Ann Frellsen: Emory University Book Conservator


(Ann Frellsen)

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 Frellsen

Ann Frellsen

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.

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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. images

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.


photo credit: Emory University

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!

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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?




18 thoughts on “Ann Frellsen: Emory University Book Conservator

  1. I have lots of old books–probably nothing of any value except to me as they are all from family. For example, I have my great aunt’s travel journal from her Grand Tour, which took her to Manila to visit her brother. I have this same brother’s album of photos from–I think–the war in Cuba. They’re in terrible shape and, unfortunately, lack much in the way of identification because, of course, he knew what they were!

    • I have a few old photo albums but not so much in the way of
      old, treasured books from family members. Maybe the military
      life of traveling so much left them by the wayside. Thanks for
      your comments–always good to hear from our esteemed editor!

  2. Someone once offered to buy me a first edition volume by Charles Dickens. I politely refused out of fear that the conditions in my home (humidity and temperature) might speed its demise. This is fascinating. Hope it lures more people to the profession.

    • Did you know that book conservators can actually make boxes
      to fit a book so it will be completely enclosed and protected?
      This whole area is fascinating to me, and I would love to learn
      even more. Who knew there was another world in the basement
      of the main Emory library? Thanks for your comment.

  3. Fascinating is right. Thanks for great glimpse, Susan. I for one, am proud to learn of Emory’s role in such preservation, and wonder if most universities do the same.

  4. It’s almost like entering a holy place when you visit the conservation
    department at the library. All these wonderful, dedicated people
    working like crazy to preserve precious books. I don’t know
    specifically about other universities–I’ll have to quiz Ann on that.
    The Seamus Heany exhibit is amazing–I’m urging lots of people
    to go.

  5. I want to do this! I dearly love old books! In 1998 Clarke and I visited a library in Adria, Italy. The librarian seemed to be flattered by our interest and took us to the back of the very tiny library where he showed us manuscripts and books from the 1100’s! He urged us to hold them! I was terrified and completely gratified.
    My Christmas present one year from Clarke was a 1st American edition of a Dickens’s novel. And I have a 1st edition of “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” by T. S. Eliot. Books, books, books! Thanks for a delicious article!

  6. Oooo–I love that word delicious! I had SUCH a positive experience
    with this article, going behind the scenes and actually seeing the
    transformations taking place. Sounds like you had a similar
    experience. Oh, and what a wonderful gift giver your husband

  7. So . . . Susan . . . if you organize a field trip (please) to the Seamus Haeny exhibit, count me in!
    p.s. Oldest book in my possession is a family bible from 1847 with a few family names and dates in it but not well kept up. Probably from the days when bible salesmen traveled through the country. This one was sold to family in Missouri.

    • Seems like I remember seeing that bible either at your home or
      at church. Did you show it to the children during one of the
      times you did the children’s talk? Wonderful. And let’s DO
      plan a time to see the Heaney exhibit–it’s just lovely.

  8. I have a German prayer book that has been in my family. “1824” is stamped on the leather cover. It is in need of restoration – the spine is deteriorating.

  9. I enjoyed this story very much. I don’t have old books, but like Alice Walker, I do have some old t-shirts and jeans!

    Thanks for posting this fascinating profile.

  10. Pingback: Interview about my work from Readers Unbound blog | Ann Frellsen

  11. Found this article as I hunted down who Ann Frellsen is. She is giving a book binding class at the paper museum at Tech next month (June 2018). There is something so rich and deep in hand crafted books that I will be there to try and make a tiny book of my own intaglio prints. I know it was 4 years ago when folks were commenting here, but if you have a field trip to Emory’s book collection, I want in on that too! I wonder if there are groups in Atlanta other than the paper museum that are dedicated to old hand made books? Would love to know that some sort of classes are taking place at Emory.

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