Harvard College Library

Hellman and Anderson Teach Conservation in Cuba

January 9, 2002 -- Over the holidays countless air travelers carefully packed suitcases sans toenail clippers, nail files, and all powdery substances, having heard horror stories of confiscation by stern faced National Guards. Ethel Hellman, Collections Conservator for Widener Library, and Priscilla Anderson, Conservator for Special Collections in the University Library, also packed carefully for the holidays, but for them toenail clippers were a small concern. Hellman, Anderson, and three colleagues from across the United States, flew to Cuba for seventeen days to conduct two book conservation workshops, lugging glue and knife-like-tools through questioning security. The white, pasty glue was almost discarded by one guard who asked what it was, but Jeanne Drewes, Assistant Director for Access and Preservation, Michigan State University Libraries, put her finger into the jar and then into her mouth, proving the contents harmless. The group arrived in Habana, Cuba with few items of clothing and all necessary conservation materials.

Two years ago Drewes started the project, which sends American conservators, from both the private and academic sectors, to teach Cuban conservators new techniques. Additionally, the project helps supply much needed materials to the nation's conservation institutions by collecting and shipping thousands of pounds of donated items. "Materials are very hard to obtain in Cuba," said Hellman.

Ethel Hellman, Collections Conservator for Widener Library, demonstrates a technique during a workshop in Cuba. The photograph was taken by Priscilla Anderson, Conservator for Special Collections in the University Library.

While in Cuba, the conservators led two workshops. The first, on basic book repair and conservation, brought together 16 individuals from 13 Cuban institutions for instruction on paper mending, hinge repair, corner repair, end cap repair, and other basics. Few had previously learned these procedures, although most dealt with the preservation of collections in their daily work.

Experienced bookbinders attended the second workshop to learn American techniques for board reattachment. "Many of them had been trained in Europe or Russia, where they learned techniques more applicable to preparing materials for display than to the preservation of materials. American collection conservation techniques are focused on the long range preservation of research collections and items that are continually in use," said Hellman. She stressed that in both workshops they taught skilled individuals who adapted to the new methods easily.

"At the end of each workshop we gave those who attended a variety of conservation tools to take with them. Although we were far from the commercial glitter of Christmas, as we laid the tools out at each of their work stations it felt just like Christmas Eve," said Hellman. She concluded by saying, "It's a beautiful country with wonderful people, if you ever get the chance.go."

As for the future of the project, Hellman, Anderson, and their colleagues have been to Cuba twice, and hope that those they have taught will now be able to carry on the teaching.


This story appears courtesy of the Harvard College Library Communications Office
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