An Internship Hundreds of Years in the Making

When a library houses the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, including 260,000 printed books and 60,000 manuscripts dating as far back as the late 13th century, it needs a team of conservators dedicated to keeping them intact. That’s where the Folger Shakespeare Library’s Conservation Lab comes in. They’re the ones who ensure that we’re still able to enjoy books, manuscripts, and art on paper from hundreds of years ago.

The Folger Conservation Lab, in Washington, D.C., is where book and paper conservators work on preserving the library’s extensive collections.

It takes many years of practice to know how to best treat a damaged manuscript or rebind a book that is literally falling apart at the seams. That’s why for Folger Shakespeare Library, and other similar institutions, interns are crucial.

As everyone who currently works in the Conservation Lab also interned there at one point, they understand the importance of training the next generation of book conservators. Right now, they are hosting Swiss national Kevin Cilurzo through the J-1 Exchange Visitor Program. He’s a bookbinder by trade who has found his passion in keeping books well-maintained for the next generation and the generation after that.

Kevin shows where the Conservation Lab does water treatments.

As a niche trade, you might wonder why Kevin took to his interest in old books. It’s in part because Kevin is from a family of bookbinders. Both his father and sister have made their careers in putting together books. He actually bound his first text at the age of 12.

“When you’re binding books that’s nice, you’re creating something,” he said of his change of profession. “But if you really want to know a lot about books, you have to study old books and see how they built them.” He doesn’t worry that his chosen trade will become obsolete because, “everyone needs books.”

Kevin writes out how the book he was working on was constructed. This way, it will be easier for him to put it back together later.

It’s critical to understand that there’s a huge difference between restoring a book and conserving it. A bookseller might ask to have a book restored, or made to look closer to its original appearance, when he wants to ensure a high auction price. For book conservators, what’s important isn’t that the text is physically beautiful, but that they keep its historical structure.

Kevin interned previously at Swiss conservation centers as well as the Vatican Library. But he’s been aware of Folger’s Advanced Internship Program since he first started his studies six years ago. It has a very prestigious reputation in the conservation world, especially for its hands-on approach to internships. “I knew they had very nice laboratory and special collection,” he said.

“We’re small enough as an institution that we can do the things we do, especially with internships,” said Renate Mesmer, the head of the Conservation Lab and Kevin’s supervisor. “I give credit to the former head of conservation because he always believed in exchange. It’s almost like a tradition here.”

Folger Shakespeare Library Head of Conservation, Renate Mesmer, poses with Kevin.

One of Kevin’s first assignments was helping to uncrate Shakespeare’s First Folio in Los Angeles. This special collection of Shakespeare’s work was on a U.S. tour to celebrate the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. He is currently working on four concurrent projects at the Folger, including conserving a 16th-century book for a scholar and working with an Islamic text. Each presents an individual challenge, requiring hand skills as well as specific scientific and chemical knowledge to solve it.

One of Kevin’s current projects at the conservation lab; notice that the book’s sewing is coming apart.

Renate says she appreciates the contributions that interns make to the Conversation Lab, but their presence adds even more than just completing treatments on books. “They challenge you so much. I mean, for me when you teach someone, you learn the most,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for almost 30 years and I think that it’s a good thing that every time I give an answer, I have to go ‘Wait does this even make sense what I’m doing?’”

For Kevin, he’s getting more practice in his chosen field as well as expanding his international experience. This is his first time in the United States. “It’s always good to cross boundaries and expand your personal and also professional ideas,” he said. “When you go abroad you see [new things] and maybe you bring something back.”

Renate Mesmer and Kevin Cilurzo share a laugh.

If you’re in the D.C. area, check out the Library and the work of Kevin and his team through the many exhibits, performances, and events inclusive of not only Shakespeare but the Early Modern Era generally.

Hosting at Cultural Vistas takes many forms, from our generous host families to the companies that welcome international interns into their workplace.  If you have a story about how hosting impacted your life, reach out to us at and follow along with the series at #WhyHostingMatters.