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News Student Blog: Harry Ransom Center

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HBCU Library Preservation Intern Alicia Bush sewing a textblock.

​In this blog post, HBCU Library Preservation Intern Alicia Bush, a rising Senior at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (Tallahassee, FL), talks about her summer working with the conservation staff at the Harry Ransom Center at University of Texas Austin:

Growing up, I learned to view libraries and museums as lively facilities where exploration and creativity could prevail, but I never knew that I would ever work in one. This summer, I was awarded an opportunity to travel to Austin, Texas, and intern at the University of Texas at Austin’s Harry Ransom Center. Throughout my time there, I handled delicate collection materials, learned innovative ways to preserve them, and applied the knowledge I gained. To say the least, I am so grateful to be a part of this program. I took in an overwhelming amount of information, but the staff patiently guided me and gave me literal and symbolic tools to continue learning about this field.

When my host, Dr. Ellen Cunningham-Kruppa, gave me a tour of the center, I remember uttering these words: “It’s like a playground in here.” Within the first week of my internship, I saw Frida Kahlo’s self-portrait, the Gutenberg Bible, and John Wilkes Booth’s promptbook for Richard III. I was amazed that these artifacts were available for my viewing. Basically, the Ransom Center is Santa’s North Pole for UT students and staff. Conservators, curators, and archivists are eagerly working to provide Longhorns with the best research experience they could possibly have. I’m not even kidding. Visit, and you’ll see exactly what I mean.

One of my favorite things about this internship was bookbinding with their book conservation fellow, Kimberly Kwan. Bookbinding is an important skill for conservators because one needs to know how books are constructed to treat them properly. It was extremely fun, but I was still an amateur with a lot to learn.

Harry Ransom Center Head of Book Conservation Olivia Primanis and Alicia Bush, rounding and backing a textblock.

When Ms. Olivia Primanis, the senior book conservator, labelled me a “book-hugger,” I knew she wasn’t speaking to my status as an English student at Florida A&M University. She and Kimberly had given me a thorough tutorial in bookbinding, but for some reason, I just couldn’t let go of my text block or keep it between the waste boards. I thought keeping it in my hands and close to my heart would somehow keep it safe; it was when I learned that I am a “book-hugger” that I realized just how important it is to loosen my grip.  By the end of my internship, I had made three books and was earnestly searching for workshops and classes near my university.

Besides bookbinding, I also completed a treatment report for Eli Wallach’s “Rhinoceros” scrapbook. The pages were deteriorating and therefore brittle, but refoldering the Theatre Guild Papers beforehand had given me great practice. I was prepared. I looked at the leather scrapbook’s leather under a microscope and discovered that the deterioration was inevitable because the fibers were becoming powdery. When I had to explain this to the curator, I was nervous my words wouldn’t match my thought process, but he got the memo. After that, I encapsulated each page from the scrapbook by myself.

In the Preservation lab, I was introduced to the sinkmat and David O. Selznick’s many gorgeous film storyboards. Because they are essentially paintings, it is important to construct housings that prevent abrasion to their surfaces.  This is the first time I realized just how important it is to be gentle with the collection materials. Ms. Genevieve Pierce and Mr. Alan Van Dyke walked me throughout the center and instructed me on environmental monitoring. An overly humid room makes mold inevitable. When an item has mold in or on it, it has to go to the mold room. Identifying the insects that come in is also important because they can eat through books and costumes. That would be a nightmare.

​Alicia Bush, far right, and the staff of the Harry Ransom Center’s Preservation and Conservation Division.

When I worked in the Paper Conservation lab, I helped Ms. Jane Boyd and Mr. Ken Grant, head of the lab, unroll Norman Bell Geddes’ blueprints. Identifying the tears and creases was necessary to determine the treatment. In the Photography Conservation lab, Diana Diaz and I worked on housing large photographs by Carleton E. Watkins. As music played ever-so-lightly in the background, we glued down corners to make sure the photos fit snugly but comfortably on their support boards. Work like this trains the eye and the hands.

Going out of town to learn more about preservation was an exciting experience. Ms. Olivia, Diana, Mr. Alan, and Mr. Steve Mielke, archivist, invited me to Houston to attend a Texas Cultural Emergency Response Alliance (TX-CERA) workshop at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. It was so fun learning about how certain materials would react to disasters (e.g. lots of water) and how important it is to make sure they are recovered appropriately. I loved interacting with the conservators and listening to the them demonstrate their knowledge around the museum. In fact, some of them came to the Ransom Center to teach us about a new conservation method: gellan gum. Learning about it was also fascinating. It’s used on paper, photographs, and other materials to remove discoloration. I’m so excited to learn even more.

I didn’t know about preservation and conservation before this internship. Now, I have an even greater appreciation for conservators and the collection materials in libraries and museums.

I am grateful to have learned under such a great staff. It was nice to be exposed to libraries in a whole new way. Libraries are cultural repositories with collections that must be preserved, and I am excited to implement new strategies on my own campus. I would like to thank you to Sandra Phoenix, the HBCU Library Alliance, and the Winterthur/University of Delaware Program in Art Conservation for collaborating to create opportunities for students at Historically Black Colleges and Universities. I would also like to thank Dr. Cunningham-Kruppa, Ms. Bunnie Twidwell, and the entire Harry Ransom Center staff for welcoming me, introducing me to conservation, and getting me hip to Teflon bone folders. I appreciate everything I have learned from you all.

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In this blog post, HBCU Library Preservation Intern Alicia Bush talks about her summer working with the conservation staff at the Harry Ransom Center at University of Texas Austin.

​In this blog post, HBCU Library Preservation Intern Alicia Bush talks about her summer working with the conservation staff at the Harry Ransom Center at University of Texas Austin.

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  • The Department of Art Conservation
  • 303 Old College
  • University of Delaware
  • Newark, DE 19716, USA
  • Phone: 302-831-3489