We often have the pleasure of working collaboratively with members of other service units throughout the Library of Congress. Today’s interview is with Dan Paterson, Preservation Specialist/Rare Book Conservator in the Preservation Directorate’s Conservation Division at the Library of Congress. We are happy to give the public a brief glimpse into his life and his path toward becoming a preservationist and rare book conservator.
Describe your background.
I am originally from Wisconsin, but I have lived in several places. I went to Kenyon College in Ohio and majored in History. After graduating, I moved to Chicago where I lived for two years. Following that, I moved to a small town in Hungary to teach English as a Second Language; I remained there for three years. I then moved back to Chicago, before settling on a career path that ultimately led me to the Library of Congress (LC).
What is your academic/professional history?
My library career began in Chicago at the Newberry Library, which is an independent research library devoted to the humanities. I worked as a library page, then later as stacks supervisor. It was also there that I became interested in book conservation and preservation of rare materials. I was really impressed after seeing severely worn and damaged volumes go to the Newberry’s Conservation Lab—where they were mended and returned to functionality for scholars to use. I also found the housings that were created to protect the volumes appealing: they were effective in providing protection for the text but were also aesthetically attractive and well designed.
At that time, however, there were not any entry level positions in the Conservation Department; so I took a leave of absence to work for a summer in the lab at Northwestern University. Afterwards, having returned to the Newberry with some experience, I was able to transition into their Conservation Lab—first to work on items going on exhibition and then other projects, as opportunities arose. I spent about a year and a half learning rare book conservation principles and techniques.
From there, I went on to attend the University of Texas at Austin, where I obtained a Master of Library and Information Science (MLIS) degree with an Certificate of Advanced Study in Book and Paper Conservation. The final course requirement for the degree was a two-semester internship, which I completed here in the Conservation Lab at the LC. Fortunately, there was a job opening here about the time I was finishing my internship. I have been at the LC since then.
How would you describe your job to other people?
I work as the Conservation Division’s liaison to the Law Library and the Rare Book and Special Collections Division. As such, I work with both divisions to secure the conservation and preservation of their rare materials. A large part of those duties involves working collaboratively with the curators on the selection process and planning for treatment of special documents. Once items are selected for treatment, they are brought to Conservation.
The treatment protocol is tailored to meet the particular needs of each item; and the item’s treatment depends on many factors, including the uniqueness of the object and its expected use. Thus, treatments cover a wide spectrum and can range from very minor to very extensive procedures. Part of the process—in accordance with The American Institute for Conservation for Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) Code of Ethics—also involves maintaining photographic and written documentation, both before and after the treatment, so that there is a record of the steps that each conservation item underwent.
Why did you want to work at the Library of Congress?
My supervisor at the Newberry completed a conservation internship here at the Library of Congress as part of her training. She spoke with such enthusiasm of all the great experiences she had at the LC—so much so that I became interested in the possibility of working here long before I moved to Washington, D.C. Thus when the time came for applying for internships, as I prepared to leave graduate school, the LC was my first choice.
After I was hired, I requested to work as the liaison for the Law Library specifically because I am interested in early Western printed books; and the Law Library has a robust collection of these. I am also interested in books bound in vellum because these present unique conservation challenges, different from that of books bound in leather. Vellum was commonly used as a covering material for law books; meaning, there are many opportunities to study and work with it within the Law Library collections.
What is the most interesting fact you’ve learned about the Law Library of Congress?
I think it is simply being continually surprised by the depth and breadth of the collections. In the relatively short time I have worked with the Law Library, I have examined a 14th-century copy of the Magna Carta in its original binding; helped to house items from the Russian Imperial Collection; and treated a 16th-century Belgian volume in an ornate, late Gothic binding. (The British Library has a similar 16th-century book with German binding.) The variety of materials is truly astounding; and I know that I have only been exposed to a very small fragment of it.
What’s something most of your co-workers do not know about you?
I am a diehard Green Bay Packers fan. Actually, that might not be a big secret. In that case: I played the part of a deceased clown in a very low budget short horror film that was made when I was in graduate school. As far as I know, it never made it to large-scale distribution.
To further illustrate the work that conservation and preservation entails, we have included some links to videos that will allow you to experience a visual presentation of the processes of conservation treatment and encasement that the 13th century Magna Carta underwent at the National Archives.