My initial contact with Ann Frellsen at the first Decatur Book Festival had nothing to do with book conservation and everything to do with jewelry. She and several friends had a booth at the festival selling tiny book earrings, which were quite well made with lovely covers and even a few “pages” inside. Books are an all-consuming passion with me, so I bought five or six pair for me and for my book loving pals. Each time I wore a pair, people would always make positive comments, and I suggested to the owner of the book store where I work that we carry them for our customers. The earrings have now been in the store for at least four years, maybe five, and sales are always brisk. Only later did I discover that the artist who made them was a trained book conservator at Emory University and only made the earrings as a pastime, using the leftover material of beautiful endpapers.
Ann graciously agreed to an interview, and as I scribbled furious notes, she shared her background and experiences with me. She is a Navy brat (I’m an Army brat!) and traveled extensively before getting her BA in art at LSU and Master’s at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where she studied glass and metals (Ann had apprenticed as a jeweler), then back to LSU, concentrating on glass sculpture. During her Master’s program, she also worked in a photography supply store and learned to sell high end photography conservation materials and construct custom framing. When she moved to Atlanta, a friend told her of an opening in the conservation department at the library at Emory University, a job which turned into the work she does today. In the book conservation “business,” on-the-job training, or “bench training,” is fairly common, because a person has to learn by doing. During her tenure of 24 years, Ann, whose title is now Collections Conservator, has built the program to serve the special collections of the five major libraries of Emory.
Ann refers to herself as a “lifelong learner,” always looking for new ways to improve the process of saving old books and for educational opportunities either to further her or her staff’s knowledge or to inform the public about preserving their own treasures. “Every day is different,” she says. “We never know what’s coming in that needs work.” Her various bosses have encouraged whatever extra training she wanted, from production methods at Berkeley to book repair and evaluation at the University of Connecticut. By expanding her knowledge of the history and creation of books, Ann is quickly able to triage the repairs needed and to develop and plan for projects within the more valuable collections. There is usually a one-week turnaround on regular items. Approximately 1,000 items are treated annually.
The conservation department has four people on staff, with one working solely on a National Endowment for Humanities and National Park Service grant project “Save America’s Treasures,” which focuses on African-American scrapbooks dating from 1823 to 1970. In the Conservation Lab, everywhere you turn, there are books of all sizes and degrees of deterioration. There are huge worktables, a wall of various tools, rolls of binding materials, many different sizes of book presses, and a drying rack for wet, treated paper. It is a beehive of activity, with everyone buzzing (sorry) around, intent on their particular job. Ann showed me various projects in progress, including a 1695 Bible—so very fragile—but with incredibly beautiful artwork on the detaching pages. Such an undertaking! But this is everyday life in the conservation lab.
Beginning workers first learn simple repairs, mending and sewing, working up to more complicated projects such as replacing damaged spines or even taking a book completely apart and putting it back together. The damage to pages in older books is oftentimes the result of the acidic tanning of the spine leather seeping onto the paper, and sometimes EACH PAGE has to be washed in de-ionized water to remove this acidic by-product. Pre-1850, all paper was made from rags and/or cotton, but more modern paper is of wood and wood by-products, which are acidic. That’s why each book must be evaluated, attention given to the time of its making and current condition of the paper and binding. A book’s content is of utmost importance in determining its care.
One of the joys of Ann’s job is being called upon to work on real treasures of the Emory Libraries, such as the collections of Sylvia Plath, Ted Hughes and Alice Walker. Walker’s collection is particularly interesting, in that there are not only papers, but unusual items, such as t-shirts and jeans, which had to be unpacked and properly stored. Original collections are stored to last as long as possible, so special care is taken to preserve them for posterity. The conservation team is also responsible not only for archiving but for the care and presentation of special collections in exhibits at the library. Presently, there is an exhibition of Irish poet Seamus Heaney, who donated his papers to Emory, entitled “The Music of What Happens.” (Exhibit runs through November 25th.) The Schatten Gallery, on the third floor of the Robert W. Woodruff Library, is filled with glass cases of varying sizes for which the conservation department has designed custom cradles and trays for the presentation of handwritten poems, photos and ephemera, presenting them to their best advantage. Following the gift of Heaney’s collection, many Irish poets, such as Paul Muldoon, Eamon Grennan, and Ciaran Carson, have given Emory their own collections. The President of Ireland recently visited the university to see why!
Ann obviously loves her job, and over the years has had many intriguing experiences within the purview of conservation. She shared with me her experiences with an ongoing project she participated in Montefiascone, Italy, where many book conservators were called in to evaluate and work on a library in the Duomo Montefiascone. Holding a treasure trove of ancient books, it had been walled up in the 1500’s and not discovered until 1990. Can you imagine? Books completely forgotten for hundreds of years, suddenly discovered–a book lover’s dream.
Unfortunately, as our world grows ever more digitized in this age of technology, the art of book conservation is becoming almost a lost art. What will happen to the thousands of libraries and special collections of rare books around the world? Thank goodness for the dedication of people like Ann Frellsen and her associates, who care so much about the preservation of lovely old books—without them and people like them, the literary world would be a pretty desolate place.
Do you have any very old books in your library that are family treasures?