“I never expected to be researching how best to care for a mummified ear of 107-year-old corn,” says Iowa State University (ISU) Library and Archives Conservator Melissa Tedone without a kernel of irony. But this corn isn’t just any corn, she continues: “This particular ear of corn was the Champion Ear of the World at the 1907 Corn Exposition in Chicago, IL.”
Why is someone who works in a library looking after corn? Chalk it up to a broad job description. It’s a little difficult to describe exactly what a conservator does, but the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) gets close when it explains, “by melding art with science, conservation professionals protect our heritage, preserve our legacy, and ultimately, save our treasures for generations to come.”
For Tedone, her day is spent in part “at the bench” treating Special Collections (rare and historic non-circulating) library material and partially supervising and managing the Conservation Lab, which has a book repair technician and student workers who fix damaged General Collections (circulating) library material. She also works with the Digital Initiative department whenever something from the Special Collections or the University Archives needs treatment before or after digitization, and she is “on call” for emergency situations like helping recover architectural blueprints belonging to ISU after a flood. On top of those diverse responsibilities, she runs her department’s social media, so she writes for their WordPress blog, Facebook page and Twitter feed. She is also actively involved in the conservation community and is part of AIC’s Sustainability Committee, through which she promotes caring for the environment while caring for historic objects.
Working as a conservator means you have to be ready to encounter whatever comes your way. Even though Tedone’s specialty is working with books and paper, one of her most memorable projects (other than the prize-winning corn, of course) was when she needed to treat an envelope full of botanical specimens that had been mailed by an Iowa resident to her sister in the mid-nineteenth century but since found its way into ISU’s archives. She built a matted housing so the envelope and its contents can be displayed, handled and stored more safely in an enclosure.
Like many, Tedone’s path to conservation wasn’t direct. While pursuing a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literature at Yale she needed to supplement her teaching stipend. She applied to a position open to students at the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library even though she didn’t know what “building enclosures” meant in the job description. She comments, “I thought maybe I would be assembling bookshelves – that’s how naive I was about the conservation profession. It had never occurred to me that there were people who actively preserve books and documents for a living.” She loved conservation so much that after five years as a student conservation assistant she got a job as a sculpture conservation technician for a private conservation practice while writing her dissertation. This position allowed her to travel New England conserving monuments, outdoor sculpture and historic grave-markers, but she knew where her passion was – she “finally finished writing [her] dissertation, received [her] PhD from Yale, and then turned right around and committed [her]self to a career in conservation.” She went back to school, this time the University of Texas at Austin for an MS in Information Science and a Certificate of Advanced Study in the Conservation of Library and Archival Materials. “It was a circuitous path to get to where I am today, but I have no regrets,” she concludes, and her success in the field illustrates the truth in this statement.
Tedone has recently been approved for AIC’s Professional Associate (PA) Status. This means that her body of work is excellent, meets all the PA requirements of training, knowledge and experience, and she comes recommended by her peers. This is a huge accomplishment and is a high point since her first conservation job in 1998. She has two pieces of advice for anyone interested in becoming a conservator. “First, make sure you get some hands-on experience before pursuing formal conservation training.” Conservation is not a glamorous life and you often have to do repetitive, solitary, detail-oriented tasks like repairing paper with Japanese tissue and wheat starch paste. “Second, once you are certain that conservation is the career for you, be prepared to move for the right job. I’m from the Northeast, an area I still love, so I never expected to find myself living in Iowa. However, the job was more important to me than the location. In the end, it turns out this is a wonderful location with a very good quality of life, but it required a leap of faith on my part.” She continues, “It’s not an easy career track, but it is worthwhile if you have a real passion for the work.”