Staff Profile: Michele Brown

Who she is: Michele Brown, book conservator for the Library's Conservation unit, which is part of Digital Scholarship and Preservation Services

What she does: I conserve and restore Cornell's rare books, as well as anything written on parchment. My priorities are those materials needed by researchers, for exhibits and newly acquired materials that might have problems being shelved. I don't just think about their appearance, but how to make them last for future generations.

I also do disaster planning and advise on what constitutes a good environment for library materials. Our department does a lot of outreach; I run workshops on disaster planning and collection care for other libraries and I often field questions from members of the public — we’re a resource for anyone who wants to call with questions about how to best preserve their home collection.

Why it’s important: We want to be able to make things available right now, but we also consider the future. We make sure to choose materials and techniques that will last for a long time and are also reversible, so future conservators will be able to repair the books we're working on now.

Where she comes from: Endicott, New York.

Education: I have a BA in English from Fordham University. My first job was typing catalog cards for Houghton Library, Harvard's rare books library. At the end of each week, I would tie up the broken rare books that had been recently cataloged. I found out there were people who restored them and I thought that would be a great way to make a living.

From there, I found out about the Camberwell School of Art and Crafts in London, which had a program in hand bookbinding and restoration. At the time, there weren’t official bookbinding programs in the U.S. I got my certificate from Camberwell and came back and started restoring books for collectors, book dealers and libraries. A few years ago, I also got my library science degree from the University of Alabama.

Years at Cornell: I came here in September 1995.

Background: I was a book conservator at the Boston Public Library and I developed a private practice as a contract binder working for different libraries such as the Boston Athanaem, Harvard, Dartmouth College, and the University of Vermont. At that time, back in the 1980s, many universities and colleges didn’t have in-house conservation labs, so I worked on materials in my home studio. (Cornell’s Conservation Lab started in 1985.)

Most memorable moment: Last year, I rebound Cornell’s copy of the first edition of Newton's 'Principia.' There aren't many copies of that edition. David Corson, the curator for the History of Science, uses it frequently for teaching, but the sewing was broken, which made it difficult to handle safely. It also had a very modern binding that was not made from good materials. He and I discussed it and did some research about what kind of binding would have been typical of the time, so I rebound it in calfskin and tooled the cover in a design known as a "Cambridge panel,” which is found on books from the late 17th and early 18th centuries.

I love working on very old books. Over the years, I've worked on some from the 15th century and earlier, and I always think about who’s interacted with this book before it came to us — who touched it and how they used it. When you work on a book that’s had that much history, you know it’s had a life of its own, and you’re lucky to be involved with it.

Best part of her job: Each object that I work on presents different problems that need to be solved. I love to work with my hands and gain skill with each project I work on. I like doing research about how the books would have been put together during their own time.

Cornell has a great collection, so I have a lot of great books to work on. And I feel like the curators here really appreciate our work.

In her spare time: I like to garden and go bird-watching. And to read, of course. I also bind books!

Dream job: I have to tell you, I have my dream job!

In this LibeScope series, interviews with library staff reveal their skills, talents, interests and backgrounds.