ECPN Interview: Pre-Program Internships in Library Conservation

By Keara Teeter posted 09-23-2020 08:39


The Emerging Conservation Professionals Network (ECPN) works to serve ECPs at all levels, from pre-program to early career. This blog series aims to highlight pre-program experiences and opportunities through interviews with internship supervisors from a wide range of specialties. These individuals have been selected for interviews due to their track record as excellent pre-program mentors. In this series we hope to highlight successful approaches to pre-program internships and mentoring while also providing insight on how pre-program individuals can best prepare to enter the conservation profession. 

As a part of this series, we are promoting the AIC’s Education and Training Committee (ETC) Guidelines for Pre-Program Internships and ECPN Compensation Resources. ETC guidelines are intended to aid internship supervisors and interns in defining goals, parameters, and expectations for pre-program internships. ECPN compensation data was compiled after reviewing public postings of pre-program, graduate, and post-graduate positions. The ECPN spreadsheets are available upon request and can be a valuable tool in compensation negotiations.

For our first interview in the series, ECPN reached out to Anne Downey (@Anne Downey), Head of Conservation at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Anne Downey and Keara Teeter (2015-16 Spawn Intern) 
examining hand-colored prints for the APS Museum exhibition
Gathering Voices: Thomas Jefferson and Native America
Image credit:
Renée Wolcott


Please tell us about yourself and your organization (type of institution or private practice, geographic region, size, etc). How many other conservators do you work with and what specialties are represented?

I’m the Head of Conservation at the Library & Museum of the American Philosophical Society (APS) and a 1993 graduate of the Art Conservation Department from what was then called SUNY, College at Buffalo. My team and I are responsible for the care of materials held by our special collections library and archive. We’re a somewhat small non-profit in the historic district of Philadelphia. The majority of our materials date from the 18th century through the 21st century (we also actively collect rare volumes and manuscripts). Our primary collecting areas are early American history, ethnography and linguistics, and the history of science. Our website says that we have over thirteen million manuscripts, 350,000 volumes and bound periodicals, 250,000 images, and thousands of hours of audio tape – although, I think this number needs to be adjusted for our recent acquisition of the books and manuscripts previously held by the David Library of the American Revolution.

We have two other conservators in the department: Anisha Gupta, who majored in paper conservation and minored in photo conservation at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC 2016) and Renée Wolcottwho majored in Library and Archives (WUDPAC 2011). My own concentration while in school was works on paper. So, among the three of us, we cover the complete array of paper, photo, and parchment-based works that we see in the APS special collections.

When creating internships, what resources do you turn to for guidance and what training methods do you utilize?

I started supervising interns at the APS in 2004 and passed the baton of primary internship supervisor to Renée almost two years ago. The good news for me is that, now, I get to do what I love best – interact and guide nascent conservators who have an interest in the conservation of paper-based materials. Renée’s role as primary supervisor focuses on managing administrative tasks, ensuring that the intern is experiencing a meaningful internship, and fitting well into the lab and the APS. Anisha and I enter into the mix when it comes to supervising specific projects. We rotate the projects among the three of us, so the intern gets to experience three different versions of conservation training.

My own method of training is perhaps annoyingly Socratic (and also is hugely dependent on the level of the intern’s previous experience).  With an object on the bench, and with all the tools necessary for examination and documentation, I essentially say, “OK have at it – go ahead and write a condition report.”  I sometimes get a blank look (in which case I quickly back-pedal). Once the first draft of the report is written, I take a look at the object and print a hard copy of the report to scribble my comments on. 

A huge part of what we do as conservators is to ensure that we are examining and potentially treating this object for a specific purpose, a specific end-goal. Is this object being reviewed prior to digitization? Is the object likely to be handled extensively by readers, who may not have been trained in handling by my department? Is the object for exhibition in our Gallery? These questions all lead to potentially different treatment types. But first, none of these decisions can be made without a solid understanding of the material aspect of the object, the perceived “problems” and the context of the object within our collections and/or the world at large.

Once a condition report is created and the intern has done photographic documentation (we do our own photo-doc in the department), I ask the intern to do the appropriate testing for the potential treatment. I must say that none of this is linear for me. I usually go back and forth quite a bit between condition reporting and testing. And of course, the curator for the object is often called in to consult during this discovery process. If the object is complex, sometimes one has to put it away to let the mind actively work on other tasks, while pondering the problems in the background.

