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13 Secrets of Professional Naming Consultants

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When it comes to companies and products, names matter. A slick name makes a company sound trendy and cool, while a terrible name can have customers running into the arms of the competition. Unsurprisingly, many companies take the process very seriously, hiring outside naming consultants who either work within creative agencies or at agencies devoted entirely to naming. We got a few to give us the scoop on how their job really works.

1. IT’S NOT JUST A CREATIVE TASK.

“The notion that namers are hippies and poets jotting down names on cocktail napkins couldn’t be farther from the truth,” says Mark Skoultchi, a partner at Catchword, the agency that named the Fitbit Flex and Force and Starbucks’s Refreshers line.

The stakes are just too high for naming to be a purely creative project, because a bad name can break a product. Consider, for example, the major slump in sales ISIS chocolates experienced in 2014 when people began to associate their name with the Islamic State. (The company rebranded itself to Libeert.) And when the AIDS crisis hit in the 1980s, the diet candy company Ayds chose not to change its name, eventually suffering the consequences. (When asked about it, an official from its parent company, Jeffrey Martin, famously snapped, “Let the disease change its name.”) By 1988, the company conceded that the name was hurting sales, and changed it to Diet Ayds. But the product was soon pulled from shelves altogether.

“When you’re naming your kid or nicknaming your car it’s more creative. There aren’t as many consequences,” says Nina Beckhardt, founder and CEO of The Naming Group, a consultancy that works with Chevrolet, Kohler, and Capital One. “But when you’re brand naming, the name you select has to be strategically impeccable. It has to make sense and at least not offend millions of people around the globe.”

2. NAMES CAN’T JUST SOUND GOOD.

Naming isn’t just a subjective choice—really liking a name doesn’t mean it’s a good fit for your company. “People want to get more subjective with it,” Beckhardt says. “They’ll say that name reminds me of my cat or rhymes with such and such. That observation is so enormously unimportant compared with the fact that the name successfully checks all the boxes we created at the beginning.” The point is to find a name that gets across what the company wants to convey, rather than one that every person involved in the naming process loves.

For example, when The Naming Group was working with Capital One to develop their first brand-name rewards credit card, the company had to consider who they were trying to target—travelers. The result was the Venture card, a name with a connotation of adventure and exploration that’s “not right on the nose.”

3. IT HELPS TO HAVE A BACKGROUND IN LINGUISTICS—OR TRADEMARK LAW.

Though naming is essentially an exercise in corporate strategy, naming agencies don’t just employ people with backgrounds in branding and marketing. They also need linguistics experts to help generate names that make sense, have positive connotations in modern usage (i.e. nothing that might have a negative slang meaning), and inspire the associations the company wants to elicit.

Coming up with a name also involves some legal legwork. You can’t name your company or product after something that’s already trademarked. And if you want to expand internationally, the name needs to be available to trademark in other countries as well. That means naming agencies are often looking for people with a background in trademark law.

4. YOU HAVE TO COME UP WITH HUNDREDS OF NAMES, IF NOT THOUSANDS.

“Naming is a game of numbers,” Beckhardt says. “You have to have a lot of options.” Even if the potential names sound great, many are bound to run into trademark conflicts or not work in another language.

So before namers get together to present feasible ideas to the clients they’re working with, they come up with hundreds, if not thousands, of potential options. “At Catchword, 200 names is scratching the surface,” Skoultchi says.

5. BUT THE CLIENT WON’T SEE THEM ALL.

When faced with too many options to choose from, people tend to freeze up in what psychologists call “choice overload” [PDF]. Whether you’re talking about choosing between similar items at the grocery store or an endless array of potential product names, it’s overwhelming to consider all the possibilities. Namers take their initial 200 or 1000 ideas and whittle them down to present only the best (and most feasible) options. At Catchword, that means about 50 names.

But namers can also face the opposite challenge. If a client gets too set on a single idea, it blinds them to what might be better options still out there. “For each project I will get and try to get the client attached to a number of different names,” Beckhardt says, rather than looking for “the prince charming” of names.

