Meet Jill Deiss: Book Conservator and BookbinderMay 12, 2010
A renowned bookbinder and conservator, Jill Deiss has cleaned and pressed the pages of historical works like Edgar Allen Poe’s family Bible, John Wilkes Booth’s diary, and Shakespeare’s First Folio. These days Jill is looking forward to pressing and cleaning a letter signed by Eleanor Roosevelt and addressed to AAUW. The conservation of this letter is part of a larger effort to restore noteworthy pieces of AAUW’s history. For Jill, however, this project has special significance, because her history and that of AAUW are inextricably linked.
In 1991, after completing a bachelor’s degree in costume history and design and a master’s degree in library science, Jill started Cat Tail Run Hand Bookbinding. The bindery has worked with clients such as the Andersonville Prison National Historic Site, the Sidwell Friends School, and the Wharton School of Business.
In the bindery’s infancy, Jill was already catering to big-name clients such as the U.S. Park Service. However, after a few years in operation, Jill was told that her master’s in library science was not enough. In order to continue with government clients, she needed to go back to school. “At the time I was feeling very small compared to the seemingly insurmountable obstacles in front of me,” confesses Jill.
It was around this time that Jill learned about the AAUW Career Development Grant and decided to apply. The grant awarded to Jill through AAUW allowed her to return to school. She described the support from AAUW as a shot in the arm and says, “The grant helped me to redirect my life.”
With her academic pursuits, Jill has been able to rise above the often-told stories of undereducated women in rural Appalachia. According to Jill, of all the students in her second grade class, only five graduated from high school; growing up, she knew only two women who had attended college. But this didn’t stop Jill from dreaming big.
After earning her first bachelor’s in 1984, Jill was inspired to look toward bookbinding, thanks to an internship at a museum in northern Massachusetts. After spending many hours helping researchers comb through archives at the library, she was inspired to take a bookbinding course. Jill completed the course and even spent extra Saturdays with the bookbinder on a special project. When she was given the task of restoring atlases for the museum, she was hooked. Jill followed the shift from textiles to books with more formal training at Cornell University’s Department of Library Conservation and the Smithsonian’s Conservation Institute in the late 1980s.
Jill has now been back in her hometown of Winchester, Virginia, nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, since 1991. These days she is using her knowledge and expertise in bookbinding and conservation to give back to causes, such as AAUW, that have helped her break through the barriers that women in rural Appalachia often face.