ECPN Interview: Libraries and Archives Conservation with Morgan Adams

By Keara Teeter posted 12-11-2019 10:35


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 i
nterviews with conservation professionals in these specialties. We began the series with East Asian Art conservation, Electronic Media Group (EMG), and continued with practitioners in AIC’s 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.

Our fourth interview from the Library & Archives series is with Morgan Adams (@Morgan Adams), Mellon Conservator for Special Collections at the Columbia University Libraries in New York.

Morgan Adams staff photo

Please tell us a little bit about yourself. 

I am a book and paper conservator for the Columbia University Libraries. I am a 2013 graduate of New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts Conservation Center. 

How were you first introduced to conservation, and why did you decide to pursue conservation?

I first learned about conservation as an undergraduate intern in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin, working with book conservators Olivia Primanis and Mary Baughman. It was my senior year and I was completing a double major in French and Plan II (a liberal arts honors program at UT). In working with Olivia and Mary, I was delighted to find a profession that united all of my interests--history, science, art, and working with my hands. I was particularly excited to find this on a university campus, integrated into the academic world. 

Of all specializations, what contributed to your decision to pursue Library and Archives conservation.

I have always loved libraries, I have always loved paper (origami, watercolor painting, drawing) and sewing, so book and paper conservation in a library setting was the clear choice for me. In my first year at NYU during the introductory course Technology and Structure of Works of Art, I was tempted by the textile conservation section and seriously considered photograph conservation. However, when we got to the paper section, I felt like I had come home and knew that paper was my true conservation love. Working in a library setting now, I enjoy the variety of materials--books, paper, parchment, photographs, leather, textiles--in our diverse collections.

What has been your training pathway?  Please list any universities, apprenticeships, technical experience, and any related jobs or hobbies.

After graduating from UT, I moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan. My supervisors at the Ransom Center introduced me to the wonderful book and paper conservators associated with the University of Michigan, including Dr. Cathleen Baker, Shannon Zachary, Julia Miller, and Leyla Lau-Lamb. Over the next four years, I prepared to apply to conservation graduate programs. While working in the University of Michigan Special Collections Library, and later the UM Conservation Lab, I took chemistry and art history classes at night to fulfill course prerequisites.  In addition, I participated in bookbinding and printing workshops at the Hollander’s School of Book Arts (Ann Arbor), with the Guild of Book Workers (Delaware Valley and New York chapters), and at the New York Center for Book Arts. I enrolled in the NYU Institute of Fine Arts Conservation Center program in 2009, pursuing a major in book and paper conservation with the ambition of working in a university research library. The Conservation Center did not offer a concentration in book conservation when I started, however, I had heard that previous students had focused on books. I hoped to supplement the paper conservation curriculum with book-specific internships and independent studies with book conservators in New York City. My timing was fortunate, as the Conservation Center faculty started planning programming for a libraries and archives specialty during my second year. I was lucky to be an unofficial guinea pig for new courses and workshops. During graduate school, I worked in conservation labs at the New York Academy of Medicine Library, Columbia University Libraries, New York University’s Bobst Library, and with a private paper conservator in Manhattan. I completed my fourth-year internship in the Thaw Conservation Center at the Morgan Library & Museum and was fortunate to stay on there as a Pine Tree Foundation Post-Graduate Fellow in Book Conservation after graduating. 

Are there any particular skills that you feel are important or unique to your discipline?

Bookbinding training, including working with leather, parchment, wood, cloth, and preparing and maintaining tools is fundamental. Learning historical binding techniques with a conservator’s eye is essential to appreciating how a binding’s features impact its function and deterioration. 

Depending on the institution, a library graduate degree may or may not be required in addition to the conservation degree. Regardless, it is important for a conservator to get to know the professional library and archives community. Whereas paper or painting conservation students in the NYU conservation program take classes alongside art history graduate students, who will become their colleagues in the museum world, library conservation students have to educate themselves about the work of rare books librarians and build an equivalent network. Courses at Rare Book School and meetings such as the American Library Association conferences are valuable opportunities for building this type of professional network. 

What are some of your current projects, research, or interests?

I am currently writing an essay on the medieval practice of sewing textile curtains into manuscripts to cover and protect the illuminations. It will be published in the Legacy Press’s Suave Mechanicals: Essays on the History of Bookbinding volume 6, edited by book conservator and historian Julia Miller. (This series is a great place to learn about current research in bookbinding history!)

In your opinion, what is an important research area or need in your specialization?

As libraries are evolving in this age of digital media, it’s an important moment to think about the unique contributions conservators make to libraries. Beyond treatment, which is itself an essential contribution, conservators understand the technical and historical aspects of the collections in ways that are frequently unique within an institution. Our training across disciplines, combined with our hands-on work, puts us in a position to interpret and contextualize data prepared by scientists or to assist curators and researchers in recognizing material evidence to understand the creation and history of an object. In addition to serving others, we conduct our own research contributing to the wider scholarship in history and material culture. Libraries and Archives conservators need to continue working to increase our visibility in the professional library world. Technical studies are an area of increasing interest to the burgeoning field of book history, and conservators should be centrally engaged in these discussions.

17th-century anatomical atlas from the Health Sciences Library (Photo courtesy of David Ortiz)

Morgan helping reprography staff digitize a 17th-century anatomical atlas by Johann Remmelin in the collection of the Health Sciences Library 
(Photo credit: David Ortiz)