6. A NAME CAN BE TOO ORIGINAL

The amount of meaning a name communicates lies along a continuum. On the one end, there’s an overly descriptive name. On the other end, there’s so-called “empty vessel” names, which are so far removed from actual words that they come off as meaningless. The ideal name falls somewhere in the middle, but if you end up too far toward the “empty vessel” side, your name will be a target for mockery.

Consider Tribune Publishing, the media company that owns the Chicago Tribune. In 2016, it rebranded as “tronc,” a name derived from the phrase “Tribune online content.” The move was widely mocked, for good reason. In The New York Times, a branding expert said the name “creates an ugliness.” The new name became a black eye for the company rather than a sign of its forward-thinking vision.

Empty vessel names are particularly common in the tech world, but played right, it can work. Google could be considered an empty vessel name, but it does have an origin, albeit one that most people aren’t familiar with. A googol is a huge number—10100—which makes sense within the context of the search engine’s ability to aggregate results from a near-infinite number of sources online.

7. A NAME CAN’T JUST SOUND GOOD IN ENGLISH.

One reason naming agencies need linguists is that unless a company is only marketing its products domestically, the name needs to work in multiple languages. If your product sounds slick in English but means something dirty in Norwegian, you’ve got a problem.

Plenty of companies have found this out the hard way. The Honda Fit was almost the Honda Fitta, but the company changed the name when it realized that “fitta” was slang for female genitalia in Swedish. The company later started calling it the Honda Jazz outside of North America.

Different languages also pronounce certain letters differently, which gets awkward if you’re not careful. “When we’re developing names we have to prepare for those mispronunciations to make sure that isn’t going to affect how people understand the product,” Beckhardt says. In Germany, Vicks sells its products under the name Wick, because the German pronunciation of the original brand name (in which a “v” is pronounced like an “f”) sounds like a slang word for sex.

Even if the name isn’t vulgar, it might have connotations in another language that you don’t want people associating with your product. In Mandarin, Microsoft’s Bing has to go by a different name, because “bing” means disease. Part of the naming process, according to Beckhardt, is “making sure that if we’re naming a skin care product, it doesn’t mean acne in Japanese.” She adds that at one point, while working on a rebranding project, The Naming Group came up with a name that ended up meaning “pubic hair” in another language. (Obviously, that one didn't get presented to the client.)

8. IF YOU DON’T COME UP WITH A FOREIGN NAME, CUSTOMERS MIGHT DO IT FOR YOU.

Famously, when Coca-Cola first started selling its products in China in 1927, it didn’t immediately come up with a new name that made sense in Chinese characters. Instead, shopkeepers transliterated the name Coca-Cola phonetically on their signage, leading to odd meanings like “bite the wax tadpole.” In 1928, Coke registered a Chinese trademark for the Mandarin 可口可乐 (K'o K'ou K'o Lê), which the company translates as “to permit mouth to be able to rejoice.”

9. COMING UP WITH A CHINESE NAME IS ESPECIALLY COMPLICATED.

Foreign companies are eager to expand into China’s growing market, but it’s not as easy as transliterating an American name, like LinkedIn, to Chinese characters. In some cases, companies use Chinese names that sound somewhat like their English equivalent, but in others, they go by names that don’t sound similar at all. “It’s this crazy art form of balancing phonetic similarity and actual meaning,” Beckhardt says.

Labbrand, a consultancy founded in Shanghai, helps American companies come up with names that work for Chinese markets. For LinkedIn’s Chinese name, Labbrand was able to come up with a name that both sounded a bit like the original and still had a meaning in line with the company’s purpose. 领英 (lǐng yīng) means “leading elite.” For other companies, though, it makes more sense to come up with a name that sounds nothing like the American brand, yet has a strategic meaning. For Trip Advisor, Labbrand came up with “猫途鹰 (māo tú yīng)," a combination of the characters for "owl" and "journey"—a reference to the company’s owl logo and its role as a travel site.

Some names, however, are just straight translations. Microsoft is 微软 (weiruan), two characters that literally mean “micro” and “soft.”

