Rare book conservator helps preserve NC history

DALLAS, NC — A North Carolina woman is helping protect state history.

What You Need To Know

Ali Pizza is the assistant director of Gaston County Museum

Pizza is one of at least six professionally trained conservators in North Carolina

Pizza is the only conservator in North Carolina who trained as an apprentice with the Rare Books Binders at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library

Gaston County Museum Assistant Director Ali Pizza uses special tools to delicately dissect rare books.

One of the projects Pizza is working on is a decades-old scrapbook once owned by James “Brother Jimmy” Adams, the first Black professional scouter in Piedmont Council.

Preserving old pages demands careful precision, according to Pizza.

“Scrapbooks are especially very difficult to work with,” Pizza said. “Because there’s a range of materials… you have different weights, you have a newspaper clipping, which is very thin, and a photograph, which is much heavier.”

The tedious process takes at least five months to complete, according to Pizza.

Pizza is one of at least six professionally trained conservators in North Carolina.

“Conservation was something where I could really delve into history in a very tactical way,” Pizza said.

A lover of art and history, Pizza always had a knack for putting things back together.

“I used to fix everything in my mother’s house,” Pizza said. “So if anything broke I would fix it, and I had no idea what a conservator was at that point.”

Pizza holds a studio arts degree from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia. She slightly altered her course shortly after graduating college.

Pizza says she’s the only conservator in North Carolina who trained as an apprentice with the Rare Books Binders at Oxford University’s Bodleian Library.

“It was an eye-opening experience,” Pizza said.

It’s a prestigious honor for the bench-trained conservator who works in a competitive industry.

“I don’t think I could have ever imagined what it would have done for my career, and just for me personally,” Pizza said.

Nearly a decade ago her husband convinced her to move to North Carolina to work with rare books at Belmont Abbey. The mother of three and small business owner is now back at school pursuing a master’s in arts and administration at Winthrop University.

“Having a small business, James Street Bindery, that arts and administration degree has taught me a lot about budgeting, about the organization of business,” Pizza said. “And about leadership, working with the public, fundraising, everything we learn has to do with what I do directly.”

She’s spent a lot of time carefully working on books, including the one once owned by Adams, often holding her breath with steady hands.

Today, much of her time is spent advocating for conservation at the local level and mentoring young conservators.

Pizza explained Adams’ scrapbook will be digitized and uploaded online to the Gaston County Library. The process helps make history accessible to future generations.

“We are enabling people to learn and discover their histories and find out how we’re all really connected to each other,” Pizza said. “And it’s not something that happens in a dingy room, although sometimes it begins that way. Eventually it is for the people, and that’s why I do it.”

The United States has two graduate degree programs for the conservation of rare books. The three-year programs at the University of Delaware and Buffalo State have strict entry requirements. They only accept about eight to 10 students per year.

Pizza is expected to graduate from Winthrop this summer.

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