Case study

Library and archives conservator — Emma Skinner

Emma's job includes a mix of both preventative and remedial conservation, as well as advocacy and outreach work. Find out more about the skills and knowledge you need to succeed as a conservator

What degree did you study?

I graduated with a history degree in 2012 and later went on to study for an MA Book and Paper Conservation, graduating in 2018.

How did you get your job?

After graduating from the MA, I undertook a two-year conservation for digitisation internship. This was a collaborative, multi-institution internship, which helped me build on what I had learned during my Masters and allowed me to gain specialist knowledge and expertise in this emerging area of conservation.

What's a typical working day like?

It is usually a mixture of bench work and meetings with librarians and archivists to advise on all matters of collection care. Bench work involves hands-on treatment of collections, completing documentation and taking images of the item before and after treatment, surveying collections and rehousing. Part of our preventive conservation role is to monitor the environment, the temperature and relative humidity of storage spaces as well as check for pests.

Sometimes I assist with sending material out on loan or preparing it for an exhibition, which could involve doing condition reports, mounting and framing. If there is an upcoming digitisation project, then we will check an object's suitability to go through the image capture process and whether it requires conservation treatment prior to imaging. Sometimes we may be called on to assist with handling or transporting oversized or fragile objects.

What do you enjoy most about your job?

Being able to see such a range of historic objects every day, including parchment scrolls, seals, different binding structures and works of art on paper, is the best part of my job, as well as knowing you are helping to stabilise fragile objects for the future.

I also enjoy advocating for the collection care work we do and engaging with the public at outreach events, or writing blogs and social media posts to show what goes on 'behind the scenes'.

What are the challenges?

The heritage sector has faced lots of funding cuts in recent years so conservation jobs are mostly fixed-term contracts or project work. This can mean moving to where the work is and being flexible. However, permanent posts do exist and it is worth persevering. It has definitely been worth all the hard work and sacrifices for me to be able to say I do a job that I genuinely love.

In what way is your degree relevant?

Having a history degree has proved very helpful as conservators are increasingly involved in understanding the history of an object.

Having a relevant Masters was essential for applying for conservation roles, although there are some opportunities to work in collection care via on-the-job training, apprenticeships and internships.

How has your role developed?

There is always more to learn and there is increasingly a focus on diversifying our sector, providing inclusive access to collections and sustainability. This could be in terms of considering project legacy, the long-term preservation of digitised collections or thinking about how we can do our bit for the environment and provide passive storage for collections.

What are your top tips for choosing a Masters?

  • Studying for an MA is a big commitment, both in terms of time and money, so make sure that it is a course that will enable you to land your dream job.
  • The placement aspect of the MA was invaluable as it allowed me to make contacts and get a feel for what the day job would be like.
  • Do not underestimate the value of on-the-job training and the experience gained through work placements and shadowing, or even finding a mentor to offer advice.

What advice can you give to others wanting to get into this job?

  • Talk to as many conservators as you can to get an idea of the types of work you will be doing.
  • Be realistic about salary expectations and whether you can be flexible in moving for jobs or are prepared to do short-term contracts or project work.
  • It is easy to forget how many amazing things you get to see and work on as a conservator, so don’t forget to talk about it and share it.

Find out more

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