10. THERE ISN'T USUALLY AN ‘A-HA’ MOMENT.

“Oftentimes, clients are expecting epiphany, to have an ‘a-ha!’ moment, but those moments are more rare than you think,” Skoultchi says. “It’s not because the name ideas aren't great, it’s because most people have trouble imagining” what the names will sound like in the real world. “Context, visual identity, taglines, copy, and other factors influence our perception of a name and how appealing it is. Imagine just about any modern blockbuster brand, and now imagine it’s just a word on a page, in Helvetica, with little to no marketing support.”

To help customers understand how a name might look in real-world settings, Catchword gives it a slightly jazzier graphic design that’s more representative of what it would look like in the market, adding in potential taglines and ad copy to make it look more realistic.

11. YOU’RE NOT JUST NAMING ONE THING.

The Naming Group, for example, has worked with Capital One, Kohler, and Reebok to come up with names for multiple products, and they've also worked to establish parameters for future names. That's because what you call one product could have implications for your future products—and ideally, the names of different products across a company should work together.

Take the example of Fitbit. The company has a naming style that involves single-syllable, simple English words that are designed to convey something unique about the product. They also had to fit the tiny devices themselves, so length mattered. The name “Flex” went to the first wristband tracker, and the most advanced tracker became “Force.” Later, the first tracker that measured heart rate would become "Charge," and the one designed for high-intensity athletes, "Blaze." All the names have a similar vibe while managing to convey something about the specific device.

As a cautionary tale, imagine a world in which Steve Jobs was allowed to use his preferred name for the iMac, “MacMan.” (Luckily, an ad agency creative director talked him out of it.) Given how the “i” in iMac influenced Apple’s future naming conventions, would there later have been a PodMan and PhoneMan? Choosing the iMac led to a larger branding scheme—the iPod, the iPhone, the iPad—that's instantly recognizable. “The PhoneMan” just wouldn’t have the same ring.

12. COMPANIES OFTEN WAIT UNTIL THE LAST MINUTE.

There’s a perception that naming should come from within a company—that if you build a product, you automatically know the best thing to call it. But that’s often not the case. Companies usually don’t employ professional namers on staff and don’t have any set guidelines on how to come up with new names. And it’s often not until the last minute that they realize they need outside help to decide on a great moniker. “It can be so emotional,” Beckhardt explains. “Companies come to you pulling their hair out, [saying] ‘We just can’t decide; we haven’t found it yet.’”

13. IT ONLY TAKES A FEW WEEKS.

Naming something usually doesn’t involve a lightning bolt of inspiration, but neither do companies slave over names for months. According to Beckhardt, the process takes anywhere from four to six weeks, though they can expedite the process if they really need to.

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14 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Hollywood Food Stylists
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Hollywood food stylists are little short of magicians—only instead of pulling rabbits out of hats, they’re turning piles of mashed potatoes into ice cream sundaes. Indeed, making food (or food-like products) appear photogenic and appetizing onscreen is a job for a true illusionist. Mental Floss spoke to a few food stylists working in TV, film, and commercials—from Game of Thrones to Taco Bell—to bring you the tricks of their magical trade.

1. MOST OF THE FOOD BEING FILMED IS REAL.

While food stylists are well-versed in the old-school swap tricks—using a pint of white glue to impersonate a glass of milk, for example—those are being phased out. Now, directors want actors to interact with their food, and high-definition camera lenses have made the fake stuff much more obvious. Plastic food props only appear in the background of scenes today, where they're less visible and susceptible to scrutiny.

“I only deal with real food,” says Chris Oliver, who has styled food for movies including Gone Girl (2014) and TV shows such as Seinfeld and Big Little Lies. “You also have to think about how a character would cook something or put a plate together. Realistic food is not all beautiful and perfect. I make ugly food and burnt food, too.”

There’s a trend in commercial food styling to present dishes that are less-than-perfect, too. Shellie Anderson, who styles food ads for clients including Burger King and Ragù, says it’s the consumers who are demanding food look more realistic and therefore more approachable.

