Restoring a Soul to an Armenian Manuscript

Posted February 26, 2008 at 6:49pm

In a world of mass-produced paperbacks, magazines and electronic books, Tamara Ohanyan lives in a literary past.

She works among dyed leather, hand-sewn bindings and centuries-old parchment. As a book conservator, she restores old documents so they can be preserved — both physically and electronically — for the future.

It’s a skill she learned in Armenia, the landlocked former Soviet Republic in the Southern Caucasus, where she grew up in the capital, Yerevan, the daughter of a violinist and a teacher.

Now she works on the National Digital Library Program, one of the Library of Congress’ biggest projects, turning thousands of the nation’s most important documents into digital images accessible on the Web.

But she also volunteers her time to restore the handful of medieval Armenian works housed in the Library.

“It’s creative to think about the best solution to find for a book,” said Ohanyan, 42. “I think it’s a combination of art, science and skills. You get from all these a solution to save a book for another 200 years.”

There are 47 members of the book conservation team, including Ohanyan, at the Library of Congress. Some specialize in photographic materials, while others have more experience with book materials, such as the stretched animal skin of old parchment.

Ohanyan’s cubicle is a workspace dedicated to her art. Her shelf brims with books on book conservation, while her drawers contain tattered pieces of cloth and parchment.

Her latest volunteer project, an 18th century Armenian book, is close by. She recently replaced its headband with a reproduction of her own: a red, white and black band that connects the fragile pages to the book covers. To make this one, Ohanyan simultaneously used three needles for the three silk strands; some headbands take four or five.

Ohanyan is valuable to the Library’s Armenian collection not only because she can read the medieval Armenian language, but also because she has unmatched experience in restoring 16th, 17th and 18th century Armenian books. Before she came to the United States, she restored hundreds of her country’s manuscripts. The Library, on the other hand, only has about 15 medieval manuscripts in Armenian.

But it promised a diversity of other materials and books, drawing Ohanyan to the United States. Fellow conservator Yasmeen Khan, an Islamic manuscript specialist, said the Library’s 133 million-strong collection gives conservators the chance to touch history from a host of countries.

“If you can handle a book that was bound in the 16th century and you take it apart and see how it was made and put it back together, you feel a connection with the person who put it together in the past,” Khan said. “It’s like taking the telephone apart when you were a kid.”

‘An Artist Herself’

Ohanyan is a rare conservator in the small world of book conservation. She is the only one at the Library — and one of few in the world — who has such vast experience mending medieval Armenian manuscripts and recreating some of the old craftwork.

She first came to the United States in 2000 to learn Western bookbinding, studying as an unpaid intern at the Library of Congress for a year. She applied to several American programs in an effort to expand her skills.

“This was the only one that wasn’t paid and I chose this one,” she said with a laugh. “I think I made the right choice. I’ve learned here so much. It’s just an amazing, amazing place to learn and increase quality as a specialist.”

Colleagues describe Ohanyan as dedicated and talented, an artist who finds solutions to the challenges presented by each unique book.

Levon Avdoyan, the Library’s Armenian and Georgian area specialist, first met Ohanyan when she was an intern eight years ago. He gave her one of the biggest challenges on his shelves: a 17th-century Armenian book of gospels, rendered virtually unusable by fire and water damage.

First assessed for treatment back in the 1980s, officials said it could only be done by someone who could read the medieval language, primarily because the text was rubbing off and it was hard to see where one page ended and another began.

With Khan’s help, Ohanyan set to work restoring what Khan called “a block of moldy cheese.”

By the end of her yearlong internship, Ohanyan had unraveled the pages with the help of chemical solutions and a microscope, fit together the pieces of each page like a jigsaw puzzle and restored the cover and spine. It took immense patience: She had to take the book apart to put it back together.

To make sure the pages stayed whole, Ohanyan used flexible Japanese tissue as reinforcement. She restored the leather cover and sewed the pages to a new spine — all in the style and color of its original binding.

Pages that fell apart upon touch can now be flipped through by scholars. Ohanyan even put in her own personal touches.

“She was unhappy with the end papers, so, being an artist herself, she hand-painted them,” Avdoyan said. “She really is a marvel, I must say.”

Problem Solving

Ohanyan learned to mend the spines, pages and covers of Armenian books at the Matenadaran (literally, “book depository”) in Yerevan. There are about five manuscript conservators at the institution, which houses thousands of ancient Armenian works. She goes back often to participate in workshops; last summer, she built the protective cover for the Etchmiadzin Gospel, a famous 10th century Armenian book of gospels that has a sixth century ivory cover.

Every book seems to pique Ohanyan’s interest. She handles the Armenian religious text on her desk carefully, running her hand down the leather cover and gingerly rotating it to show off its craftsmanship.

She talks about its origins, its mixture of Western and Armenian techniques, and the new challenge each book presents.

“She’s an excellent problem solver. She understands that she has to learn from the collection item itself via analysis, testing and study so she can solve the problems it poses,” said Diane Vogt-O’Connor, the Library’s chief of conservation. “She works very carefully and thoughtfully.”

Ohanyan comes from an artistic and literary family. Her father, Alfred Ohanyan, helped found the country’s first jazz orchestra and played first violin in the national orchestra; her mother taught Armenian literature. Her brother, Ara, is a filmmaker in Armenia.

When she was 5, her mother brought her to an art school for children. “My feet didn’t touch the floor,” she recalled. She had to wait two more years to start classes.

Ohanyan eventually got her bachelor’s degree in art and Armenian art history and decided to attend the Matenadaran to learn about book conservation.

A Connection to History

Her interest in medieval books stems from her work as a painter of miniatures, the religious-themed paintings that appear in many of the books she mends. She still paints, using pigments that she made with the same materials and techniques used in the 13th century. Adorned with saints, halos and bright colors, her works range from the size of a piece of notebook paper to that of a business card.

The transition from painting to book conservation seemed natural, she said.

“They are so connected to each other,” she said. “For me, it wasn’t a big difference to change.”

Though she is part of a diaspora that is easily double the 3 million people who live in Armenia, she maintains remarkably close ties to her homeland. Ohanyan goes to an Armenian church and is married to an Armenian piano tuner and restorer. The population of Armenians in D.C. is quickly increasing, she said; she sees new faces in the pews every weekend.

She shares with them a connection to Armenia’s tumultuous history: the massacre of more than 1 million Armenians by the Ottoman Empire in 1915.

Ohanyan’s maternal grandmother and grandfather lost their families at 14 to the killings and were forced to live out their remaining childhoods in orphanages.

Her grandfather often told the story of losing his 8-year-old brother in the chaos while fleeing Turkey. He found him upon arrival in a small town in Armenia, only to be separated again when U.S. officials took the younger brother to America. Ohanyan’s grandfather searched his entire life for his brother, without success.

Ohanyan readily takes out pictures of her hometown and keeps photos of her nephews close by. But she is glad she came to the United States.

“I always want to learn something,” she said. “To learn, you have to be outside.”