Monday, December 19, 2016

The Smartest Book In The Room


What came to mind for you... just then... when you saw the above job title? 

Did you think of the staff member on your estate who comes in and mops or vacuums the floor, dusts the furniture and makes the bed, cleans the bathrooms, puts a load in the washer and then clocks out for the day?  If so, you're not alone, as that's exactly how the title has shifted over the years.

There was a time, however, when the title Housekeeper meant someone who had not only devoured all 902 pages of The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping as preparation for their lifelong career, yet consulted regularly with others who'd done the same in domestic household, historic homes open to the public, and other museum-level conservation roles. 

My personal feeling, as unpopular as it has shown to be, is that anyone in the position of a true, authentic Housekeeper - and with whatever title they may have been bestowed with at the present moment (perhaps a role taken on by the Butler, or the Household Manager) - should have the same level of knowledge as detailed in the Manual - not to mention authentic interest in both obtaining and the focused, accurate use of that knowledge of the care and conservation of rare objects and surfaces - the types most likely to be found in only the best of estates. 

And for those staff who are cleaning their entire estate with an all-in-one spray product and then turning on the Hoover, and having no interest in this knowledge of the deeper care and conservation of the antique and rare household valuables they may come into contact with throughout the day: the title of Maid, then, which is still honorable within its own regard and scope of responsibility, is to be reserved for them.

The actual cleaning of rare surfaces... and the Book details great discussions on virtually every type of surface one could imagine to come into contact with... turns out, and thank goodness cautioned near the front of the book as well, to be: 

the most interventive technique of housekeeping, and generates high risks of accidental and cumulative damage. Cleaning is not, therefore, undertaken lightly."  (p.131)

This mindset of extreme caution permeates throughout the entire book, advising when and under what conditions you would find any surface or object in, and what to do next. 

Not for the faint of heart.. this is no breezy afternoon seminar of reading the back of Swiffer boxes. This is the real deal - the definitive guide to study - intently - by those who are serious about investing the time for research in a career of authentic, traditional Housekeeping and fine estate conservation services. 

Interesting, and of worth noting, is the detail and extension of information which virtually every page exudes. For instance, on the topic of handling archival photographs (no doubt, your staff will come into contact with, despite most employers having entered the digital age quite some time ago): 

Fingers must never be allowed to touch photographic surfaces. Thus, where photographs have to be handled, the wearing of gloves is essential. However this is not straightforward: cotton gloves can catch on rough edges of paper and are an inadequate barrier, whilst some surgical gloves produce harmful chemicals that can damage silver images; polyethylene gloves are usually safest. (p. 494)

And, lest one be concerned the subject matter is just too dry to hold ones interest, just in time there occasionally appears a bit of information which is both helpful professionally, and somewhat entertaining as well, as in this discussion of the care of earlier period body armour which is occasionally found displayed in rare collections:

Breast plates designed to protect against musket shot were often tested or "proofed" by firing a musket at the piece; hence, the round dent sometimes found in a plate before it was ever used in combat. (p. 322)

Yet, what is it to make this particular book, "The Smartest Book In The Room," as the title of this post so boldly suggests? It is, simply, that it is written much as people speak who are also the smartest people in the room: they know quite well they actually are not the smartest people in the room, and give room to listen and to refer their audience to other sources, as the needs arise. This is evident in the frequent caution to the reader that
when in doubt about the handling, cleaning, or conservation of a particular object or surface, one must - first and before taking any action - study and consult other sources further. 

Thus, the reader becomes not simply a student of a brilliant masterpiece of original Housekeeping and conservation knowledge (which I believe this book to be), yet - just as importantly - also a student of lifelong learning, as, despite the 902 pages of deeply researched and usable information, they will learn throughout the book there is much more ahead - if they take their career, and their earned title of Housekeeper seriously, that is. 


Thinking back to the three mentors I've been blessed with finding and guiding me over the past six decades, there's a common theme which I noticed over time ran through each of them:  In the endeavors which most stood out and defined their lives, whether it be personal or professional, each of them was at the very top of their game - the "go to guy," one could say - yet beyond that - the true defining characteristic of them being able to provide wise counsel and have people, my lucky self included, want to be near them - was they realized they weren't the smartest people in the room.

There was nothing coy going on with them, no humble brag as has become so popular of late, yet a keen sense that although they knew a thing or two about a thing or two, and knew that others would want some of that to rub off on them, they also realized it's a big world out there with lots of ideals and pathways to take. Almost every time I've referred to (or, as odd as it may sound, read for pleasure) this book, I think about this phenomenon, and I think about my own mentors and just how much they'd enjoy reading the book as well, given, I suppose, them having any reason to do so.

And a good reason to do so is highly evident for virtually everyone working in domestic services, as it would be the rare domestic worker indeed who didn't come into contact with at least some of the rare, delicate, and of course very expensive surfaces, antique or not, which the book has within its covers and which, as Housekeeper, an estate owner would entrust to the care of.

The National Trust Manual of Housekeeping is the perfect mentor, as much as a book can be, for almost anyone employed in domestic service.  Do not be dismayed with the pricey $99 new edition expense - although I believe  it's worth every penny and more, there are gently used copies available for much less - and for those Citizens who find the best values in reading material at their public library, it's a standard in most of the larger public library reference departments.



What now comes to your mind?

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