“People are tired of seeing something in a TV commercial and then ordering it in a restaurant and it doesn't look the same,” she says. “You don’t want it to look staged anymore. You want a burger to look like the cheese naturally dripped off and landed on the plate.”

2. THEY GO THROUGH A LOT OF FOOD ...

Bowl of strawberry ice cream
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If a food stylist needs one sprig of parsley for a shoot, they’ll often order 10 bunches. They never know what the condition of the parsley is going to be when it arrives from the produce vendor, or if the shoot is going to require more than they originally planned for. Carving a turkey in a scene? That may require two dozen birds if an actor keeps flubbing his line.

“It really depends on how much of a story point the food is and how important the scene is for the director,” Oliver says.

Food stylists usually have relationships with produce vendors, who can look for products with the specific size, shape, and color that stylists need. No bruises or dents, and no frozen lettuce! But stylists can hide those things if they have to.

Ice cream is infamously hard to keep intact because it melts so quickly. Food stylists have been known to replace the scoops with dollops of meringue, which don’t melt, or butter rolled in sugar. Oliver makes her sundaes the day before and sticks them in the freezer, spoons and straws and all. If they freeze rock hard overnight, they can last a few hours on set the next day before being replaced with another sundae lined up in the deep-freeze. Anderson sprays her ice cream with cold spray, an aerosol can of super-chilled gas used for cooling electronics.

3. ... BUT THE FOOD RARELY GOES TO WASTE.

On film and TV shoots, there are rarely leftovers. In fact, good food stylists often compete with the caterers: Actors usually have to eat the food during their scenes, and the crew finishes off the scraps. While shooting a Chinese New Year scene for the show Fresh Off the Boat recently, actress Lucille Soong told Oliver, who was styling that episode, that she was going to skip lunch because she wanted to enjoy eating her food on camera. “That was pretty freaking flattering!” Oliver says.

Because Oliver works on multiple TV shows in a single day, if an item doesn’t get used on set and never comes out of her cooler, she can just take it back to her shop and recycle it for use on another show. If something can’t be used again, she’ll take it home and make salsa or jam. “When it gets really old, I'll just stick it in vodka,” she says.

Commercial shoots tend to have more unused food. Anderson says anything that’s still edible will be given to a food pantry. “I once donated an entire swordfish when we did a commercial for a fish restaurant,” she says. “We never even used it. So I kept it on ice and took it to a men's homeless shelter. They were thrilled to have it.”

4. THEY VALUE FOOD SAFETY.

Another reason food stylists swap out on-camera food so much is because of safety concerns—hot and cold foods need to be kept at certain temperatures that may not be practical on-set. Sushi-grade tuna may be replaced with watermelon, for example, because the fish spoils so easily.

Oliver requires all of her employees to have a food handler’s license. She also only works out of commercial kitchens (including the one on her fully-equipped food styling truck). But not every food styling team does; some prepare food in their homes. “The reason that I get so much work is that everybody knows I'm a chef and I have a real kitchen,” Oliver says. “People trust my food. I’ve done a bunch of movies with Reese [Witherspoon] because she knows that if I’m on set, the food is safe to eat.”

5. WOMEN DOMINATE THE FIELD.

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While there are a few well-known male food stylists, for the most part the key food stylists in the U.S. are women. (Both of Anderson’s daughters are food stylists, too.) The reason for this dates back decades.

Before food styling became its own career in the 1990s, it was up to network employees with home economics degrees (almost always women) to cook on-camera food. Then props departments became responsible. “But props guys can’t even make spaghetti,” Oliver says, laughing. So according to her, these guys would go home and ask their girlfriends or wives to make whatever food was required for the next day’s scene. “Eventually they would just hire their girlfriends or wives to do it; keep the money in the family,” she says. “I know five food stylists who at one time were in relationships with prop masters.”

