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Interning at the APS during a Global Pandemic: A Colorful Experience

By Verónica Ivette Mercado Oliveras, Willman Spawn Conservation Intern

Verónica Mercado Oliveras, a Mellon Library and Archives Conservation Education Fellow in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation, spent the summer of 2021 interning in the APS Conservation Laboratory

As a Puerto Rican Library and Archives Conservation major in the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation (WUDPAC), I considered my first graduate summer internship—one of many requirements to obtain the M.S. in Art Conservation—a high point of my education and an opportunity to build a new, long-lasting relationship with a mentor. However, by the time I was offered the Willman Spawn Conservation Internship, it seemed likely that the only safe option for an internship would be a virtual one. Needless to say, I was ecstatic when Renée Wolcott, Assistant Head of Conservation and Book Conservator and my soon-to-be supervisor, bore the good news of a fully in-person internship at the APS. “En vivo y a todo color,” as we say in Puerto Rico: live and in full color.

photos of conservation treatments of books
At the APS Verónica treated three colorful books: La Buona Figliuola: Opera Boufon en III Actes from Madame Brillon’s collection, A Narrative of Some of the Adventures … of a Revolutionary Soldier by Joseph Martin, and Arctic Explorations by Elisha Kent Kane.

When I was presented with my projects, I could not believe my eyes. Three oddly colorful books lay on my workbench: a full green parchment case binding that had suffered from the impact of fluctuating relative humidity, a blue cloth case binding with a detached spine piece and a split text block, and a scaleboard binding with thin wooden boards and burnt pages! Whenever I think about libraries, I envision infinite stacks of earth-toned books bound in leather, paper, and cloth, but these books had both color and a wide array of organic materials! I knew that I was about to access a new bank of information, not only regarding book structures, but also materiality, decoration, and physical condition. I had never heard of the books before either; all of them contained stories of men and women to whom I had no prior connection, including the 18th-century French composer Anne Louise Brillon de Jouy, a Revolutionary War soldier named Joseph “Plumb” Martin, and the 19th-century physician-cum-explorer Elisha Kent Kane. 

The Willman Spawn Conservation Internship greatly enhanced my understanding of book conservation. In the Conservation Laboratory, I worked with Renée on the condition assessment, photography, and treatment of a parchment-bound Piccini opera from the collection of Mme. Brillon, a cloth-covered trade binding containing Kane’s story of the 1853-55 Grinnell Expedition to the Arctic in search of missing explorer John Franklin, and a scaleboard binding with veneer-thin wooden boards containing the experiences of a private in the Continental Army

photo of conservation treatment of parchment binding on book
The warped parchment cover of the opera libretto was humidified in a Gore-tex pack until it could be manipulated, then reshaped over stacked cotton blotters and dried under weight.

Madame Brillon’s green parchment-over-boards binding was highly reactive to changes in relative humidity. This caused the parchment covering to contract, warping the upper board into a concave shape. A humidification package was devised to allow for the controlled release of water vapor into the parchment, consequently allowing the cover to be flattened under weights. 

photo of resewing case binding
Verónica re-sewed the trade binding of Arctic Explorations according to its original abbreviated sewing pattern.

The second project, a blue case binding that Kane himself had presented to the APS, had lost half its spine. The text block had also split in half. After examination and testing, Renée and I ultimately decided to re-sew the text block with new thread and sewing supports and to reback it with richly toned blue long-fibered mulberry paper. 

photo of damaged scaleboard binding
This scaleboard binding—a cheap format with thin wooden boards, common in the early days of the United States—had a split, detached front board and several leaves that were damaged by fire.

The scaleboard binding had suffered losses to its wooden boards and burns to some of its pages; we decided to consolidate the boards to re-establish their structural strength and to mend the burnt pages to keep the carbonized paper matrix from disintegrating into ashes. After six weeks of studying and treating these books, I had learned a great deal about their structures and was enriched by the authors’ stories and life experiences—another great pleasure of being both a History major and a Library and Archives Conservator in training.

Thanks to Renée, who is not only an expert in the field of book conservation, but a writer, editor, and teacher—she also speaks Spanish—I left the APS equipped with a stronger set of critical thinking and manual skills to successfully transition into my second year of book conservation studies at the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation.