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Conservators teach their craft to Omani visitors

Annie Powell / Nov 2012 Posted in Science+Technology, Arts+Culture Tagged rare books, brody learning commons, sheridan libraries

Sonja Jordan-Mowery, center, works with Reem bint Mubarak bin Ali al Omairi, left, and Mohammed bin Humaid bin Salim al Sulaimi, both of Oman, in the Sheridan Libraries' new conservation lab in the Brody Learning Commons. Image: Will Kirk / Homewood Photography

Two scholars from the country of Oman traveled more than 7,000 miles to Baltimore recently to spend two weeks in the basement of the Brody Learning Commons. Not exactly your idea of a vacation?

"It was wonderful," says Mohammed bin Humaid bin Salim al Sulaimi, who is hoping to use the facilities at Johns Hopkins' Sheridan Libraries as a model for a future facility in Oman.

Sulaimi and his colleague Reem bint Mubarak bin Ali al Omairi took home some pretty valuable souvenirs, too: skills to help them preserve pieces of their country's significant books and documents.

And it all started with a missed opportunity.

Sonja Jordan-Mowery, the Joseph Ruzicka & Marie Ruzicka Feldmann Associate Director for Library Conservation and Preservation at the Sheridan Libraries and the principal investigator for the Heritage Science for Conservation project, was invited to teach at the National Library and National Archives in Muscat, Oman, this past summer. Oman is in the process of constructing a new conservation space, due to be completed in a year, so officials there asked Jordan-Mowery if she could train their conservators to use a suction table they had just purchased. This piece of equipment is a big deal, and Jordan-Mowery knows it inside out—she's been rebuilding the Johns Hopkins program and going high-tech since 2003. (In case you're curious: A suction table is a flatbed device with a vacuum underneath that allows paper conservators to pull pulp down into a hole or a tear in a document, essentially creating paper-within-paper, like new skin growing over a cut. Conservators also can use this machine to flatten wrinkled pages or even suck stains out of a document.)

But Jordan-Mowery couldn't make the trip. To apologize for her absence, she invited interns from Oman to Baltimore to receive training here instead.

The timing was perfect. The new conservation lab in the Brody Learning Commons opened at the end of August, so Sulaimi and Omairi got to learn at the side of internationally renowned preservationists in a brand-new, state-of-the-art facility.

Jordan-Mowery oversees a unique space shared by the Heritage Science for Conservation lab and the Department of Conservation. Like many of their peers, scientists here conduct original research into materials and conservation technologies in addition to engaging in analysis on behalf of the conservators. However, the thing that makes this facility really worthy of its place on the international stage—what gives it "the competitive edge," as Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow John Baty, who works in the lab, puts it—is that the team is "able to produce information, products, and processes [that are] of demonstrated use on the conservator's bench." In other words, because the scientists and conservators work in one facility, the hard sciences are linked with and directly beneficial to the inventive craft of conservation happening at the next workbench.

"We're not just analysts in isolation," Baty says.

Visitors to the basement of the Brody Learning Commons can see this collaboration in action from the lab's observation window. On any given day, conservators may be bent over a rare Hindu manuscript on birch bark or be simply repairing a well-used book from the stacks. Equipment in the lab runs the gamut, from the basic (large wrenchlike copy presses keep books in place as glue dries) to the complex and expensive (an ultrasound welder that encapsulates the most-fragile documents in protective Mylar so they can be handled).

The interns from Oman aren't the team's first international visitors. They've hosted interns and postdoctoral fellows from countries around the world, including Taiwan, South Korea, Italy, and Mexico. More will be coming, not only as the reputation of this lab continues to grow but especially because of a new plan that's under way: The Sheridan Libraries will be teaming up with the Maryland Institute College of Art to offer a master of fine arts degree in book and paper conservation, as soon as the fall of 2013.

"We will be training the next generation of conservators," Jordan-Mowery says.

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