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An Interview with Yasmeen Khan, Senior Rare Book Conservator at the Library of Congress

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From time to time we have the pleasure of working collaboratively with members of other service units of the Library of Congress.  Today’s interview is with Yasmeen Khan, Senior Rare Book Conservator in the Preservation Directorate’s Conservation Division at the Library of Congress.  We have worked with her on numerous conservation projects involving the Law Library’s treasures and are happy to give the public a brief glimpse into her life and her path toward becoming a rare book conservator.

Describe your background.

Yasmeen Kahn seated at a desk and holding a book open to show text and illustrations.

My parents were Pakistani diplomats.  We changed countries and homes nearly every two years. I was born in Spain, moved to Nigeria, India, Nepal, Libya, Sri Lanka, Sweden, and Denmark—in that order, with my parents. They loved to travel, eat new foods, and meet new people; and on holidays we would visit all the neighboring countries. My parents encouraged us to learn local languages and make friends, wherever we went. (At one point, I could sing the national anthem of 13 countries!)  Despite constantly moving, our domestic life was very stable because I come from a large family.  My siblings were my closest friends and a constant point of reference. After a peripatetic life around my 20s, I moved to D.C. in 1996 and then to Alexandria in 1997—where I have been living ever since. While I don’t have a job that lends itself to as much travel as my parents, my husband and I have tried to impart the same love for travel and new experiences to our two children, Jamal and Laila.

What is your academic/professional history?

I came to the U.S. for an extra year of high school to see what all the fuss was about: was it truly as hip as projected in the world media? After a year at Emma Willard School in upstate New York, I decided to stay and went to Barnard College of Columbia University in New York City, where I studied Middle Eastern Studies with a concentration in art history. During this time I met conservators at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where I was a research assistant, and decided that that was the job for me.

Not being a U.S. citizen at the time, the costs for graduate school in conservation were prohibitive.  Therefore, I returned to Pakistan where I worked as a researcher and writer for the National Institute of Folk and Traditional Heritage of the Ministry of Culture. A few years later, I married an American and moved to Spain to be with my husband. A year later, I was offered conservation training in then West Germany and did an internship in Munich at the Bayarische Staatsbibliothek, followed by six months at Staatsbibliothek zu Berlin Preuβischer Kulturbesitz in Berlin. Part of the deal with the German government was that I had to go back to Pakistan and work there for two years.

After completing my obligation in Pakistan, my family and I returned to the U.S. in 1991 and lived in Austin, Texas.  There, I worked as a paper conservator at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. Two years later, I joined the first conservator class at the Library and Information Science School at UT Austin. Two and a half years and 96 credits later, I moved to Washington D.C. in January, 1996 to start an internship in conservation of library materials at the Smithsonian Libraries. The internship ended in August that year.  A week later, I was hired at the Library of Congress.

How would you describe your job to other people?

I treat and take care of rare books and rare book collections at the Library of Congress. The conservation treatment of the Library’s special collections is divided up between my colleagues and me, with each of us responsible for a couple of custodial divisions or Library-wide conservation programs.

We assess the physical state of rare collections, articulate the requirements for their preservation, including their environment, storage needs, furniture needs and treatment needs, and then manage the amount of time required for us to complete these activities. Custodial divisions work with us to identify collections and items that require our attention and are a high priority, based on research or actual value. At present, I am conservation liaison for bound-items in the Manuscript Division and overall liaison for Digital Projects.

Why did you want to work at the Library of Congress/Law Library of Congress?

The Library of Congress, as well as the Law Library, is a vast treasure trove of material culture. For anyone who is interested in books or bound materials, the Library has books from every society in the world, and offers us glimpses into other worlds. The Law Library, in particular, has a rich collection of Roman Law and incunabula that are in Renaissance bookbindings contemporary to the time that they were printed. Modestly bound, these bindings help show us what a working library would have looked like at the time.

What is the most interesting fact you’ve learned about the Law Library of Congress?

The Law Library has a signed copy of Oliver Cromwell’s Ordinances of Parliament.

What’s something most of your co-workers do not know about you?

I grew up assuming I would be a lawyer until my epiphany with conservation.

A book open to show its title page, titled "Ordinances of Parliament," with handwritten inscriptions in the margins.
The title page bears a signature, O. Cromwell; and the fly-leaf bears an inscription stating “This book is supposed to have belonged to Oliver Cromwell.”

Acts, Ordinances, & Orders as well of Parliament as of His Highness The Lord Protector (Now in Force) for the Levying of Monies by way of Excise and New-Impost. Together with severall Orders of the Council, the Commissioners for Appeals and Regulating the Excisse [sic], &c. Relating to the management thereof.

A close-up of the spine of Oliver Cromwell’s "Ordinances of Parliament" being held by Yasmeen Kahn.

These photographs feature just a bit of Yasmeen’s craftsmanship.

In her words:  “The text was taken apart, dry-cleaned with eraser crumbs, washed, alkalinized, tears were mended, and sections were guarded together.  The text block was sewn on cords; and blue and white silk endbands were woven through the head and tail of the book.  New leather was dyed to match the old leather on the boards, attached to the spine and laid down under the old leather of the boards.  Gold leaf was tooled on the new leather to compensate for the losses in the gold-tooled design of the original material.”The cover of Oliver Cromwell’s "Ordinances of Parliament."

A close-up image of the spine of Oliver Cromwell’s "Ordinances of Parliament" showing the stitching of the pages.

Comments (2)

  1. I live in Corpus Christi, TX and need two books restored. One, a leather bound Bible approx. 30 years old that has pages coming loose. The other 1881 copyright book “Helen’s Babies & Mrs. Mayburns’s Twins by John Habberton. Book is brown and pages brittle. Where to get help? Thank you.

    • According to Yasmeen Khan, The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works website has an index of members by specialty and region.

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