What’s Your Job? Interview with Book Conservator Christina Amato

By Christina Amato, Book and Paper Conservator, with Emily Moyer, Collections Care Assistant

The New York Academy of Medicine Library is well known for its world-class collections and serves patrons from all over the world. We strive to make our collections as visible and accessible as possible, and a lot of work goes on behind the scenes towards this end. The Gladys Brooks Book and Paper Conservation Laboratory fulfills one component of this equation, attending to the physical well-being of collections materials.

Christina Amato, cleaning old glue from the spine of a book.

Christina Amato, cleaning old glue from the spine of a book.

The Gladys Brooks Book and Paper Conservation Laboratory was created in 1982, and occupies a bright, well-equipped space overlooking Central Park. Currently, one full-time conservator and two part-time collections care assistants work to preserve the collection of over 550,000 volumes. Christina Amato has worked as a book conservator here for approximately three years. Recently, she sat down with Collections Care Assistant Emily Moyer to discuss her work.

EM: How did you get into the field of conservation?

CA: People come to the field from a variety of backgrounds, in part because conservation crosses many disciplines, including science, art history, and studio art. I come from an art background, having received my BA in studio art from Bard College. It was really through an interest in materials (specifically paper, leather, and vellum) that I became involved in bookbinding. I received a diploma in bookbinding from the North Bennet Street School in Boston, which led me to many wonderful internships in book conservation.

There are actually many different possible paths to a career in conservation. The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) has compiled a guide to education and training in conservation.

E.M.: Why is conservation important?

Many books that come up to the conservation lab are too fragile to be handled by readers; our work makes these materials accessible. This is important not just for readers that come and use our collection in person, but also for preparation for digitization projects and exhibitions. Much of our work focuses on preventative care, which ensures that materials remain in good condition for current and future use. This can include rehousing (creating enclosures for materials), regulating and monitoring environmental conditions, and disaster planning and response.

E.M.: What are you working on now?

Currently I am working on a copy of The byrth of mankynde, otherwise named The womans booke, by Eucharius Rösslin, London, 1545.  The book arrived in the lab broken in half:

The byrth of mankynde, otherwise named The womans booke, before treatment.

The byrth of mankynde, otherwise named The womans booke, before treatment.

It had been subjected to several unsuccessful attempts to repair the damage over the years. Several layers of Japanese paper had been glued over the spine, and only a few small fragments of the original spine piece were left.

The byrth of mankynde, otherwise named The womans booke, before treatment.

The byrth of mankynde, otherwise named The womans booke, before treatment.

After disbanding, and mending paper tears and fragile edges throughout the text block, I carefully documented the original sewing pattern, so that I could resew it in the same way.

Next, I dyed leather to match the original binding, which I will use to recreate the spine. After it is complete, the book will receive a new, custom enclosure, and will be ready to be used again.

Leather dying in progress.

Leather dying in progress.

E.M.: What are some interesting things you’ve worked on at the Academy?

A favorite book that I worked on was a copy of The Physiology of Digestion by William Beaumont, published in Vermont in 1847. Very shortly after I finished working on it, I listened to an archived episode of the Radiolab program called Guts. Our historical collections librarian, Arlene Shaner, spoke of a small, purple, cloth-bound book about digestion; it only very slowly dawned on me that it was the very same book that was on my bench.

Before and after, The Physiology of Digestion, Beaumont, William. Vermont, 1847.

Before and after, William Beaumont’s The Physiology of Digestion, Vermont, 1847. Click to enlarge.

Another favorite was a small volume entitled Geburtshulfliche Taschen-Phantome by Koichi Shibata, published in Munchen in 1892. We were so charmed by this little obstetrics text that we recreated the movable paper baby for a public workshop.

Koichi Shibata, Geburtshulfliche Taschen-Phantome, after treatment (left). The moveable paper baby (right).

Koichi Shibata, Geburtshulfliche Taschen-Phantome, after treatment (left). The moveable paper baby (right).

E.M.: Why do you like working in conservation?

Working in conservation can be very satisfying; the outcome of our work is unusually tangible. Working to preserve materials for (and from!) future readers can be creatively challenging, and requires flexible thinking. I like that it is a profession that combines working with your hands with an intellectual component. And of course, it is very rewarding to take a book that is too fragile to be handled and render it usable again.

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