The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 15, Number 6
Oct 1991


Chemistry For Conservators, a Correspondence Course

by Nancy Schrock

Like many involved in library conservation, I entered the field from the arts and have regretted the gaps in my knowledge of chemistry. In addition to having the foresight to marry a chemist, I have taken introductory college courses and read literature on conservation chemistry. But courses were unrelated to conservation, reading alone was too technical, and even dinner table conversations about pH and polymers produced only limited understanding. I was therefore pleased when my sabbatical in England coincided with the offering of a correspondence course in conservation chemistry.

"Chemistry for Conservators" is a long distance learning' course offered by International Academic Projects in London, an educational foundation providing a wide range of courses in conservation and museology. The goal of this course is to provide a basic understanding of chemical processes relevant to conservation practice for professionals. It presupposes a general knowledge of the field of art conservation and specific experience with conservation treatment, but assumes little or no knowledge of chemistry.

Course materials have four components: readings, study notes that relate the readings to conservation, practical experiments, and study questions. The basic text is Chemistry Counts, a simplified introduction to chemistry, written for the GCSE (high school equivalency) in English schools. This is supplemented by the Science for Conservators series (London: Museums & Galleries Commission) and study guides written specifically for the course. The program is divided into four blocks: introduction, basic principles, the chemistry of materials, and chemistry and the conservator (cleaning, adhesives, and degradation). Health and safety, the effects of humidity, and pollution are among the other topics covered.

The course requires benchwork as well as readings: 27 practical experiments which must be done and analyzed in lab reports. Most lab equipment and materials are provided, although participants are required to supply acetone, ethanol, and other solvents that cannot be sent through the mail. I was able to do all the experiments in a kitchen, though it would have been easier to do them in my lab in America.

Lab reports and assessment exercises are mailed by students to tutors in Manchester whenever a unit is completed. These are returned with corrections, grades, and a page of comments and evaluation. I found the tutors answered questions, had constructive comments, and were committed to the course. My work was returned within a week, but judging by our experiences with trans-Atlantic mail, students in America should probably anticipate a good three-week return time. The estimated time commitment is 8- 1 0 hours for each of the 14 units and the course must be completed in four months for credit. I found the time estimates to be accurate. I spent less time when working on the introductory units, more time on later units with more experiments. The course does require commitment and effort.

Of my various attempts to learn chemistry, I found this course to be the most successful. All of the material was directly relevant to conservation so that I remained motivated. The written exercises were thought-provoking and provided a structure for independent learning. By the end of the course, I had substantially improved my understanding of the chemistry underlying treatment procedures in book conservation and could, for example, read technical literature on topics such as adhesives and solvents.

Prospective students should, however, be aware that the course is not specifically oriented toward paper conservation and covers such areas as corrosion and the reactivity of metals, which are important in art conservation. Those with a chemistry background might be disappointed by its elementary level. This is not an advanced course. Students are expected to relate their experimental findings to their own conservation work, so librarians who want to take the course should already have a knowledge of treatment procedures to draw upon. The course teaches chemistry, not conservation techniques.

For registration information contact: International Academic Projects, 31-34 Gordon Square, London WC1H 0PY, U.K. I have been told that there was a waiting list for the September sequence but that the course will be given again in January and possibly again in 1992.

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