An Interview with MHS Conservation Technician Oona Beauchard
What does a conservation technician do?
My work consists of repairing and cleaning historic documents. I dry clean them by first removing the surface dirt, then testing the ink for solubility, and soaking the pages in purified water. After the soak, I de-acidify the pages and repair any damage with Japanese tissue paper and wheat starch paste that I make myself.
How do you interact with manuscripts and objects in different ways than historians?
The main difference is that I view the documents as physical objects. I don’t focus on the intellectual content, but on the physical aspect of manuscripts.
What does a typical work day look like for you?
My days usually follow a routine, and involve a lot of multi-tasking. I come in, prepare the wheat paste, and begin soaking paper in the sink. Then I’ll dry clean the next batch, or trim excess repair paper while I’m waiting for the paper to finish soaking. Once in a while I’ll get unusual things in the lab that break up the routine. I once worked on cleaning glass plate negatives, and another time I cleaned a very large Civil War banner for an exhibition. The work is always interesting!
What are some common misconceptions about your job?
People always think I get to read all the manuscripts, but if I read every page I would never finish my work! Many also are shocked that I wash the paper. They think that that would ruin the documents, but it’s an important part of the conservation process.
What are you working on right now?
I’m currently working on conserving the final volume of Harbottle Dorr’s annotated Revolutionary-era newspapers (read more about that acquisition here). Dorr, a shopkeeper, collected Boston area newspapers in the years leading up to the Revolutionary War, indexing the contents and making his own notes. It’s a very interesting project because, as with most historic documents in need of conservation, much of the damage is on the edge of the pages. That’s also where Dorr wrote his notes, so the conservation is preventing very valuable information from being lost.
What are some of your favorite projects and why?
I’ve really enjoyed working on the Dorr newspapers. Another one of my favorites was the Sarah Gooll Putnam diaries. She started keeping a diary at a young age and continued until her death. She was an artist, so her diaries contained sketches and fabric swatches – a lot of interesting things for me to look at while I did the work.* I also am a big fan of Thomas Jefferson, so I love working on any documents authored by him.
*See an entry from Sarah Gooll Putnam's diary here.
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