Although the Socratic method is my style, I believe others who teach in my department run more toward didacticism. So, there is hope for those interns who may be internally screaming, “Please, just tell me what to do…”

My favorite resource is one that my first third year intern, Jessica Silverman (WUDPAC), gave to me in 2007. It’s a comprehensive list of all competencies in paper conservation that an intern should be exposed to over the course of their complete training. It’s broken down into categories and covers: 

  • Fundamental treatments, which includes assorted types of mending
  • Various systems for removing attachments
  • Media consolidation and other additions
  • Special cases, like mold aspiration
  • Related activities, such as photodocumentaton

What skills do you look for in prospective interns?

We look for the highest skill level and conservation competencies that are available on any given year. So, if there happen to be rising third-year conservation school students who are interested in learning from us, or recent grads, we offer the internship to them. Pre-program interns are next on the list if there are no Paper or Library and Archive students who have applied for the year. 

In a nutshell, high level hand skills are top of the list for me. Then, preference will be given to applicants who have previous library conservation treatment experience. It’s great if interns can largely work independently but also know when to stop and ask questions. Questions! I love questions! But this self-knowledge can be hard to recognize and then execute. After all these years, I myself still sometimes have a hard time stopping a treatment procedure for re-assessment.

Allison Brewer (2014-15 Spawn Intern) conducting a backing removal treatment | Image credit: Anne Downey

How often do you accept pre-program interns and how long do their internships usually last? Are these positions paid, given a stipend, or unpaid? If unpaid, are other types of “in kind” payments provided? 

The Willman Spawn Conservation Internship program was officially launched in 2009, a year after my intern Jessica completed her work with us. The Spawn Internship was named in honor of Willman Spawn. He began with the Library part-time in 1948, and then went on to becoming the Library’s first full-time “restorer of manuscripts” in 1961. This internship has a dedicated endowment which allows us to offer a stipend annually. 

As I said earlier, we prefer to give the annual internship to a third-year grad student. If that doesn’t come to pass, or a recent conservation school grad, then pre-program interns are brought into the pool. I try to be flexible with pre-program interns (knowing that most are trying to juggle a job, coursework, and lab experience), and so, we look at as many scenarios as possible to come up with a plan that works for all of us. The stipend pays an hourly rate range, dependent on experience that’s brought to the table. Pre-program internships often last nine to eleven months part time, but we do like to work with the prospective interns schedule. There have been a wide variety of schedules over the years. For example, we have had several interns work two days per week for eleven months (9am-5pm). A more compressed schedule that we did was three days per week for five months (9am-5pm). If we have a summer intern, the typical schedule is four days per week for an eight-week period.

What are your goals for the intern and how do you convey these expectations?

My expectation is that the intern does some of the routine, and often tedious, work for the Conservation Department (like paste-making, housings, and if comfortable, mold remediation when necessary – we all do these things in my department). And then in exchange, they get to do things of greater interest to them. We have opportunities for both graduate students and pre-program interns to help with loan examination and reporting, integrated pest management (IPM) walk-throughs, temperature and relative humidity uploads and analysis, and other preventive conservation tasks. Usually interns also want to round out their skill sets and upgrade their portfolios with one or more conservation treatments. 

Once a candidate is selected, we start the on-boarding process by talking with the upcoming intern about what their particular goals might be in working with us. As a part of this initial step, I encourage digging deeply into the APS website to get an idea of the types of collections we hold. We also discuss what our needs are on our end to help make this a mutually beneficial experience. Assuming that treatment is high on the intern’s list, the lab staff start to actively look for projects that are in the pipeline that mesh with the intern’s experience and skill level. 

All interns are expected to write at least one blog post and to deliver a presentation at one of our weekly Brown Bag lunches that allow APS Fellows, interns, and staff to showcase their work and research. 

Layla Huff (2018 HBCU Library Preservation Intern) presenting on her work in Library Hall | Image credit: Anne Downey

Are these goals re-evaluated at some point during the internship? How do you structure the evaluations?

A mid-year review is scheduled to assess how the goals of the internship are going and to do any re-direction that may be desired. The evaluation structure is slightly up in the air at this point, since Renée is now the primary supervisor. The reviews I used to have were sometimes more formal, sometimes just a lunch or snack at a coffee shop while chatting. Of course, we always hope for ongoing assessment and feedback among all parties in the lab. No one likes surprises at an evaluation.

