not reflect the opinions of AIC or the training programs being discussed. The series has been created to reflect a range of experiences, and the personal accounts will not reflect the views of all students from any specific program.
For this blog post, we spoke with Book Conservator @Heather Parks. In 2011, Heather earned her Foundation Degree (FdA) in Book Conservation from Camberwell College of Arts in London. She is currently the Head of Preservation at Binghamton University in New York.
Why did you pick your specialty?
The moment I heard about the field of book conservation, I knew that’s what I wanted to do. I love seeing an item come in versus when it leaves. My goal isn’t to make it look like the day it was made. My goal is to make the item usable and functional. I love the practicality of the field. I love knowing that I’m stabilizing an item, and now people can get use out of it. They can do their work because I’ve done mine.
Can you describe your training pathway?
While in library school, I took a library preservation course. As soon as I heard there was a career for repairing/stabilizing books, I knew that’s what I wanted to do when I grew up. Between research and talking to established conservators, I learned I needed more chemistry and needed to find the right training program. There was no program in the US that really suited my needs. After doing an internet search, I found Camberwell’s focused 2-year program on Book Conservation seemed the perfect fit.
What were the advantages of your program of choice: Personal/Professional?
Because the program is in London, the opportunities for internships and volunteering is something you could never match in the US. While there, I had the opportunity to work at The National Archives, Victoria & Albert Museum, Stanley Kubrick Archives, Charles Dickens House Museum, and even Norwich Cathedral. The diversity of items, ranging time periods, and tasks created a never to be forgotten experience.
Likewise, working with and learning from such amazing conservators, conservation scientists, preservation departments, and of course teachers and fellow students, all provided such a well-rounded education. Having access to such knowledge is something every new (and not so new) professional should have.
I also enjoyed the diversity and complex nature of the program as well. One day you may be working on a burned books project at The National Archives and the next with your classmates on how to create a poster for a conference session. We did everything from study the effects of treatment from a chemical perspective to create our own exhibit maintaining preservation concerns, bookbinding, and working on the Ligatus Study. The program was very well-rounded.
And finally, in regards to living in England itself, it was a cultural shock…in a good way. When I first arrived, I found fault with quite a lot, mainly the lack of concern for conveniences I was accustomed to. Why aren’t there more elevators or air conditioners…or ice for your drink (side note: asking for extra ice will get you 2 cubes). But as I settled in, I began to appreciate the more relaxed mindset. People say Americans live to work. Well in England, they work to live. They enjoy sitting outside with their friends, eating lunch in the park, or sitting outside reading a book. Those are things most Americans wouldn’t even think about doing. Living in England taught me to relax and enjoy the people around me, my environment, and my time.
What were the disadvantages of your program of choice: Personal/Professional?
The disadvantages were primarily personal. Leaving my family and friends was difficult as expected. It was a strain financially as well. I was depending on student loans for much of my education, and that money didn’t get cleared until months after starting which made for a very difficult few months. Also, people complain about out-of-state tuition; if they compared it to out-of-country, they’d pass out. You will only be able to get private loans which are harder to consolidate and less likely to work with you later. While the financing of a program like this is a serious issue to consider, I still feel like I made the right decision. I got the education I needed to get the job I want. And while I’ll be paying student loans for a long time, the salary makes that doable.
Another difficult aspect was in the job availability upon graduation. Book conservation jobs aren’t exactly everywhere. When I returned, I had to take a job and ended up as a librarian again (which is what I was when I left). I was basically doing the same exact job after the degree as before which was very frustrating. I graduated with knowledge and passion for the field, only to have to simmer down and go back to a job I wasn’t fulfilled in. After 3 years of that, I was able to get a volunteer position as a conservator at a local archives which reignited that passion. It took a total of 5 years after graduating before getting into the conservation field (and paid).
What advice do you have for pre-programmers considering a similar path?
If you choose to follow a similar path, just know:
- You will get lost, a lot
- You will feel homesick and be desperate for Mom’s cooking
- You will meet people who have a problem with you or your country
- You will realize very quickly that British English is nothing like your English
- You will feel like giving up
Smile, and remember that years from now you will still be telling yourself you can’t believe you did this! You will have done something incredible. You will have had experiences most people would never dream of. You will have handled materials older than the Columbus’ 1492.
As Camberwell’s conservation programming has come to an end, they are now referring potential students to the City & Guilds of London’s Art School in either a bachelors or master’s degree in conservation with a specialty in books and paper. That program will begin accepting new students in 2020.