MA Conservation Studies, Specialising in Books and Library Materials 2003 - 2005

Ruth Stevens

Book and Paper Conservator

Do you remember coming to an Open Day at West Dean College and if so, how did it help you decide to study here?

I didn’t come to an Open Day, I was a stressed, busy, brochure production manager for an airline company and didn’t have time off, except to lie down. The first time I saw West Dean College was on a Google search in 2003. It looked amazing, sumptuous and totally out of my league. I knew immediately I had to study there before really looking into the practicalities (not advised!). Nothing prepares you for the impact of seeing West Dean up close and personal for the first time though, and had I been able to wander around on an Open Day I’m sure I would have been just as hooked.

Talk us through your career path since graduating.

I look back fondly at my time at West Dean College and glad I was recklessly optimistic about being a book conservator. With an MA under my belt I began contracting, and then landed a job at the British Library. This led to accreditation and my next steps. The goal was to be freelance as I prefer working for myself, love wearing different hats and thrive on variety. I knew I didn’t want to work alone though, so I found a colleague (Ian Watson) and managed to persuade him to join my dream. That was the best decision I made and I was incredibly lucky in finding such a reliable, grounded, talented conservator to work with. We have been working as a limited company for 8 years and have never looked back.

What do you consider your biggest achievement to date?

I’ve been really proud of the studio I’ve set up in a residential house. I couldn’t have done it without the help of my partner John, who has also delivered some brilliant space-saving solutions; our drying rack is suspended over the plan chest and we have flat-pack fume cupboard made from Perspex.

Equipment has been donated, found or bought as and when we needed it, or could afford it. You always want more room of course, but there are very few jobs we have to turn down due to lack of space. I have enjoyed working on a wide variety of books, libraries and archives, and the in-situ work I do for the National Trust allows me to go to some incredible places. One of the nicest manuscripts I have worked on was Cardinal Wolsey’s Book of Hours; beautifully illuminated, dripping with history, it was a real delight to work on.

What projects are you currently working on?

We had a long term project last year that kept us entertained while everything was in lockdown. It was a bomb-damaged set of registers for Middle Temple with failing 1940s silk gauze repairs. It proved a very complex project and we will be writing and talking about it in the near future.

Our exciting news is that alongside Ann-Marie Miller ACR, we have recently set up a community interest company called Impact Heritage CIC. We decided to collaborate more with other conservators to focus on community archives, which are especially hard hit when money gets tight and could be in real danger of loss or damage as a result. CICs are perfect for working with a social focus as they are asset-locked, which means that any profits are put back into the communities. It also means some funders are more likely to support your projects. It’s early days, but the feedback has been encouraging so far.

Do you have any tips for recent graduates?

My advice is to find work that brings you into contact with other conservators in your specialism. This might mean working for an institution or organisation, but it’s well worth finding one that will train you further and be open to your professional development. If opportunities don’t crop up for you, you might have to be creative in how you plan your learning and career development. Flexibility is always an asset, and this may mean working far from home, so be prepared to take chances and break out of your comfort zone. Network like crazy.

How do you think studying at West Dean College prepared you for what you do now?

I remember a lot of collaboration at West Dean College - that was one of the highlights of studying there. Some projects involve multi-media and with the range of disciplines on offer there you can always find someone who can help. This experience has prepared me for a more connected and reciprocal way of working. The written and intellectual work was important in building a strong logical framework but the practical work was a vital preparation for working in the conservation sector. Clients recognise the enthusiasm I have for artefacts, books and just about anything they bring into the studio. I learnt that at West Dean.

What's your favourite memory from your time at the College?

I have fond recollections of teatime when you could grab half an hour of discussion, getting to know, being silly, before pitching back into the practical or written work. Once, when wandering I came across the Mae West sofa and couldn’t believe it - I was a big fan of Dalí, and this was an iconic piece in front of my very eyes. I remember the seemingly endless time allowed in the studios and if you were prepared to put in the hours you could achieve anything you wanted. I didn’t need to be told at the time to make the most of it, I was bailing from a lucrative career into the unknown. I remember my fellow students and staff, many of whom I still know and value as friends, and thank my lucky stars for Google search.

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