ECPN Interviews: International Training, Book Conservation at West Dean College

 This blog post series will look at United States citizens who trained abroad and are currently practicing conservation in the US. The goal of these interviews is twofold: to provide pre-program students with a starting point for understanding international training through a range of student perspectives and to bring awareness of overseas conservation training programs to conservators practicing in the United States. It is the hope that the discussion of international training will answer questions and start an open dialog of the challenges and benefits of training abroad.

This blog series takes the form of interviews with established and emerging conservators who have trained abroad. Each interviewee offers their personal and professional perspective. So, while themes are apparent throughout these interviews, no single interview can summarize all the challenges and rewards of international training.  

These interviews do not reflect the opinions of AIC or the training programs being discussed. The series has been created to reflect a range of experiences, and the personal accounts will not reflect the views of all students from any specific program.

What is Your Name, Specialty and Current position?

Noah Smutz, Books and Library Materials, Book Conservator at Smithsonian Libraries

Why did you pick your specialty? 

As I became interested in conservation, the functional aspect of books greatly appealed to me. I view books as organic machines and enjoy the problem solving involved in making them function as books again. The variety and ingenuity found in historical bookbindings are also a large draw for me. I enjoy studying the different ways that have been developed to bind a book.

Noah fixing a volvelle, checking that it works correctly
Noah fixing a volvelle, checking that it works correctly (Image courtesy West Dean College)

Can you describe your training pathway? 

I began my training pathway my junior year of undergrad. I had come to the decision that I no longer wanted to pursue a career in Archaeology and began exploring a career in conservation. I got a job in the Stannard Conservation Lab at the University of Kansas as a student worker treating general collections materials under the supervision of Whitney Baker and Roberta Woodrick. Within a month, I knew that I wanted to become a book conservator.

My supervisors’ willingness to help and their advice proved invaluable. They directed me to begin taking chemistry courses, to explore what options there were for book conservation in graduate school, and to keep an eye out for internship opportunities. These discussions took place in the fall of 2011, after the University of Texas program had shut its doors, but before Buffalo, Delaware, and NYU had provided publicly available information about how these programs were going to add book conservation education. Even had this information been available, I would not have given the American programs much consideration. All three programs have significant requirements around studio art. I did not come from an artistic background nor did I think for my desired specialty that investing the time in studio art courses (and further delaying graduate school) would be a good return on investment.

Very early in my graduate school explorations, I began looking abroad for English-speaking graduate schools because I did not want to try and do a graduate degree in a non-native language. I quickly found Camberwell’s and West Dean College’s programs. West Dean immediately appealed to me. A school in a converted manor house, set on an idyllic estate of 6,400 acres, and a program started by the late Christopher Clarkson equipped with equipment from Roger Powell and Peter Waters’ workshop (though I didn’t learn that fact until much later). I don’t think I am overstating to say that these three men were all extremely influential on the development of book conservation as a field in the United Kingdom and the United States. I found the idea of going to a program, even only tangentially linked to these men, extremely appealing.

West Dean was the only program that I applied to in the fall of 2011. West Dean does offer the option of a Skype interview, but I felt if I were going to invest two years in graduate school I wanted to see the place before going. When I visited in early 2012 for an interview, I knew West Dean was the correct fit for me. Their emphasis on developing hand skills, studying and recreating historical bindings, and a 6-week work placement in the second year cemented my belief it was the correct school for me. I was offered a spot beginning fall of 2013 as they had already filled the class beginning that fall. I had hoped to go straight from undergrad to graduate school. However, this was a blessing in disguise as it allowed me a year to save money for school and gain more experience.

In the summer of 2013 I interviewed for multiple internships and was awarded a paid internship at the Smithsonian Archives under the supervision of Nora Lockshin. This was my first experience working with special collections materials and proved to be a great launching pad as I entered West Dean.

While at West Dean, I had the opportunity to work with many visiting conservators and to spend six weeks as an intern at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Once I completed my masters degree, I did not find full time employment immediately. I moved back to the United States and lived with my parents in St. Louis while doing private work and applying for jobs. During this time I worked on many family bibles, as well as projects for the St. Louis Art Museum, Nelson Atkins Art Museum, and the Missouri State Archives. My job search began while I was still a student at West Dean and spanned 22 months, 40 positions applied for, and 3 second places before getting my current position at Smithsonian Libraries. I believe part of the reason this search took so long is because my professional network was UK-based. During my first year back in the States I worked diligently to expand my network of American conservators attending conferences and workshops, getting to know the conservators in my local area, and joining organizations I was not yet a part of (the Guild of Bookworkers and the Midwest Conservation Guild). In addition I sent cold-call style emails to as many book and paper conservators as I could get email addresses for. These emails did not lead to a position but I received a surprisingly high percentage of responses (above 90%). The replies tended to include encouragement to keep looking and to not get discouraged. I believe building a network is important because knowing someone, or knowing someone they know can be the difference in getting or not getting a position.