What does your organization do to help pre-program interns feel like they are part of your conservation community?

Working in a learned society like the APS has multiple benefits, but one of the biggest is the ability for staff and interns to attend a large number of talks, conferences, and symposia throughout the year. In case you don’t know, learned societies are organizations that are devoted to promoting scholarship and research. Or as our founder Ben Franklin would say, “promoting useful knowledge.” The APS is unusual among learned societies because its Membership is comprised of top scholars from a wide variety of academic disciplines. Our Members are elected within one of five categories: mathematical and physical sciences, biological sciences, social sciences, humanities, and professions, arts, and affairs.Altogether, there are about 1,000 United States and international Members. 

My favorite event to attend are our bi-yearly General Meetings, which bring the Membership together to attend talks, meetings, and socialize. Because of the wide range of Membership who come to Philadelphia for the Meeting, the talks delivered are not scholarly, but instead are designed to engage the “intelligent layperson”, as our website says.

Here’s a link to one of my favorite talks called Ducks, Dolls and Robots: Toward a Cartography of Fear and Wonder. In it anthropologist Genevieve Bell looks to the future of the intersection of humankind and technology in this fun talk. (grab some popcorn, it’s an hour long but well worth it).

What are the benefits of mentoring a pre-program intern? Please also share with us some things that past interns have taught you.

I strongly feel it’s important to give back – to society, to our favorite charities and causes, and most importantly to those who want to enter our field. Really, those tough years of being a pre-program intern stay with you forever, and one always wants better for the coming generations. Way back then, paid internships were unheard of. I’m glad that the APS was one of the early adopters of paying for work done. Especially now – preprogram interns generally have so much experience and dedication, it would be hard to justify a lack of payment.

I have been so lucky to have had an amazing number of interns come through the department, and they all have brought so much. Kristine Medley Farmer (who ultimately decided that applying to conservation grad school over and over was not for her) told me this phrase, with which I was so taken, I still periodically pull out the post-it on which I wrote her bit of wisdom: “Let your subconscious mind do the work”. Kristine had spent many years of her childhood training in dance and choreography, which is where this was generated for her. I’m pleased to say that she has gone on to become the Assistant Director of Development at Abington – Jefferson Health.

Laura McNulty (WUDPAC 2021), besides having amazing hand skills, quickly had me marveling at her highly developed use of tact and diplomacy. These are things I lack; one can usually count on my frankness.  And so, she taught me that each person has strengths – often that eclipse mine – and should be working within a team that uses and continues to develop those strengths. Laura will soon be entering her third year at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.

Karissa Muratore (WUDPAC 2020) taught me, among so very many things, to dig deep inside oneself to find strength in uncertain, tumultuous times. Karissa, I am channeling you right this second. In Fall 2020, Karissa will be launching into her Fellowship at Northwestern University Libraries.

Allison Brewer (SUNY Buffalo State 2019) came to the APS with a good portion of her own innate talent as well as an abundance of concepts learned at the benches of Tom and Nancy from Heugh-Edmondson Conservation. In addition to the tips she passed on from that prior internship, she showed me something very unexpected. This requires a small story. Allison and I were at an APS luncheon in Franklin Hall where about 50 people were gathered around tables of ten. Before eating, someone was passing around a small paper artifact something from their personal collection (what exactly that item was escapes me now). When I passed the leaf to Allison, she spent some time carefully examining it front and back. As she started to pass it along, our Director of the APS Friends, Alexis Anderson, exclaimed, “Oh look you can always tell a conservator by the graceful way they handle things!” I love that story. The revelation to me, through this seemingly simple act of Allison’s, was that we conservators can be ambassadors for our field simply by being present, and aware of the unique qualities we carry deep within us. These are often inextricably linked to who we are as people. As Louis Kahn once said, “Even when I get a haircut I’m an architect”. That is perhaps the way for us, too.

Do you have any other advice to share with prospective emerging conservators?

Continue to share knowledge and resources among yourselves – ECPN is a boon to the field, and knowledge-sharing is one of the hallmarks of our field that make me so proud. I am thrilled to see conservation hopefuls work together in this way. It must be unheard of in so many other fields – where people in competition for a coveted slot in grad school – help support each other and (hopefully) keep each other sane during such a grueling process.

Karissa Muratore (2017 Spawn Intern) preparing a bathing treatment | Image credit: Anne Downey