Blog—Donor Digest

Meet the Staff: Kim Nichols

Kim Nichols joined the Newberry as Director of Conservation in December 2022. Here, she talks with us about her career journey, what she loves about conservation, and her priorities for conservation at the Newberry.

V2 K Nichols Photo

How did you first encounter the Newberry?

It was decades ago. I was living in New Orleans and was looking into graduate school for conservation. I knew that I needed to get training before applying and had written to various conservators who had published books asking for advice. They recommended I go to Chicago to meet conservators at the Art Institute. I was raised in New Orleans, but I’d been born in Chicago, so I had family here and it wasn’t too difficult to come back to the city.

I can’t quite remember how I learned about the Newberry, but it was shortly after arriving. I was drawn into an exhibition on photographs and quickly became enamored with the library and its collection—and with how accessible it all was. I came to the Book Fair, I came to events, and then one day, I came into the lobby and asked if I could talk to the conservator. The person in the lobby just picked up the phone and called her. She came down to meet me then and there, talked to me about conservation, and by the end of the day I was scheduled to volunteer in the lab one day a week to work on British pamphlets. I often look back on that moment and feel incredibly thankful to her for taking the time to share her work.

How did you first become interested in conservation as a field?

I was always juggling interests in science and art. As an undergraduate, I realized while I enjoyed science in theory, I was really drawn to art and historic artifacts.

I began looking into what a career at the intersection of art and science might look like. While working on a folk art exhibition at the New Orleans Museum of Art, I got to write biographies of the artists. This was an exhibition on self-taught artists, so I was writing not just about their lives but also about the materials they used, which could be really unique. However, I didn’t work directly with any of the artifacts until we had a symposium.

One of the events was held at a collector's home. I was handed a feather duster and asked to go tidy up the sculptures in what used to be a quail barn. It was a very isolated and quiet space. I remember kneeling down beside the sculptures to look more closely at them. It was the first time I had actually seen the materials that I wrote about. I could see that there were very unusual binders being used—things like sugar binders to hold components of the work together—and I could see unique marks from tools the artists had made themselves. It was a very visceral experience.

Shortly thereafter, I met the conservators working on the collection and realized that this was what I wanted to do. I enjoyed working with my hands, I enjoyed working with objects, and I enjoyed learning about history and people through objects. Once I committed to going back to college to take chemistry—a requirement for graduate school in conservation—I knew I was in for life.

What kind of day-to-day work happens in the Newberry Conservation Lab?

Our attention is always in multiple areas simultaneously. We help preserve items being used in the reading rooms, we care for acquisitions as they come into the collection, we prepare objects to be digitized, and we prepare objects for display in exhibitions, just to name a few.

In every case, one of the primary things we do is observe and document. We can’t treat anything without knowing what we have in front of us. That means spending time with the object, looking at it in different light conditions, and taking photographs so that if we change anything during treatment, we have a record. Most of the time, conservators are just looking and looking and looking. And one may wonder, “When are they going to do something?” But a lot of our work is observing and documenting.

We also have a lot of conversations. Works on paper are generally organic, and organic pigments can be very light-sensitive, while parchment and vellum can be very sensitive to water in the atmosphere. We are always talking with people across the library about how objects can be safely used, displayed, and preserved. Only once we know what we’re looking at and what the object’s needs are do we move to the actual treatment.

Stabilization might include mending breaks on a page or along a book’s spine, or it might mean cleaning grime that has built up over the years. Right now, we’re working on stabilizing some items that will go to the University of Chicago for digitization as part of the collaborative grant project “Mapping Chicagoland.” Some of these items have a lot of surface soiling, so we’re reducing that to make sure the digitization specialists can get a good, clear image. For others, we’re stabilizing breaks in the paper. Many are made with wood pulp paper, a type of paper that degrades over time and can be quite brittle, so we’re working to make sure they can be safely transported and digitized.

Is there a type of material that you particularly enjoy working with in the lab?

That’s a good question. When I was in graduate school, thinking about this question helped me decide my specialty. I knew going in that I appreciated three-dimensional objects, but it was working with paper that made me pick my specialization. I enjoyed the repair of it, because you use paper to repair paper, as opposed to other fields which might use more chemicals or be more equipment-oriented. I enjoy the intimacy that comes with working with paper.

A lot of our techniques in paper conservation derive from techniques in Asian scroll-mounting. To mend paper here at the library, we often use a type of Japanese paper called kozo. Kozo is made from the inner bark of the kozo plant, also known as the paper mulberry. Papermakers take the kozo’s inner bark and pound it to break apart the fibers, and then cast the pulp into a very thin, very strong sheet of paper that ages beautifully. That’s because it has long fibers and high cellulose content. By comparison, wood pulp paper, which became popular in the West in the nineteenth century and continues to be used for newspapers, has quite short fibers and low cellulose content, so it is inherently weak and degrades more quickly. It also has a lot of lignin, a polymer that becomes acidic over time. You can see this in your own documents—paper with high lignin content will discolor and become embrittled over time. So, when a paper-based object is brought to the lab in need of mending, we use this beautiful kozo paper because we know it will last a long time and be less likely to harm the original object.

Earlier, you mentioned that you were struck by how accessible the Newberry is. Could you speak to the relationship between access and conservation?

When I found the Newberry, it was through an exhibition, so I view access as a priority and very much support the different ways in which we share our collection with the public. The Newberry Conservation Department has a very strong reputation dating back to Paul N. Banks (1934 – 2000). He made a lot of advancements in our field and helped to establish the first degree-granting program in the US for library preservation. I want to continue to cultivate that legacy of research, education, and outreach.

As conservators we are protective of the collection, and it can be difficult for us to figure out how to share it while also making sure we’re doing our job, which is to preserve it. But I know it can happen and I believe we can help enhance users’ knowledge of the collection. Conservators spend so much time examining and treating individual objects that we naturally observe things over time that others might not see. Those observations can open really interesting windows into how an object was made or used. I’d like to find ways to increase the public’s access to those stories. That might be through events or tours, casual show-and-tells or formal lectures, or even through a hands-on event.

In particular, I would like to cultivate conservation education. In order to go to graduate school in conservation, you need to have experience in the field. Usually that takes the form of an internship or volunteer work, which is why I was desperate enough to ask someone to call the Newberry’s conservator from the lobby all those years ago. I would love to bring students into the lab to learn and get them engaged in caring for the collection. I want to get to know the communities outside of our building’s walls and learn how to support them and their interests while connecting them with the work we do in conservation.

This story is part of the Newberry’s Donor Digest, Winter 2023. In this newsletter, we share with donors exciting stories of the work made possible by their generosity. Learn more about supporting the library and its programs.

Related Articles