Friday, April 27, 2012

Portraits in Preservation SE – Henry Hébert

The last, but definitely not the least of the Portraits in Preservation, Student Edition for Preservation Week 2012. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed hearing from these younger voices, and I hope you have too.

Henry Hébert is currently a second year student in the bookbinding program at the North Bennet Street School. He received a Master's degree in Library Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. During graduate school, he worked as a student technician in both the special collections conservation lab in Wilson Library at UNC-Chapel Hill and the conservation lab at Perkins Library at Duke University. In the summer of 2010, Hebert was a Lennox Foundation Intern at the Parks Library at Iowa State University. He is currently performing contract conservation work for Baker Library at the Harvard Business School and, in the fall of 2012, he will start as the Von Clemm Fellow at the Boston Athenaeum. You can follow his work on his blog Work of the Hand.

What experience or person has greatly influenced your desire to pursue preservation?

I’ve worked with a lot of really great people over the past couple of years, but there were really two people that I met early on who were pivotal in my decision to pursue a career in library preservation, specifically book conservation. They opened my eyes to the field and greatly influenced me as an emerging professional.  

The first was Jan Paris, the conservator for special collections at UNC Chapel Hill. She was the first library conservator that I ever met and the first to give me a job in a lab. Before that, I honestly don’t think conservation existed as a career option in my mind - so I was pretty naive about the nature of the work. Over the next two years, as I worked in her lab, Jan spent a great deal of time helping to re-orient my thinking about conservation within the context of a research collection. As she would teach me new repair techniques, we would often talk about the process of making sound treatment decisions. Jan was an incredible mentor to have so early on, and I feel a lot of my successes can be attributed to her instruction.

The second person who got me started in the field was Beth Doyle, who is now the head of conservation at Perkins Library at Duke University. Beth taught my preservation class in library school and gave me a job doing quick repairs for items in the library’s circulating collection. She gave me a lot of production-style repair skills and shared with me a great deal about a conservator’s role away from the bench. Beth always offered a good perspective on how a “hybrid-style” conservation lab (treating both special and circulating collections) functions within the wider library and really encouraged me to continue my training after graduate school.

What has been a particularly rewarding experience in your preservation training?

I have so much to learn at this point in my career, so every opportunity to be in a lab working on collection material is rewarding in some way. Each institution has different challenges to meet when it comes to the preservation of their collections, and it is really interesting for me to see the conservator’s approach to addressing those needs.

Recently, working with Priscilla Anderson at the Harvard Business School has been a really incredible experience. In addition to getting to work on some unique and amazing collection material, I've learned a number of new solutions for library exhibits that will be useful wherever my career takes me. Priscilla is also great about taking time out of her incredibly busy schedule to dialog about workflows and treatment decisions. She forces me to think critically about every aspect of a given project, and I learn something new every day there.  

What are you looking forward to personally contributing to the larger preservation world?

Since I have had to cobble together my own conservation training curriculum, my skill-set and perspective about the work is probably unique from other students entering the field now. I applied to the conservation program at the University of Texas the year that it was shut down. The art conservation programs in this country had not yet developed book programs to fill the vacuum, and I felt that getting a library degree, taking a load of chemistry classes, and training at the North Bennet Street School was the only way to get the skills that I needed. There seem to be a couple different training models for book conservators at the moment, so I can’t say how my experiences will compare to other students. Regardless, I feel incredibly lucky to get two years of full-time bench training. It has allowed me to develop a degree of manual dexterity and a knowledge of traditional binding practice and book structures that I would not be able to get anywhere else. I hope to use these skills to contribute in some way to the wider body of knowledge in the field. There are so many opportunities for research or the development of new treatment techniques that I’m sure I will find some area in which to apply myself.

What do you see is a pressing issue facing the preservation world?

I think outreach and awareness are probably the biggest issues facing the wider preservation community right now. In tough economic times, it is difficult to convey the importance of preservation to the public when issues like healthcare and social security so dominate the media. There is a huge (and seemingly endless) debate in this country over what our collective values are and which institutions should be funded because of them. Until we enter another era of economic growth, I think preservation professionals have to be very vocal about the importance of maintaining our cultural heritage, so that funding streams to museums and libraries continue.   

A lot of people have written about this topic, but regarding libraries specifically, I think that digitization is an issue that we will be grappling with for quite a while.  Evolving technologies for imaging, storage of digital media, and models of access mean that libraries, as cultural institutions, will have to keep re-evaluating how they are serving the needs of their patrons.  Certainly digitization presents an opportunity to make collections more visible and draw new users to the library; however, without realistic planning, the costs of creation and long-term storage of digital information objects can grow rapidly. I don't see library budgets getting significant boosts any time soon, so the return on investment for these projects is key. If preservation librarians and conservators are involved early and often in the planning and implementation of the project, digitization it can also be an excellent opportunity to improve the condition of a collection. Some people are already doing this well, but I think the organizational culture determines when preservation comes to the table.

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