Katie Casselman Wagner ’90: “Book Doctor” to the Smithsonian

Smithsonian Institution book conservator Katie Wagner works on a rare book braced in a job backer.

In this era of ereaders, printed books are becoming a relative rarity. But Katie Casselman Wagner ’90 works with really rare books. She’s a book conservator for the Smithsonian Institution Libraries, which she says is “an interesting and challenging job with a never-ending parade of fabulous books coming across my desk.’”

That “parade” recently included the first illustrated medical text (from 1495), a first edition book by Galileo, a letter from President Teddy Roosevelt to ornithologist Elliott Coues, and the first exhibition catalogue published by the Bauhaus art movement, signed by one of its members, Wassily Kandinsky.

Although many people believe that her job is to make old books look new, but that’s not Wagner’s goal. “You want to stabilize what you have so the book continues to be readable, without hiding the fact that you’ve repaired it,” she says. That can involve disassembling a damaged volume, cleaning it, re-sewing the pages, and reattaching the cover. If some of the original material can’t be reused, she saves it in a box with the repaired book since “the materials are part of the history of the book.” “Tidelines” on the pages of water-damaged books can be reduced by washing, then flattening and drying the pages. Dirt is carefully removed using finely grated eraser crumbs.

A history major and art history minor at MHC, Wagner earned a master’s of library science degree, and is a bench-trained conservator, meaning that she got hands-on training from a professional. She also teaches bookbinding at the Smithsonian, writes the book-related blog moonlightbindery.blogspot.com, and moonlights as a bookbinder. (Her business is actually called Moonlight Bindery).

Wagner says she loves “the combination of working with my mind and my hands” that book conservation provides, adding, “Every day or week I have a new project. And the materials I work with at the Smithsonian’s libraries are amazing. It’s literally a treasure trove.”–By Emily Harrison Weir

Some rare-book pages can be cleaned by submerging them in de-ionized water to remove acidic sizing and stains.

 

 

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