My journey towards becoming an Archive Conservator almost began with a wrong turn when I arranged a fortnight-long work placement at Essex Record Office with the idea of becoming an Archivist. As a recent History graduate I knew I wanted to make some use of my new degree and my local Record Office seemed a good place to start, but it soon became clear that I was more interested with the physical nature of the documents than the information contained within the text. After handling a parchment deed for the first time it was the experience of interacting with the fragile and ancient material that stuck in my mind rather than the message contained in the flaking ink. Luckily I was able to spend a couple of days in the Conservation Section where Senior Conservator, Keith Dean told me all about a career I had no idea existed.
I learnt that a Conservator was privileged to have the most intimate contact with archives possible and was struck by the protective and respectful attitude shown toward the collection. Just as striking was the enormous sense of enthusiasm towards the job that I would come to recognise as a trait amongst Archive Conservators. Keith explained the very broad range of activities a Conservator is expected to do and the equally varied skill set required. A strong technical knowledge of chemistry was required to understand the materials archives are made from, why they degrade and what can be done to slow or stop these processes; however, a Conservator also has to be a craftsperson with good practical skills who can repair a wax seal or bind a book in a traditional style while understanding the mechanics of the book structure and the chemical qualities of the materials involved.
A testament to this combination of tradition and science can be seen when taking a look around a Conservation Studio where glass laboratory equipment and high tech machinery sit next to 19th century cast iron presses and wooden binding equipment the design of which was perfected hundreds of years ago. The field of Conservation is not one that is standing still; there is no textbook to follow, rather a modern Conservator has to keep developing and learning new techniques that are constantly being developed.
Having been successfully turned away from ‘the dark side’ as it was put to me at the time, I travelled down to Camberwell College, part of the University of the Arts, London who happened to be holding their annual end of year show for their newly graduated Conservators and, before I knew it, I was submitting my application for the Post Graduate Diploma course to be followed by an MA in Conservation!
Two years later I emerged qualified, began searching for my first job and encountered the common problem of having the right qualifications but not enough experience. I could tell the interview panel all about the structure of cellulose and had a portfolio of images of my work, but it was only by volunteering at different organisations that I could hope to accrue real world experience.
Thomas Plume’s Library is a fantastic collection of early books in my hometown of Maldon in Essex. It is still housed on the first floor of a converted medieval church specifically chosen by Thomas Plume who donated his collection to the people of Maldon upon his death in 1704. Like many charitable historic libraries they had a great need for conservation work but no budget to employ a Conservator, so I identified a source of grant funding which the Library successfully applied for to employ their first Conservator – me!
During this time I volunteered to assist with the salvage operation following the total collapse of the Historical Archive of the City of Cologne building in 2009. Although it was upsetting to witness the level of destruction, the experience of taking part in a disaster recovery operation on that scale was incredibly useful and lessons learned there still influence my work.
After 18 months as Conservator on the British Steel Project based at Teesside Archives in Middlesbrough my former mentor Keith Dean at Essex Record Office retired and I was able to succeed him and move back home. The job description for my new role stated that I should ideally be trained via the ARA Conservation Training Scheme, and when I was offered the opportunity to enroll I jumped at it.
I am now working for Cumbria Archive Service and am based in Carlisle where the learning has not stopped. My role includes responsibilities for digital access and a degree of digital preservation, both new areas to me and ones I have had to rapidly become familiar with by attending ARA courses and studying the enormous amount of information available online.
Working as an Archive Conservator is enormously rewarding, no two projects are the same but, just like the role of an Archivist, at the heart of our work is making archives accessible either by repairing items made inaccessible by damage or by giving collections the best chance of long-term survival through preservation measures.