Also in the 1990s, networks began making more multi-camera TV shows. A lot more food began appearing on screen, and actors openly discussed their dietary restrictions. They were vegan, sugar-free, and low-carb all of a sudden. Oliver trained at the Culinary Institute of America and had worked in restaurants and catering jobs before stumbling into this career. “Because I was a chef, and I understood how food works, I knew how to feed people and make food last on set,” she says. “And I could charge anything I wanted to.”

To get a job as a food stylist today, it helps to know someone already in the industry and have a culinary background. Everyone starts as an intern, and then may be able to work their way up to being an assistant and then a stylist. “Not everybody can be a food stylist,” Anderson says. “You have to be able to cook, but you still have to be creative. And you have to be able to work fast and under pressure.”

6. THEY LIVE OUTSIDE OF LOS ANGELES NOW.

Now that movies and TV shows are frequently filmed all over the world, instead of just on sets in Los Angeles, food stylists can be based anywhere. There is a concentration of stylists who live in Vancouver, British Columbia, for example, because that's where many shows are now filmed. Labor laws also often require production crews to hire locally, so residing outside of L.A. can be a real advantage.

Some commercial food stylists, like Anderson, are flown in for shoots. “Food stylists can make or break a commercial,” she says. “And if you have trouble and you don't know what you're doing, it can be a real problem for production.” This is especially true on out-of-the-country shoots, when stylists don't have the resources that they’re used to. So clients who know her and her skill level, such as Taco Bell, will fly her to wherever they're filming.

7. THEY TALK LIKE CHEFS AND FILMMAKERS.

hand styling pancakes
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Food stylists use a mix of back-of-the-house kitchen lingo and film jargon. Some examples: The “hero” is the food that is written into the script, is being shot, and must appear in front of the actor. “Bite and smile” is when an actor takes a bite of food and pretends to like it. “All day” is the total number of items needed; if they needed five turkeys on a set, they would say “five all day.”

8. NOT EVERYONE WANTS TO BE IN THE MOVIES.

Food stylists usually specialize in different media: film, TV, commercials, or print editorial. Stylists often prefer one over the other. Print editorial is shot in a controlled studio and tends to have more leeway for creativity. Commercials are tied to a brand’s specifications. Film and TV shoots on location are in unpredictable settings and can be physically demanding. But everyone tends to work long, 12- to 14-hour days. For commercials, it can often take three days to shoot one 30-second spot.

When working on a movie or TV show, the actors’ demands usually take precedence over the food needs. After working on one film, Anderson had had enough and dedicated herself to commercial work. “When I do commercials, the food is the star,” she says. “So [the directors] want to make sure I have everything I need. On a movie, they could care less about you.”

9. FOOD STYLISTS DON’T JUST MAKE FOOD.

Laurence Fishburne as Jack Crawford, Mads Mikkelsen as Hannibal Lecter on Hannibal
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Sometimes food stylists are expected to create sci-fi props—what would a person eat in the year 3000?—or fantasy items that they have no experience with. While working on the TV show Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., Oliver made gooey, edible slime from her imagination. “I also had to roll with the [actors’] different dietary needs,” she says. “I had to be able to make vegan slime, sugar-free slime, gluten-free slime, gelatin-free slime … Slime, any way you want it.”

Oliver also has to make items that you don’t really want to put in your mouth. While filming the TV show Big Little Lies, she made green-colored vomit for actress Reese Witherspoon of cucumbers and parsley. She says it was tasty, like green gazpacho. For a war film, she had to make 400 pounds of “dirt” for a group of prisoners of war to eat. She got Pakistani soil shipped to California so she could match it exactly. (Her recipe: ground-up Oreos and graham crackers, mixed with brown sugar and white sugar.)

Janice Poon, the food stylist behind the cannibal-centric TV show Hannibal, had a more challenging obstacle: how to make dishes that resembled human flesh. She refused to do research on cannibalism websites, she told HopesAndFears.com, but she studied a lot of anatomy books. “I’m just like Dr. Frankenstein,” Poon said. “I’m always stitching things, exchanging, putting one kind of meat on a different bone, patching stuff together. ... The key is to let the viewer’s imagination do more of your work.” She transformed veal shanks into human legs, and used prosciutto slices to mimic slivers of a human arm.

