What Are You Working On?
What Are You Working On? is an ongoing series aimed at getting to know exceptional UBC staff and faculty who are doing anything but the typical day to day as they contribute to making UBC an inspiring place to be.
The job title ‘Library Conservator’ only begins to describe the breadth of work University of British Columbia staff member, Anne Lama, is responsible for. Lama holds a Master’s in Restoration of Books and Paper from the Université Paris-Sorbonne in France and a Master’s in Preventive Conservation at the Université Paris-Sorbonne.
From an early age, Anne Lama was always attracted to art. This passion inspired her to pursue five years of study in the science and art of conservation before she went on to work for ten years in preventive conservation at the National Archives in Paris. In 2013, Anne moved to Vancouver to pursue a hands-on career in restoration of books at UBC.
It is clear Anne is passionate about preserving physical documents and artifacts. She has dedicated most of her life to the study of books and her craft. As someone who deeply cares about the objects she works with, she promotes conservation and is an ambassador for the proper care of the UBC Rare Books and Special Collections and circulation books on campus.
UBC Communications and Marketing sat down with Anne to learn more about the work she does with UBC Rare Books and Special Collections and the UBC Library.
What do you think is compelling about conservation?
AL: The idea of preserving a document as an object but also as information to pass to the new generation—it is the most important thing that I can do.
When I try to explain my job to non-conservator’s, they usually say: “Well, you just have to copy the original and that’s it, you preserve!” Yes, I preserve the content but we can learn so much from the paper, the fibres, and how it’s bound. For instance, Victor Hugo had a clear idea about the paper he used for his manuscripts and the quality required to perpetuate his writing. Thanks to this precocious interest in preservation, we can sometimes authenticate his writings from the type of paper he selected. It is a paradox for me, because I want to preserve them but I also want to circulate them. It is two opposite things because as you communicate it is an obstacle to preserving. You use it and you damage it, even if you take care of it: you take the risk of exposing the document to external degradations (light, humidity and temperature, vandalism, hazardous manipulation, etcetera).
Can you explain what your day-to-day work is like as a conservator at the UBC Library?
AL: What I do right away is check my email! You never know if there is an emergency and somebody needs supplies, advice or a rush repair. After that, usually some boxes arrive with damaged books. We make a registration of the books and decide what to do with each one. They are either fixed in-house or sent to a commercial binder, according to various criteria. The main damage we observe is a torn spine, loose hinges, detached cover, ear dogs or tears in the page. We have a backlog of the books that we need to repair in-house so Hannah Mckendry, my assistant, works step-by-step with our work learn students on these projects.
Then I could visit the Rare Books and Special Collections (RBSC). We set up one or two days a month where the staff of RBSC present the project they would like to work on. It might be recommendations for housing a document, evaluating the condition of a new acquisition, setting up an exhibition, or basic work such as flattening and tear repairs.
I also have a main part working with digitization. I don’t digitize any objects myself, but I come before to prepare the document if needed before shooting (stabilization, dust cleaning, unbinding, etc.). We are just about to finish a huge digitization project called One Hundred Poets Collection that belongs to Professor Joshua Mostow. The collection is mostly Asian binding books and cards sets relating to the poetry anthology by Hyakunin Isshu. The prior issue was that the tight margins were difficult to deal with to digitize the items flat. Unbinding some of them was the solution but, further along in the project, we had to work on filling gaps, repairing tears and flattening.
Is it difficult to know when it is appropriate to unbind or not? Are you concerned with preserving the integrity of the book?
AL: That is exactly the point. We want to keep the object in its original shape, as it was made, without removing or adding elements. Unbinding or modifying the aspect of the object is a collegial decision made by the Librarian, conservator and historian. The binding of the books belonging to this collection has often been redone over time, unbound and rebound with new materials.
Of course before we do any restoration, we take down all the information in a condition report and we take pictures before, during and after the restoration. We put down every detail about the object before we touch it, even before we dust it. The conservator notes which kinds of materials have been used (glue, paper, solvent, etc.) and the technique of the restoration. If in the future they want to redo my restoration they know exactly what to do, because the material that I use and the technique are recorded and reversible.
How do you define ’preventive conservation‘?
AL: I always make the comparison to medicine. Because preventive medicine means that before you are sick, you take care to respect some rules to avoid being sick. It’s the same with preventive conservation. I am taking care of the environment, the climate, temperature and humidity to have something stable for the object because we know that when we have a high level of temperature and humidity you can have mold, insects growing, deformation of paper, and some damage from moisture.
