Thursday, January 12, 2012

Portraits in Preservation - Peter Verheyen

This is a first in what I’m hoping will be a series of profiles of people who are involved in the library preservation world. My intent with this project not to write individual histories as it is to create personal portraits.  My interest is the broader brush strokes of their life in preservation. My hope for this project is that these portraits will help the community of preservation professionals learn something about themselves – both individually and corporately – and their relationship to their profession. Thanks to Peter for being my first participant.

Selected Bio (from Syracuse University Library website)
Peter D. Verheyen began his involvement in preservation and conservation while a work-study student in the conservation lab at the Johns Hopkins University Library. He interned in the conservation lab of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, Germany, 1984 and 1986, and completed a formal apprenticeship in hand bookbinding at the Kunstbuchbinderei Klein in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, passing examinations in 1987. Studied at the Professional School for Book Restoration at the Centro del bel Libro in Ascona, Switzerland in 1987. Mellon intern in book conservation at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 1988. Worked in Chicago with Heinke Pensky-Adam at Monastery Hill Bindery and as assistant conservator to William Minter. In 1991 he began work as assistant conservator at the Yale University Library. In 1993 he became rare book conservator at the Cornell University Library, before establishing the conservation lab at the Syracuse University Library where he is now Head, Preservation and Conservation. He is past Exhibitions and Publicity Chair for the Guild of Book Workers. His bindings have been exhibited widely with the Guild, and in invitational and solo exhibitions throughout the USA and abroad. In 1994 he founded Book_Arts-L, in 1995 the Book Arts Web, and began publishing The Bonefolder: an e-journal for the bookbinder and book artist in 2004. A full vita can be found at

Describe an experience that was particularly influential in your professional development. 

The most significant one was landing a work-study job in the preservation department at Johns Hopkins when I was an undergrad. At that time John Dean had built up a very comprehensive apprentice training program for book conservators, and a full-fledged art on paper lab. John was amazingly generous with his time (and patience) and encouraged me to learn as much as I could, let me work on some personal (albeit very basic) binding projects and in general opened up the field to me. This was in 1981-85. Sensing I was serious he told me to take advantage of my dual citizenship and bilingual skills (German for both) and a) do an internship in a bindery conservation lab in Germany, and b) apply for formal apprenticeships, both of which I did. 

Frank Mowery at the Folger also encouraged me in this.  After 3+ years (formal apprenticeship and studies in conservation in Ascona) I returned to the US and began my career as a book conservator and binder. While trade binding and conservation may seem antithetical, those experiences taught me how to work, how to organize workflows and processes regardless of techniques and work at hand. These are skills that are very relevant for managing my own workflows and those of a larger lab with more space. The quantity of books bound during that apprenticeship also made most processes second nature, thus allowing me to focus on the details. As a conservator and now preservation department head, those experiences inform and reinforce my conviction that our work must meet not just the needs of an object, but also the greater needs of the collections and organization in terms of cost/benefit.

How do you think working in preservation has shaped or changed your worldview?

Hmmmm…. It has made me realize that it’s a miracle that as much has survived as has, and that the challenges of print preservation are nothing compared to what we are increasingly dealing with in the form of preservation of the digital. Digital for preservation is just a tool, but the preservation of the digital is necessary to ensure that those “artifacts” will endure. While hands on conservation will not help with the preservation of the digital, the fact that we work with materials that despite, or in spite of condition can still be used after hundreds of years is a good perspective. In addition we’ll need to adjust our treatment approaches to support digitization for preservation, something that involves accepting that we may not be able to treat to the level we feel the object needs. This was a great topic of at the 2011 AIC meeting.

What part of your preservation work most excites and engages you? Give specific examples.
While no longer working at the bench unless training staff/students or otherwise teaching, I find that preservation involves endless creative problem sets. It’s not just how do we treat this item, but how do we clean/protect 1 million plus volumes, and how can I develop my skills to learn to deal with new formats (film, video, audio, etc.). Syracuse has been a leader in audio preservation and is about to dive into video. These are growth areas for us, but also for most research libraries as how we record information and history evolves.

If you were teaching what you do to a student, what would you say is the most important thing to learn in order to do your job well?

Become a sponge, a lifelong learner, someone who continually strives to develop the skills (hand, research, analytical) to evolve with the job. Invest in yourself at all levels with professional development, developing a resource library, tools, etc. Take risks, look beyond the immediate confines of the field, ask questions and question. Learn how to provide the greatest cost/benefit with the work one does. Continually look at the landscape in your work environment even (or especially) if it doesn’t relate to preservation – how are things changing in terms of use, resources ($$$), organizational structure? Actively seek out the intersections with preservation and identify ways to get on everyone else’s radar. Be willing to adapt and change. Don’t hide, stand out. While it is very easy to be seduced by romantic notions of the field – they are nice and I was (still am to a degree) – things are volatile and the field writ large is changing too fast.  These skills are essential for success and survival.

Bonus question (optional) - What do you preserve and why?

I love history and problem solving. We will not be able to save everything, but we should help save as much as we can. I also love working with the materials, and books as 3-D mechanical objects are fascinating.

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