10. THEY PACK SOME SERIOUS GEAR.

When shooting, stylists need to be prepared for anything. They carry tools including tweezers, scissors, paint brushes, knives, offset spatulas, wet wipes, syringes, rulers, Q-tips, and spritz bottles.

“Think about your kitchen: all of your mixing bowls and utensils … I have that times 10 in my kit,” Anderson says. She also has a torch on hand for quick-cooking burgers and cold spray for extending the life of ice cream. Other stylists may have glycerin for adding shine or Kitchen Bouquet sauce for adding color. Poon often uses a white ceramic knife so she can see what she's doing on dark sets and work more quietly, so as not to disturb the acting process.

Food stylists sometimes work in erratic environments. Oliver brings her own 17-foot, cab-over truck to shoots. “It has a lift gate and everything's on wheels, so I can take everything out and have a kitchen in the middle of the desert, if I want,” she says. Inside, she has a full commercial kitchen: a six-burner stove, refrigerator, microwave, grill, freezer, prep tables, storage, TV, and a generator.

11. THEY’RE SKILLED AT IMPROV.

When production starts, the prop team sends memos to actors or their reps asking about food allergies and dietary restrictions. As trained chefs, most food stylists are happy to accommodate such limitations, cooking convincing swap-outs. “I find out what they will eat and make it happen,” Oliver says.

For example, Poon once made a convincing vegan “raw meat” on Hannibal using only grains. “I made lamb tongues out of bulgur and water,” Poon told HopesAndFears.com. “It’s like making a Lebanese kibbeh. You mix cracked wheat with water and it makes a kind of mush that holds together. The texture is a little 'nubbly,' so I added a pink food coloring, made little tongues out of kibbeh dough, steamed them up, and they were my little lambs’ tongues.”

Sometimes a director changes his or her mind at the last minute, and what was supposed to be a spaghetti dinner, for example, is now a breakfast spread. So the food stylist will squish down the meatballs and turn them into sausage patties. In an interview with NPR, food stylist Melissa McSorley recalled a time when a movie director suddenly decided to cut open a birthday cake she had made. The problem: It wasn’t real.

“So we had to cut the cake that was made out of Styrofoam, and I had to use a saw in order to do it because none of my knives could get through it,” McSorley said. “And then we had to layer in cake so it did look like it was real and then we had to send people scurrying to many markets to find white layer cake so it looked like people in the background could be actually be eating the cake.”

12. THERE’S ALWAYS THE SPIT BUCKET OPTION.

Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, David Bradley in Game of Thrones
HBO

Professional actors will often pick at the food in front of them, but not eat it because they know their scenes are going to require a lot of takes; they could be eating birthday cake for eight hours straight. Others dive right in. For a scene in The Guilt Trip (2012), actress Barbra Streisand had to pretend she was in a steak-eating contest. Oliver says they went through more than 300 pounds of meat for that scene’s three-day shoot and Streisand was totally game.

“But there’s a part towards the end where she has to eat really quickly and do a line without, you know, choking and dying,” Oliver says. “So I switched out the steak with seared watermelon. She took one bite and it sort of dissolved in her mouth, so she could do her line. If you watch it, and you really listen, you can hear the crunch of the watermelon.”

Sometimes, though, the spit bucket is the only option. In season one of Game of Thrones, the character Daenerys Targaryen had to eat a whole horse heart. But the actress who plays her, Emilia Clarke, actually had to eat 28. They were made of solidified jam, which tasted like “bleach and raw pasta,” she told The Mirror. “It was very helpful to be given something so truly disgusting to eat, so there wasn’t much acting required. Fortunately, they gave me a spit bucket because I was vomiting in it quite often.”

13. SOMETIMES THEY’RE SURPRISED BY THE FINAL PRODUCT.

Food stylists who work on multiple projects at a time, like Oliver, can’t always stick around to see how their food will be used. They may later find out that a gorgeous spread was relegated to the background, or worse. For a scene in Seinfeld, Oliver was once asked to prepare a perfect, glistening turkey. “Later I was home watching the episode and they had put the turkey on Kramer!” she says. “I was literally crying I was laughing so hard. Never in a million years did I think my turkey was going to end up with a guy’s head.”

