“Not Trying to Hide That It Has Lived a Life”: An Interview with Book Conservator Noah Smutz

I was recently introduced to Noah Smutz through a mutual friend. When she heard what he did for a living, she had a feeling he and I would hit it off – and she was right. On our Zoom call last week, I had to really try and stop myself from asking him too many questions – something I’m prone to do when I get excited about a topic – but I just found myself wanting to know more and more about his fascinating line of work. Because you all love history as much as I do, I asked Noah if he would be interested in doing a formal interview about his job. Lucky for us, he said yes! 

Read on to find out little bit about his unique career, some expert tips on family bible storage, and where you shouldn’t be keeping your old family photos…

Hi, Noah. Thanks for taking the time to talk today. First, can you tell us a little more about what you do for people who are not familiar with your work?

Hello – and sure, I’d be happy to. I’m a conservator – someone who cares for and repairs cultural heritage objects. Specifically, I am a book conservator. This means I conserve and repair old books and all types of archival records. 

In the past year, for example, I’ve had books from the sixteenth century to the twentieth century, French and Indian War officer commissions, books on St. Louis history, a few prints, and of course, some family bibles.

Wow, amazing. So what is a typical day’s work like for you?

Basically, I make items whole and usable again. This includes tasks like reattaching the boards to a book, creating a new binding for a book, flattening a map that’s been folded for 70 years and mending the tears, and other things like that.

Noah at Work

That sounds fascinating. How did you get started in the field?

I have a bachelor degree in Classics from the University of Kansas. My original plan was to become an archaeologist, which culminated in spending six weeks on a dig in Crete. I loved Crete, but soon figured out that archaeology and I weren’t a good fit. While on the dig I was introduced to archaeological conservators, which was my very first interaction with conservators – and I was intrigued.

So, when I returned to the University of Kansas, I got a job as a student worker mending circulating collections – any books that can be checked out of the library and thrown in a backpack or book drop. That was when I knew that this career was for me. After finishing my undergraduate degree, I went to West Dean College in the United Kingdom and completed a two-year masters degree in conservation studies.

Learning to work with old books in the United Kingdom sounds like an incredible experience. What’s the oldest item you got to work with there?

While interning at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, I worked to repair a book from 1342 (though the binding was from the nineteenth century).

You’ve got me beat! The oldest document I’ve worked with is 1533 – and that book is from a full two centuries before. That must have been a great experience. Is that the most interesting document you’ve worked with, or would you say something else?

That was definitely interesting, but at the Smithsonian Libraries, I had the opportunity to work on a book called Principles of Beauty. It’s from the late 1700’s and depicts women with different shaped faces in profile. Different hair styles were then printed on very thin, see-through tissue paper. The book allowed readers to mix and match these different hair styles to see how they look with different shaped faces. 

It was a fascinating piece because of its function. It was also an incredibly rewarding treatment. The binding had to be fully re-sewn before the original boards were reattached and a new leather spine was created. The tissue paper overlays were dirty, creased, and torn. So we then had to wash, flatten, and mend those. Finally, I created an enclosure to house all of those pieces together (For more information on the process, see here).

Old Book Before and After Treatment

Wow, I would be so nervous I would accidentally tear something! What is the hardest task you face when conserving books?

Nineteenth century materials can be tricky. As I’m sure you genealogists know, paper from the nineteenth century is usually very poor quality and extremely brittle. Leather from the same time period is similarly poor quality. This is due to the industrialization of production techniques without fully appreciating the long term effects of, at the time, new chemical processing procedures. Due to the delicacy of these materials, brittle paper, and crumbling leather, it takes additional focus and sometimes time to coax these items into doing what you want.

You need a lot of tools to work with old books!

That’s so interesting to learn that about the nineteenth-century paper. It is very brittle, and I never knew why. In addition to letters, a lot of our readers have family bibles, which I know you work with a lot. What would you tell people who want to keep their family bibles in good condition? Any steps they should take?

