To promote awareness and a clearer understanding of different pathways into specializations that require particular training, the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) is conducting a series of interviews with conservation professionals in these specialties. We began the series with East Asian Art conservation and then continued with practitioners in AIC’s Electronic Media Group (EMG) and Wooden Artifact Group (WAG). Now we are interviewing conservation professionals working in Libraries and Archives, which can include anything from paper prints to death masks to medieval manuscripts. We’ve asked our interviewees to share some thoughts about their career paths, which we hope will inspire emerging conservation professionals and provide valuable insight into these areas of our professional field.
For our second interview from the Library and Archive series, we spoke with Duke University Libraries conservator Henry Hebert (@Henry Hebert).
Please tell us a little bit about yourself.
For the last four years, I have been a conservator for special collections at Duke University Libraries. Previously, I served as a rare book conservator at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I became a professional associate of AIC in 2016 and have been working in some capacity on the Book and Paper Group Publications Committee since 2015. In my free time I like to travel and spend time outdoors.
How were you first introduced to conservation, and why did you decide to pursue conservation?
Library and archives conservation was not on my radar as a potential career choice until I was introduced to a few conservators midway through college. As an undergrad in the studio art department at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I was taking some printmaking and book arts classes. One of my professors suggested I apply for a part-time position in the special collections conservation lab at the university, headed by Jan Paris. I had attended a magnet high school for STEM, so I had some exposure to advanced chemistry already. Conservation seemed like the perfect blend of science, art history, and the kinds of hand skills I had been developing in my studio practice.
Of all specializations, what contributed to your decision to pursue Library and Archives conservation.
I knew from the beginning that I wanted to work in a large research library and wanted to specialize in books. My mother is a librarian, so I grew up spending a lot of time in libraries and they are just a very comfortable place for me. The fact that anyone can come into a library and interact with the collections serves an important function in connecting people with cultural heritage. Supporting that mission is very rewarding. In high school and college I worked in commercial printing and became a little obsessed with bookbinding. I guess my curiosity and fascination with books has continued to grow over time.
What has been your training pathway? Please list any universities, apprenticeships, technical experience, and any related jobs or hobbies.
My training got off to a bit of a rocky start. Most of the library conservators I had met early on were graduates of the University of Texas program and that seemed like the best choice for a career in libraries and archives. Unfortunately that program shut down the year that I applied. The other art conservation programs didn’t offer the same training for books at the time and it didn’t seem financially possible to pursue that training abroad. Since the University of North Carolina had a top-rated graduate program in library science, it made sense to just start there and try to assemble the training I needed elsewhere. I was lucky to have the opportunity to continue taking chemistry classes and working in the special collections conservation lab part-time while I was in school for my Masters in Library Science (MLS).
After graduate school, I moved up to Boston to complete the two year bookbinding program at the North Bennet Street School, taught by Jeffrey Altepeter. That program was great in providing a solid foundation in book structure and traditional methods of working with materials like leather. During the summers, I was able to work in different library conservation labs. I was a Lennox Foundation intern at Iowa State University with Dr. Melissa Tedone and later was able to do some contract work under the supervision of Priscilla Anderson at Harvard Business School’s Baker Library. Additionally, the Boston Athenaeum offers the von Clemm Fellowship in Book Conservation for recent North Bennet graduates. After completing the program, I spent six months working with James Reid-Cunningham and Dawn Walus in the Athenaeum’s conservation lab. These experiences gave me a chance to work on diverse library collections and attempt increasingly complex and challenging treatments with the guidance of an experienced conservator. They also provided opportunities to learn how conservation can support important library initiatives outside the reading room, like exhibitions and digitization.
In reality, though, my training pathway continues. Library collections hold far more than books and paper and it seems like every day that I am confronted with some completely unfamiliar object or a condition issue that doesn’t have an obvious solution. I try to take advantage of new training opportunities and draw upon the knowledge and experience of my colleagues when the need arises.
Are there any particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline?
This is more of a knowledge base than a skill exactly, but a thorough understanding of book structure and book action is important for successful treatment outcomes for bound materials. Books, by their very nature, must be opened in order to be used, and they can be used a lot in a library or archive. It can be helpful to think about bindings as systems or machines, with all the different components having an effect on one another. When I first started in the field, I thought a successful treatment just mended what was broken without removing too much of the original material. I’ve learned over time that things aren’t always so straightforward. Sometimes you also have to avoid introducing new elements that will strain the remaining (potentially very fragile) components.
What are some of your current projects, research, or interests?
Outside of regular researcher requests, the two big projects that I have been working with my colleagues to support are related to exhibitions and imaging. Several years ago, Duke acquired the Lisa Unger Baskin collection, an extensive collection of women’s history produced by female scholars, printers, scientists, and authors. Earlier this year we installed highlights from this collection in the largest single exhibit the library has ever done. We will travel a majority of those materials up to the Grolier Club for another exhibit later this fall. I’ve learned quite a bit about dealing with large loans in the last year and have had to step up my project management skills as a result.
The other ongoing program that I am working with is using multispectral imaging. Duke’s library purchased equipment a few years ago and we have developed a workflow for scholars to request multispectral imaging services for any of the library’s collections. It has been a great experience working with staff from across the organization to support this new avenue of research.
In your opinion, what is an important research area or need in your specialization?
I have seen a lot of really amazing work recently in adapting new materials to book treatments, such as alternatives to traditional covering materials like leather or as support layers for shattered textile on bindings. I think library conservation can be insular as a specialty group sometimes and there are a lot of opportunities for us to collaborate with and learn from other conservation professionals. With that experimentation and growth, however, I would also like to see more evaluation of treatment techniques in the longer term or after an object has been extensively used.
Do you have any advice for prospective emerging conservators who would like to pursue this specialization?
I would encourage emerging book conservators to try their hand at every aspect of book production and decoration as part of their professional development. A lot of the processes are complicated and what you produce won’t look very good, but that hands-on experience gives you a new level of connoisseurship. You become better able to recognize evidence of production, like tool marks, and understand how the object has been used and potentially altered.