14. THEY THROW EPIC DINNER PARTIES.

Food stylist preparing vegetables
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You’d think that being around food all day would make food stylists tired of making things look nice. But most food stylists love to cook, and on the days they aren’t working, they love to throw parties. “People always expect to have beautiful food,” Anderson says. “And I don't disappoint.”

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11 Secrets of Book Conservators
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Books might contain timeless wisdom, but the objects themselves aren’t immortal. In addition to normal wear and tear, they can succumb to mold, pests, environmental hazards, and other threats if not stored and handled properly. Book conservators are the people who help repair this damage, preserving and protecting books for future readers. We spoke with a few of these experts to learn more about the job, from their favorite projects to the surprising utility of commercial freezers.

1. THERE'S NO SINGLE PATH INTO THE FIELD.

According to Mindell Dubansky, head of book conservation at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, becoming a book conservator requires an intensive mixture of hands-on and academic experience. "It's very challenging because there aren’t that many formal educational opportunities," she says, "and [the route] is not that straightforward."

People may get into book conservation through bench training (i.e. learning on the job as a lab technician), working in a commercial bookbindery, taking bookbinding classes, earning a degree from a handful of specialized trade schools, or going through a book arts, material culture, or library science master’s program. But Dubansky says that where you study—and the collections you have at your disposal—will shape your skill set and determine the course of your career. She herself received an undergraduate arts degree from Carnegie Mellon before studying bookbinding and restoration at what's now London's Camberwell College of Arts. She later earned her master's in library science and a certificate in library preservation from Columbia University. Today at the Met, she works on a collection that includes everything from artists' sketchbooks to Beethoven's funeral invitations.

2. THEY NEED TO BE GOOD WITH THEIR HANDS.

Loving books is great, Dubansky says, but it's no substitute for fine motor skills: Conservators spend lots of time sewing, measuring, gluing, rebinding, handling sharp objects like knives, and treating books with chemicals. She recommends that aspiring book conservators take basic bookbinding classes before deciding whether to pursue a career in the field. The experience should let them know whether they enjoy working with their hands, something they'll be doing frequently once they become full-fledged professionals.

"The process [of bookbinding] is simple but requires great accuracy," Dubansky says. That accuracy becomes even more important when you transition from a bookbinding class to on-the-job conservation.

3. OLD BOOKS CAN BE EASIER TO RESTORE THAN NEW BOOKS.

You might think that centuries-old books are always more fragile than newer works. But Katie Wagner, a rare book conservator for the Smithsonian Libraries, says that's not always the case: "We have books from our collection that are hundreds of years old, and that paper is in better shape than modern paper. That’s because the process of making paper from cotton and linen changed around 1840. They started incorporating wood pulp and they weren’t de-acidifying it first." When paper becomes too acidic, it degrades and turns hard.

As a result, even well-made books from the late 19th century onward can be brittle to the touch. "If a book is pre-1840, it's often easier to restore than a book from 1940," Wagner says.

4. THE MAIN TOOLS OF THE TRADE HAVEN’T CHANGED FOR CENTURIES.

“If a bookbinder from the 19th century walked into our room [at the Met], they would feel very much at home,” Dubansky says. Book conservators have used the same equipment for hundreds of years, from basic hand tools like bone folders (used to make sharp creases in paper and other materials) to thread and needles used to re-sew tattered tomes.

Changing technologies have added new techniques to the mix, of course, “but day to day, it’s the basic tools that we probably use the most,” Wagner says.