So, the preventive conservation aspect for the document is to protect the object from the external factors of degradation. It could be the climate, biology and even human damage. It could be about choosing the right materials to enclose the document, the boxes, and the recommendation for how to handle the document for when you use them. Finally, it is also understanding building disaster plan preparedness to prevent and reduce the impact of a disaster (fire and flood for example) because the consequences of a disaster are always a risk of irremediable loss and are an expensive recovery.
What’s a memorable object you have worked with?
AL: I would say that I didn’t work with or restore this object but I had it in my hand and I had to propose a new enclosure for it. It was the will of Victor Hugo, in the National Archives in Paris. I love Victor Hugo as a poet and I admire his political commitment. It was kind of emotional to have it in my hands, to see his signature and to know he also had the document in his hand. These kinds of things can be very emotional, but to me every document is important.
In the archives you can have old paper, old parchment, but you can also have archives coming from the presidency in France. In fact, after each quinquennium of presidency, they are obliged to give their archives to the National Archives. So we can have very sensitive documents about the recent history of France and for me it is just as important as parchment. It is always a mix of the value of the object, the interest for making the preservation and conservation, the content, where it is coming from, and for which purpose should I work on it.
How has the role of conservator has evolved over time?
AL: The first conservators were painters. Book and paper conservators came later in the 1970s. They didn’t have any skills in restoration but they knew how to paint and this was the problem. If you are a conservator you have to forget to be a creative person. You just have to respect the object as it is, you don’t add anything to it, and you don’t trim off anything. You want the restoration to be invisible but not to make a false object. It is always something you have to balance. Now to become a conservator and be able to work on heritage documents you need a Master’s. You have certain skills like [knowledge of] chemicals, history of art, and knowing the materials. The challenge for the conservator is to always be up to date on new techniques, new materials and new supplies. People are always trying to find new techniques that are more stable, more reversible, always more, more, and you need to keep up to date with that.
What is the most difficult artifact you have encountered?
AL: The artifact I chose to illustrate this question belongs to RBSC collection. It is the Papal bull, a parchment dated from 1245 acquired by UBC in 2014. The document was folded on itself several times and it was too dry to be displayed safely for demonstration during classes. It wasn’t a difficult artifact but the circumstances of the restoration work were difficult. My specialty is paper restoration so, when RSBC asked me to improve the condition of the Papal bull, I needed to consider working on skin. I knew how to do it, I had the theoretical aspect, and I could say what to do exactly by word.
The method is to slowly introduce enough moisture to relax the parchment. A humidification chamber made of Plexiglas and Cedar wood has been built for the purpose and the document was left overnight at 90% of humidity. Then, the IT equipment used at Tarsia Technical Industry for shooting oversized document was used for the first flattening part. After the relaxation, the document becomes flexible enough to be flattened under press for several weeks. The result has been a success. Now the document is flat again and set up in a custom enclosure which allows for secure handling and long-term preservation.
What is something you are working on right now?
AL: I’m working on Preservation Week! We have been involved in this project for four years now. The idea came from American Library Association and the idea is to promote preservation and highlight the importance of the collection we have in cultural institutions. We want to give information, and introduce the preservation work to the staff and the public. The most important aspect is to explain and to train people to preserve the documents.
The circulation books at UBC are a focus for Preservation Week. Everyone thinks it’s just “books I buy in the store,” they think the books belong to them and they write on them, highlight, make doodles, even take them outside when it is raining. This is the problem. You are not the last student to borrow the book. I would say protect them for the people to come after you. If you don’t want this done to your own books, don’t do this to public books.
What is something important you’ve learned as a conservator?
AL: When I demonstrate my restoration work, people say patience is what we need to practice this job. I admit that paper is not easy to work with; we absolutely need patience to let paper relax or to wait for the right moment to paste it. But the more difficult thing is to make people aware of the paper’s quality. It takes time to set up new procedures and to drop bad habits. The discipline is expensive and we don't always realize the value of paper. Paper is considered ephemeral and fragile so today we consider that it can be replaced rather than repaired. In fact, we can make amazing things with paper and I would say, as long as the paper is not completely burnt, it can be saved!
Anne Lama brings unique talents and expertise to the UBC Library. Through her dedication and detailed preservation goals she has created a promising vision for the future. Her hopeful outlook and preparation will ensure the longevity of physical and authentic objects for new generations to come.
Preservation Week at the UBC Library is happening April 24th to 30th. Anne will be taking a field trip to the University Hill Elementary School where she will discuss the impact of environmental and biological damage on library materials. She will also be hosting an Traditional East Asian Binding Style workshop and guiding tours of RBSC behind the scenes with Chelsea Shriver. RBSC will set up an exhibit called “Conservator’s Cabinet of Curiosities” that will be available for public viewing on the 2nd Floor of the Irving K Barber Learning Center. To see Anne Lama’s current work on “The One Hundred Poets Collection” please visit the UBC open collections online.