July 13, 2012

Kristen St. John Cares About Books

The patients travel in green boxes from the shelves of the Charles E. Young Research Library to the Kinross Building in Westwood. Past a gym and through the double doors on the right, they are greeted by the smell of familiar friends and capable hands. These patients are damaged or at-risk books, and the UCLA Library Conservation Center is where they come for repair.

One of the lead women behind the operation is Kristen St. John, who has worked with the lab for eight years as the university’s first collections conservator, mending and preserving rare and damaged books. For her, the choice to become a preservation specialist was a natural one. “I always really liked old books, and I liked books not just to read but I was really interested in them as objects (and how they were made),” she said.

St. John and her team accept shipments from the UCLA Library system – mostly from Charles E. Young Research Library – each month in the green bins and assess the work that needs to be done. The team also organizes and protects collections for future presentations. Physically repairing the effects of corrosive ink is common. In these cases, the specialists will reinforce the pulp the paper is comprised of. Repairing books with brittle paper, however, is the biggest problem the workers at the lab face, St. John said. “Pieces (of paper) fly out at you,” she said, picking up a book from 1825 filled with brittle paper no longer attached to the spine. She noted the distinctive smell with a sniff.

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