5. SOME CONSERVATION TECHNIQUES ARE SURPRISINGLY BASIC.

Even schoolroom supplies can find new life in a conservation department. Take, for example, the humble eraser. Victorian-era volumes sometimes have sooty pages if they were housed near coal-burning furnaces, and according to Wagner, erasers can remove this residue. But since the pressure of a regular eraser’s point can cause streaks and lines to form on the page, bookbinding supply companies sell ground-up eraser crumbs, which conservators sprinkle onto pages and then rub in circles. Once the white eraser crumbs have turned black, they’re carefully brushed from the page, and new layers of crumbs are applied until the stains have faded. (Not all conservationists opt for erasers, though; some prefer to use small rubber sponges called soot sponges.)

Another conservation technique involves an appliance you might not expect: When conservators spot mold growing on a book, they stick the volume inside a commercial freezer, which Wagner says inhibits growth.

6. EVERY DAY ON THE JOB IS DIFFERENT …

No two books (or their materials) are exactly alike, which keeps the job fresh and interesting. "I'm always getting something new to treat," Wagner says. Books from different eras and places vary in their materials and construction, as well as in the kinds of traumas they've experienced, whether it's water or insect damage or mold exposure. Amateur fixes from prior owners—a taped page, for example—can inflict their own kind of damage.

Repairs can include re-backing books, patching tiny holes and tatters with Japanese paper (it's thin and strong), humidifying paper to separate stuck pages, and deciding which methods of treating stains work best with the book's ink and materials. Some books might be good candidates for washing using de-ionized water—which can remove dirt and debris—although this method isn't conservators' first line of treatment, since it changes the structure of paper.

"You have to look at each object as its own entity and decide what’s best for it," Wagner says.

7. ... BUT LIKE ALL JOBS, THERE ARE DULL MOMENTS.

When they’re not repairing old tomes, book conservators can sometimes be found tackling paperwork of a different sort. “For every rare book I treat, I have to write a condition report,” Wagner says. “When that book comes in I have to photograph it, and I have to note its size, its condition, how it’s bound, and the problems it’s having. That can be time-consuming."

8. THE BEST CONSERVATION JOBS ARE INVISIBLE.

A conservator’s job typically isn’t to make an old book look like new again (unless it’s, say, going on display in a period room), but to make it readable using as little work as possible. “I’m not going to rebind a book because it’s old and beat-up,” Dubansky says. “I treasure the fact that it’s old and beat-up. What I’m going to try to do is repair all the parts that are vulnerable to make it functional.”

9. THEY OFTEN FREELANCE.

Book conservators can be found working at bookbinderies, museums, college and university libraries, public libraries, and other types of institutions. Some, however, also tackle freelance projects on the side, working with clients to restore items like tattered family Bibles, old journals, and heirloom books. Many conservators are also self-employed: Instead of working a 9-to-5 at a single institution, they'll work part-time or with institutions or private individuals on a project-by-project basis.

10. DIGITIZATION HELPS SAVE OLD BOOKS.

Some books are beyond repair, like when they're "so brittle that they're breaking to the touch," Wagner says. In that case, the book may be a good candidate for digitization, since at least then the subject matter will be available to researchers. Conservators will use special copiers or take individual photos of each page ("very, very carefully") to immortalize the words without harming the book itself.

11. THEY SOMETIMES GET TO WORK ON HISTORY-CHANGING DOCUMENTS.

In 2013, a life-changing first edition passed through Wagner's hands: Edward Jenner’s An Inquiry into the Causes and Effects of the Variolae Vaccinae (1798), which details the English physician's work with what would ultimately become the smallpox vaccine. "That was amazing because he’s the father of immunology," Wagner says.

While rare and influential, the book itself wasn't in great condition. Its inside pages were covered in mold, and its stitching had unraveled so that sections were detached from the binding, among other damage. The first thing Wagner did to treat the book was to stick it into the freezer to blast its mold. Then, after dry cleaning it with a brush, she dismantled the book's text block (a.k.a. the "block" formed by a book's cut and stacked pages), washed individual pages in de-ionized water, and humidified and dried the color plates. Wagner then patched holes from mold growth with Japanese paper before re-sewing them together and re-casing them in their original binding.

Wagner says she still remembers the project because of the amount of labor that went into it—and the importance of the book in medical history, now preserved for future generations to enjoy.

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