Meet Emily Rainwater, Conservator in the Collection Services Section.
Tell us a little about your job.
As the sole Conservator, I am responsible for the physical preservation of all of the permanent collection material in the Division of Archives and Records. It’s a lot! I spend a lot of my time treating items that are badly damaged, such as torn documents, books with detached cover boards, or panoramic photographs that are too tightly rolled to be viewed safely. I also take calls from the public and other state record custodians and give advice on the best way to care for and preserve their own treasures.
What project(s) have you completed recently, are currently working on, or have coming up?
Recently, I treated some torn documents that were part of the Frankie Silver murder case (http://www.northcarolinahistory.org/encyclopedia/833/entry/). I also stabilized an extremely damaged volume of session minutes from the Longstreet Presbyterian Church, allowing it to be digitized (http://digital.ncdcr.gov/cdm/ref/collection/p15012coll1/id/67372). I have an on-going project to unroll and flatten black and white panoramic photographs from WWI and WWII. I also have some broken glass plate negatives that need a specialized, custom housing constructed.
How long have you worked at the State Archives?
July 15th will be my one year anniversary.
Are you involved in any professional organizations?
I am the 2013-2014 Program Chair for the Book and Paper Specialty Group of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC), which is the professional organization for Conservators.
Describe your educational or career background prior to working here.
I have a BA in Ancient History and Classical Civilizations from the University of Texas at Austin. I also have a Masters of Science in Information Studies (MSIS) with a Certificate of Advanced Study in the Conservation of Library and Archival Materials, also from the University of Texas at Austin.
What aspects of your job do you enjoy the most?
Conservation is an amazing mix of using your brain to analyze a problem, but also using your hands to actually fix that problem. I love being able to put something back together again so that it is usable today, tomorrow, and 500 years from now. Plus, I get to see all the really unusual and interesting collection material!
What skills or traits do you think are needed to be successful at your job?
Conservators must have excellent manual dexterity and hand-eye coordination to be able to carry out extremely delicate, detailed work. A good conservator also has to be okay with a certain amount of repetition. I’ve spent weeks mending every single hole greater than 1mm in a 600+ page volume that had previously been a tasty snack for some devious insects. You have to be passionate about your job and believe in the importance of the work you do. Conservators tend to think we have the best job in the world.
Is there an aspect of your job that you never thought you would end up doing?
Dealing with bugs. I still get thoroughly grossed out by cockroaches and silverfish and creepy crawly things, but I also know how to trap them with tape and then hold on to the body to show the building’s pest manager and assess whether or not they are a threat to your collection.
What’s the most interesting thing you’ve come across in a collection?
As an undergraduate, I volunteered in the Preservation Lab of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. The “Leatherface” mask from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre movie came in one day needing a new box.
What’s the most interesting reference question you’ve been asked?
“What does this smell like to you?” Unfortunately, the answer was skunk. Circulating collections at a University Library are an adventure! You would be surprised how many times a conservator gets asked to give something a sniff test.
What work-related accomplishment are you most proud of?
Before coming to work at the Archives, I completed a post-graduate fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History working on the year-long conservation treatment of Thomas Jefferson’s Bible. The Jefferson Bible is a unique assemblage of passages that were hand cut and pasted onto blank sheets of paper by Jefferson himself. Beyond the thrill of working with an object so personal to Jefferson, I’m really proud of how the project continued to highlight the importance of conservation. You can read more about it here http://americanhistory.si.edu/jeffersonbible/.