Noah toning a Japanese paper hinge repair on the book
Noah toning a Japanese paper hinge repair on the book (Image courtesy West Dean College)

What were the advantages of your program of choice: 

West Dean’s greatest advantage is its emphasis on developing hand skills and teaching conservation science in an extremely practical way. Week one in the Books program involved making a paring knife out of a hacksaw blade, in order to understand the materiality of our tools as well as to learn how to sharpen knives (an invaluable skill for a book conservator), and documentation and treatment of a clothbound book. From this starting point, more and more treatments were added to our slate as well as scientific research papers and bookbinding projects. This resulted in spending 30-40 hours a week for 72 weeks spread over two years treating objects and learning bookbinding (research and writing accounting for another 10-20 hours a week). I went from being able to confidently work on certain types of general collections repairs to confidently working on anything found in a special collections library. This is a result of the high emphasis on hand skills at West Dean.

The weekly three-hour chemistry, biology, and physics lectures at West Dean were specifically tailored to provide the knowledge students need to become successful conservators. In addition to these lectures, every lesson was reinforced in the workshop. We would go directly from a science lecture about the chemical makeup of collagen and how it degrades to looking at samples of leather at different levels of degradation. Personally, I know of no better way to learn and remember scientific concepts, learning the abstract scientific concept and immediately seeing how it manifests in objects.

The program at West Dean is also loosely structured, which allows for the exploration of personal interests. For example, I have a scholarly interest in bookbinding structures dating roughly from 500-1500 AD. I was able to do research projects learning about these bindings, while my classmates researched other things of interest to them, all as part of the program. This flexibility is a real asset of West Dean’s program structure and dovetails nicely with the flexibility required in the field of conservation to successfully treat objects.

What were the disadvantages of your program of choice? 

Going abroad to graduate school does not come with the same financial advantages as going to an American program does. The cost can range from $30,000 to $60,000 and will vary dramatically and constantly due to the exchange rate. I was able to make this cost work through a combination of generosity on the part of my family as well as bursaries (scholarships) from West Dean that in the end accounted for approximately 40% of my tuition costs.

West Dean draws its strength from being deeply rooted in the handcrafts that created the objects we conserve. This is a wonderful thing. But just as technology has uprooted much of society within the last 30 years, it has had profound effects on conservation workflows as well. And it should not come as a surprise that a place so rooted in handcraft has been (in some but not all ways) slow to adapt to these changes.

A disadvantage of West Dean is (through no fault of its own) that it is not as well known in the United States. Conservators generally know what they’re getting from a Texas, Buffalo, Delaware, NYU, or North Bennet Street graduate. But they are not as certain when dealing with West Dean because usually they are not as familiar with how the program works. I have run into this at many professional conferences as well as in many job interviews. I have developed a 5-minute informational lecture to help introduce West Dean to people (if you see me at a conference I’ll gladly share it with you!). At times, I have had to deal with the opinion that the training at West Dean is lesser than what is offered in the United States. I do my best to show that this is incorrect. The education offered at West Dean is not better or worse than those offered elsewhere, it is different, but different does not mean lesser.

Noah using a Peachey board slotting machine
Noah using a Peachey board slotting machine (Image courtesy West Dean College)

What advice do you have for pre-programmers considering a similar path?

Speak to graduates! We all know the struggles of the pre-program phase and facing life-altering decisions related to our education. We are happy to answer questions and provide advice! If you’re a pre-programmer reading this feel free to contact me with any questions you have!

Regardless of what program you look to attend, if you plan to work in the field in a different country from the program make sure you are building your network of colleagues in the country you want to work in. These networks are invaluable professionally in a field as specialized as ours and can lead to wonderful friendships within the profession.

If you are faced with the attitude within the field that programs abroad are lesser than the American programs, remember that all the countries those programs are based in have incredible museums and works of art. The majority of the conservators working on those objects are trained in their home countries. If that training is good enough there, it is good enough for the States. During my job search, I constantly reminded myself of this fact. Going abroad is not an easier path than the American programs or a lesser path than the American programs it is only different, no better, no worse.


Noah is a book conservator at Smithsonian Libraries and can be contacted at: