Louise O’Connor: ‘No two days are the same, and every project is different.’ Photograph: Bryan O Brien
I fell in love with the idea of conserving art on a school trip to Italy. In the beautiful churches there were conservators in white coats, up on scaffolding working on the frescoes, and that was amazing to me. I went to school in Cork and I had always been interested in art, heritage and history. I had had ideas about being an archaeologist, but there was this whole area of work I had never even thought about.
I spoke to my art teacher, and she gave me places to look for more information. It was pre-internet, so I wrote letters to everyone, asking them how do I get to do this? They were so nice, they all wrote back to me. They gave me different ideas, but the consensus was you have to do your undergraduate degree, and then go and study in England. So I did a degree in art history and Italian, and then a masters in Northumbria University as there were no courses in Ireland. I worked at the Chester Beatty Library, then the National Gallery, before coming here to the National Library of Ireland as a conservator in 2007.
We’re a small team – of two! My main area of responsibility is prints, drawings and ephemera. Our work never ever ends. The vastness of the collection can blow your mind sometimes. One of our oldest manuscripts dates to the 12th century, and I have colleagues working in Digital Collections who are archiving websites, emails and spreadsheets.
Part of the fun is that you end up doing a little bit of scientific investigation. There is so much variety
There are layers and layers of information. We’ll find drawings on the back of manuscripts, and amazing marginalia – the notes and drawings in the margins of manuscripts. Sometimes it’s scribes telling us how cold they are, or how there’s no food, or doing little self-portrait sketches. Sometimes they give us more questions than answers, but they are wonderful.
It’s a misconception that you have to be patient to be a conservator. You do have to be very organised and project-focused. You have to have manual dexterity because you’re handling very delicate objects. Less is always more, and the idea is: first do no harm, so we try to do the least that’s needed. We’re not trying to bring something back to when it was new. The aim is also to let it tell the story of its age, what it has been through. Even though in a really good conservation job you don’t see the conservation, you also leave a trace, so that in the future someone can come back and see what it is you did.
Louise O’Connor works as a conservator at the National Library of Ireland, specialising in prints, drawings and ephemera.
No two days are the same, and every project is different. Part of the fun is that you end up doing a little bit of scientific investigation. There is so much variety in papers, in pigments. You have to look and see what’s there. Is it printed? Is it drawn? Are the inks soluble? How are they degrading? How is a book made? You have to do all that before you even start so you can identify what materials you need to use to try to fix it.
I recently worked on some manuscripts from the 16th and 17th century. We were able to document watermarks in the papers, which tell us where the papers were made. They were from France and Italy, and I worked with a conservation scientist from the National Archives who had special machinery to identify the compounds in the pigments – that’s the rabbit hole we go down to identify what’s there. It has been a lovely project, which I hope will be published.
We also do a huge amount of preservation. Making boxes, ordering folders for storage, working with our colleagues to put items on exhibition, sending items out on loan, and preparing things for digitisation. We work with librarians, archivists, exhibition designers: it’s a small world with lots of different types of professions working together, and that’s what I like. But we conservators are lucky in that we can work so closely with the collections. They are the core of the library.
With those 16th century manuscripts, you can see how the artists ground their pigments into powder. They were people like us. Some did it really well and sometimes they didn’t do it well enough, which is a problem for conservation. Those are moments captured on paper. Every object tells the story of where it was made, when it was made, and who made it. When we take the time to really look it can be revealed. Is that too poetic? It’s all part of conservation, which is part of preservation, so that the public can have access. That’s why the library exists.
– In conversation with Gemma Tipton
Gemma Tipton contributes to The Irish Times on art, architecture and other aspects of culture
Bryan O’Brien is Chief Video Journalist at The Irish Times
© 2022 The Irish Times DAC
© 2022 The Irish Times DAC

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