A box of some type can be incredibly helpful to protect family bibles. These bibles tend to be large and their own weight can work against them. A box keeps the boards from getting scuffed on the shelf and protects the bible if it’s frequently going from one family member to another. I’ve seen many bibles where the spine was detached 20 years ago and has been misplaced, or the marriages page came loose and disappeared at some point. A box helps prevent things like that from happening.

Additionally, if the bible is stored in an open place – on a table for example – make sure it does not receive direct sunlight as that will cause damage over time. 

Book Before Treatment

Same Book After Treatment

Those are great tips, thank you. I see that you also provide photo storage services. Can you tell us a little more about that?

Sure. My family, like many of your readers’ families most likely, has boxes of old photographs that typically lived in garages, basements, or attics. There’s very little organization and you’re as likely to pull a photo out from 1880 as 1980. 

There are many photo storage products on the market that claim to be ‘archival’, but that term is a marketing term that doesn’t mean anything. So it can be difficult for individuals to determine which product to purchase and which product is best for the type of photograph they have.

There are many different photographic processes and they can’t all be stored in the same type of folder. In addition to these items, when a person goes to purchase photo sleeves or envelopes, they may only need 5 or 25 – but the minimum order size can be 100+. NS Conservation offers a service to rehouse all of a person’s family photos, and we then return them in an acid-free, archivally-sound box. This way all the items are stored correctly and the individual is not left with 75+ expensive photo sleeves that they have no use for.

That makes sense. I know a lot of my readers have some very old family photos. I always love when they share them with me and I get to see the faces of the people I am translating about! What’s your number one tip for photo storage?

Don’t put photos in the attic, garage, or basement. The climate in these areas is usually unregulated and large temperature and relative humidity fluctuations are especially damaging to photographs. It’s much better to store them somewhere in the main living space, even if it’s on a high shelf in a closet. Also, keep photographs out of direct sunlight.

All great tips, thank you! And finally, one last question for you, which you told me you get asked a lot. What is the difference between conservation and restoration?

Conservation is the act of repairing an item so that its lifespan is increased, while also not trying to hide that it has lived a life. Restoration is repairing an item in such a way that it looks like it did when it was new. For example, to conserve a book, the original boards will be retained even if they have water staining and are faded. Whereas restoring that book might mean making a new binding, or redying the cloth so that it is not faded and the water staining doesn’t show.

Noah’s Workshop

That’s a great explanation. I love the phrase “not trying to hide that it has lived a life.” That really fits well with what we also try to do as genealogists. 

Thank you, Noah, for taking the time to explain book and photo conversation to us. Where can people find you if they want more information on anything we discussed?

Thanks for having me. My website is www.nsconservation.com and my other contact information is as listed below. Please feel free to get in touch!

Email: noah@nsconservation.com

Phone: 314-810-9184

Instagram: @nsconservation

Noah Smutz is a book conservator and the owner of NS Conservation.Noah has been in the field of conservation since 2011 when he started as a student worker in the University of Kansas Libraries conservation lab. He has since held internships for the Smithsonian Archives and Bodleian Library amongst others. He graduated with his Masters Degree in Book Conservation from West Dean College in the United Kingdom. Previously he has worked as a Book Conservator for the Smithsonian Libraries. Noah has worked with institutions such as the St. Louis Art Museum, the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Missouri State Archives, and the Missouri History Museum. He has been a member of the American Institute for Conservation since 2010 and a Professional Associate since 2019.

Book Before Treatment

Book After Treatment

5 thoughts on ““Not Trying to Hide That It Has Lived a Life”: An Interview with Book Conservator Noah Smutz

  1. Donnajones4542 says:

    Thank you Katie and Noah for such a fascinating article. I use to work for Oxford University Press and on a trip to the University I met with the archivist. He brought out a bible from the late 1600’s and spoke about the care of the old books. I do not remember if he spoke about the difference between conservation and restoration and I appreciate the explanation.

  2. quiltedtrees says:

    I had a family bible repaired a few years ago (all the family history pages were taken out at some point), and the gentleman who did it conserved it so well, and fixed the latches. It was worth every penny to preserve the family history. I find it such a fascinating career!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Type the Numbers You See (No Commas) *