A Look Back – Interview with Preservation Assistant Madison Whitesell

Posted on: August 24, 2017

Madison Whitesell is a recent JMU graduate with degrees in art history and studio art. She began working in Preservation as a sophomore in 2015 and spent this summer working as a wage employee. This is her JMU Libraries story.

“Madison, tell our audience a little bit about yourself and how you came to be a preservation assistant”

I’ve been interested in art conservation since high school. When I first realized that I loved art history as much as I loved making art, conservation presented itself as a way to combine the academics of art history with the hands on skills of making art. I heard there was a library preservation job available to students where you got to help repair books and I was immediately sold. I emailed Julia Merkel, Preservation Officer, and (politely) begged her to hire me.

“What are some of the major projects/highlights of your time here?”

I’ve gotten to do some of the coolest things here; things I never imagined doing when I was first hired. Just the idea of repairing books for the rest of my life was exciting but I’ve also gotten to help plan, curate, and install library exhibitions, as well as work with shows going into Duke Hall Gallery. I’ve been allowed to work with many of the objects in Special Collections, including a lot of items relating to the school’s history or the Shenandoah Valley, which means in addition to learning about collections, I’ve learned about the history of the area.

Last year, a fellow student and I processed a donation of almost three hundred artist books. That project was especially fun for us because we both took Book Arts at JMU and make our own artist books. There were the craziest books in there! Getting to handle and discover each one was a dream.

Most recently, I created custom storage mounts for the 3D objects in the Blackley Collection in Special Collections. All of the objects now fit neatly inside one artifact box.

Overall, the best part about working here is I feel like I’ve learned way more than I would have at any normal college internship, partially because of the amount of time I’ve spent here and partially because of the convergence of different skills that preservation allowed me to use.

“What was the most difficult skill to learn?

That’s a tough question. Some repairs are hard to learn because they involve lots of steps and forgetting a step can lead to problems later. I had trouble replacing endsheets when I first learned because you have to apply glue to an entire sheet of paper and then paste it down smoothly. But overall the hardest part about working in preservation is that there are so many little things you have to remember in addition to the major steps. Is the paper folded along the grain? Are you brushing glue in the right direction so as not to stretch out the paper? There’s also a lot of case-by-case problem solving. Maybe a book needs a unique combination of repairs. You always have to think a few steps ahead or you’ll make a silly mistake. I get a lot of mistakes out of the way mentally by running through each project in my head before beginning them.

“The strangest item to come in for repair?”

In terms of repair or weirdness of the object? Recently we found loose baby teeth in a box donated to Special Collections and that was pretty alarming! In terms of damage though…we get really moldy/mildewy things in sometimes. We find dried “things” in-between the pages of books, old food…There was a peppermint stick in an old scrapbook donated to Special Collections that had completely melted into a gross, sticky mess. One of the artist books in the Carol Barton collection had a latex glove in it that had half melted, half dry-rotted between the page.

“What is the most fun or satisfying task?”

This is hard because I loved so many things for different reasons or depending on my mood. Music binding is fairly simple and so satisfying to complete. I loved penciling in the call numbers inside of the Special Collections books. My favorite book repairs were actually the longer ones, spine replacements were my favorite towards the end because there were so many methodical, little steps. Oh, and building cloth covered boxes was fun but really difficult and time consuming. A good challenge.

“What advice do you have for future students?”

Thinking everything through before you start a new repair is really important. The faster you make that a habit the better off you’ll be. Also, dedication to the work. I think it’s different than some campus jobs in that there are so many different areas you could focus on within it. You’ll learn everything but maybe you really focus on paper repair or storage mounts. This job is one of the strongest parts of my resume because I can say I learned SO many new things while working here, things I’d have never learned in a classroom.

Categorised in: