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Teaching Conservation Students at Columbia

Mellon Conservator for Special Collections Jennifer Jarvis Lecturing on the History of Bookbinding in January Mellon Conservator for Special Collections Jennifer Jarvis Lecturing on the History of Bookbinding in January

February 8, 2012

What can a half-inch length of thread tell us about a manuscript’s first binding?  Why should we care about saving the soiled paper wrapper stitched around an unbound book, when it was probably never originally intended to survive?  Between semesters this winter, the Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Columbia University became a classroom for graduate art conservation students to consider these and other questions.  This course in the History of Bookbinding and the Material Book represented the first offering in the Columbia University Libraries’ partnership with the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts at New York University to provide training in the conservation of library and archives materials.  Students from the Conservation Center as well as some of their counterparts from the University of Delaware and the Buffalo State College graduate programs in art conservation attended the eight day introduction to paleography, book illustration, descriptive bibliography and the history of bookbinding.

Conservators of paintings, sculpture, ethnographic objects, drawings, and books generally complete three- or four-year graduate degree programs in conservation to prepare them for their careers.  During this time, they study materials science, techniques such as mending, infilling and cleaning, and the history of art and artifacts.  In 2009, the only US program to concentrate on books and archives closed, leaving three programs specializing in art conservation.  Through the generosity of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, these programs have received special support to add library and archives conservation to their curricula, and the first students entered in the fall of 2011.  As a partner of the NYU program in this endeavor, the Columbia University Libraries will offer courses in historic hand bookbinding techniques and rare book conservation treatments in addition to the winter course in the history of bookbinding.

The goal of the Columbia winter intercession course was to introduce students to the history of the book as a material object, looking at ways in which scholars interpret physical evidence to determine how books were produced.   The course was taught by a team of specialists including Columbia Rare Book and Manuscript Library curators Jane Siegel and Consuelo Dutschke, the Libraries’ conservators Alexis Hagadorn, Vasarė Rastonis and Jennifer Jarvis, and Gerald Cloud, Head Librarian of the William Andrews Clark Memorial Library, UCLA.  A main focus of the classes was the Libraries’ historic collections, with students participating in extended laboratory sessions examining, analyzing and describing evidence in rare books and documents from the Rare Book and Manuscript Library and Burke Library.  NYU Conservation Center student Morgan Adams commented, “The intercession classes were an amazing opportunity to learn from experts through hands-on examination of books. From medieval Caroline minuscule to the first edition of Ulysses, the lecturers brought paleography, the history of the book, and bibliography to life with examples from the rich collections of Columbia.”

More information about Conservation at Columbia may be found at:https://alumni-friends.library.columbia.edu/mellon_conservator.html .  A description of the graduate program at the Conservation Center of the Institute of Fine Arts, NYU appears at: