“I began the [iSchool] program begrudgingly. But as I’ve gone through it I’ve been shocked at how important it’s become to my career.”
Dibner Book Conservator, Huntington Library
MLIS Student, Expected Graduation Fall 2016
“I have done all of this backwards!” iSchool student Kristi Westberg laughs.
She’s referring to the order in which she started working in the library and information science field and received her degrees. Westberg started with an undergraduate degree in graphic design and worked in that area for a while for a special collections library. “I was in the book conservators’ office all the time,” she explains. “I got to know about conservation and realized that was my thing: using your hands, being meticulous and detail oriented.” So she looked into schooling, and flew overseas for a Master’s degree in Conservation from West Dean College in the United Kingdom.
Things came full circle when Westberg returned to the U.S. and realized that many conservators have a library degree, with a focus in conservation. That’s when Westberg finally decided to pursue the MLIS degree, and started courses at the iSchool.
How to Save the Life of A Book
After moving back to the U.S. with her conservation degree and enduring one last cold Massachusetts winter, Westberg started looking for job opportunities in warmer climates. Through a conservation listserv, she found an opportunity with Huntington Library in Southern California. The world renowned library features 420,000 rare books and 7 million manuscripts, and is located on a picturesque setting, with art galleries and lush gardens Westberg can peruse during her free time.
“I feel very lucky to go there every day,” Westberg says. “I spend every day thinking, is this real?”
She was hired as the Dibner book conservator, an endowed position providing specifically for the collection.
During the interview process, Westberg says the hiring committee was surprised when she revealed that she was taking courses towards the MLIS degree. “I talked about how valuable I’d found it,” she elaborates, “and they understood that I was not stagnant, I’m still learning. They said it would be valuable to the position to have this set of knowledge.”
Now Westberg has two main, very real priorities: to make the collection accessible to users and protect the items on display in the Beautiful Science exhibit. And to turn pages.
“The goal for all the conservation staff is to make everything accessible to users, but in a way that materials will hold up and be safe—a basic preservation goal,” Westberg, pictured, right, in the Huntington's lab, explains. “I deal with one particular collection, so I’ve been lucky in that I get to draw my own path. I go through areas of the collection that get high use, surveying to get an overall sense of the condition, and flag anything in need of conservation treatments.” Big red flags include the condition of the title page, detached boards and loose spines. “We don’t want to loose anything!”
Westberg closely follows the conservation Code of Ethics, which requires her to document the condition and any information about the volume before, during and after treatment, including photographic documentation for the information of future conservators. “Conservation is one of those fields where we’re always learning new things, and treatments change over time,” she adds. “I’m always conscious of that: this is not the last time this book will be treated, and it probably will be again.”
Westberg is also in charge of making sure that exhibited book’s pages are getting their equal share of visibility. Hence the page-turning aspect of her job. “There’s a set of guidelines for how long something should be on display: it’s being exposed to light, a type of damage which is cumulative...and irreversible. Every three to six months pages are turned to decrease their exposure to light. Light damage occurs slowly, making it difficult to see until you turn the page and realize the damage has occurred.”
The Science of Conservation
To help with her work, Westberg is taking a variety of iSchool courses, including preservation and digital preservation, paleography and management.
She’s also learning a lot from the conservators, curators and bookbinding professionals she works with. “My interest is in books,” she says. “I’m interested in the binding and how it’s put together, the decorations and tooling on bindings. The curator I work with has all this other knowledge...I’ll write up a proposal for how a book will be treated, he’ll review and suggest changes, and he’ll give me the backstory of the entire book, which I’ve never had before, all about the printer and printing and the individual book. It’s a totally different set of information, and helps inform the treatment, which is great.”
After working for institutions without their own in-house conservation labs Westberg feels very protective of the books in her collection. “When you look at the total number of books in the collection, it can get overwhelming. I have to realize I’m just one person, I can only do so much in a day, but I’m going to do the best I can for the collection while I’m there.”
Westberg feels lucky to be able to draw her own path, and is enjoying the hands-on aspect of conservation. “My goal right now is to gain experience...I learn so much from others. I [also] like the outreach portion of conservation: when people find out what it is they get super jazzed about conservation.”
From her hesitant MLIS beginnings, Westberg is now the one to tell everyone that they should get the degree. “I began the [MLIS] program begrudgingly,” Westberg admits, “But as I’ve gone through it I’ve been shocked at how important it’s become to my career. The library program broadened my view and added value to my other degrees, especially in terms of decision making. It’s taught me how to prioritize and research other bibliographic information that informs my treatment decisions,,” she says.
“It’s been shocking how it’s turned out, but in a good way.”