The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 5, Number 1
Feb 1981


SAA Conservation Concerns

by Lawrence McCrank
College of Library and Information Services, University of Maryland.

The Society of American Archivists, now 4000 members strong, held its 44th annual conference on September 30 -October 3, 1980 in Cincinnati, Ohio, with the theme "Agenda for the Eighties." Conservation concerns were prominent in the conference and hence in the agenda for the next decade, reflecting a poll of the SAA membership which showed that conservation education, program and staff development, and access to better services and research, were high priorities. In addition to the need for basic awareness education and inhouse repair and treatment, there was special concern for new communication media such as computer output forms, photographs and films, and also for "mass" treatment in the larger repositories.

The conference included a series of workshops, beginning with a two-day Archival Conservation workshop. This workshop was a pilot or test-run for a series of workshops funded by a recent $220,000 NEH grant to SAA (Howard Lowell, consultant, and Edward Gilbert, technical advisor). This NEH-SAA series of workshops will be coordinated by Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler, who is also to produce a basic manual--another, in addition to the several already in press or in process, as a result of various grants and projects.

The University of Cincinnati Library Conservation and Bindery Department demonstrated paper cleaning techniques and encapsulation; Joanne Hohler (State Historical Society of Wisconsin) did the same for bound volumes; Judith Fortson-Jones (Nebraska State Historical Society) provided a slide/tape presentation in surface cleaning and encapsulation (available on loan free from the Nebraska State Historical Society); and there was a special session devoted to the effects of Mt. St. Helen's eruption on Pacific Northwest repositories.

These show-and-tell offerings and workshops were rudimentary and very basic; there was little in-depth or sophisticated conservation education in these, but certainly an avid spread of the Gospel. Outgoing SAA president Maynard Brichford noted in his greeting:

Cost-conscious administrators, often from a sense of personal guilt, react negatively to the words "convention" and "annual meeting" and insist that they can only fund travel to "workshops" and skills enhancement seminars. Pursued to its logical end, this trend could produce a nation of work- shoppers--persons who attend one or two meetings to acquire basic skills and then disappear into a paraprofessional morass, Of all professionals, archivists should perceive a serious fault in a profession that does not build upon the past and support a sustained program for the discovery of new knowledge.

His words ring especially loud when considering the problem of conservation education for archivists.

More substantive, yet hardly a substitute for intensive formalized conservation education, were a series of discussions and presentations relating to conservation. SAA now has an active conservation PAG (Professional Affinity Group), which held its meeting on September 30. Program sessions thereafter devoted to conservation included: 1) "Cooperation in Conservation," with reports on the NEDCC (to become the Northeast instead of New England Document Conservation Center), the Western States Materials Conservation Project, and CLASS (California Library Authority for Systems and Service) (Session no. 13); 2) "Archival Conservation in the 1980s," focusing on changing technology in reprography, distinctions between conservators and conservation technicians, progress in mass deacidification research and its administrative implications, and the impact of inflation on conservation programs (#21); 3) "Conservation of Visual Images," for basic handling of photographs, films, and videotapes (#50); and 4) "Selecting Appropriate Conservation Programs," a sensible and enlightened discussion by Peter Waters and Chandru Shahani with more rapport between the Library of Congress and the National Archives and Records Service than has been the case previously when comparing lamination and encapsulation techniques (#60); and finally, 5) "Fumigation and Cleaning: Problems and Possibilities," which discussed technical problems as well as safety standards and attendant legal problems (#70). Related sessions focused on security and marking for proof of ownership.

Particularly relevant for the professionalization of conservators was the concern articulated by Philip Mason, past chairman of the task force on SAA program priorities in the 1970s, who lamented the desertion or neglect of archival science and SAA by conservation and conservators. He saw this neglect as part of a problematic splintering or atomization of the archival profession. Perhaps more accurately, archivists discern a coalescence of conservators as the American Institute for Conservation matures, but also the continued lack of rapport between art conservators and those treating books, records, and other information media; the peculiar bias of many conservators against binding, reprographics, engineering, etc.; and the attempt of both professions to dichotomize the responsibilities of the curator (i.e., archivist or librarian) and those of the conservator. It is perhaps not so much a desertion from the ranks that plagues SAA, but relative non-involvement of conservation (as it is now dominated by art concerns) with the larger context of cultural preservation, just as archival work has yet to be integrated into a holistic information science. In any case, the conference achieved its goal of stimulating basic conservation awareness and reflecting upon the seemingly insurmountable conservation problems now facing archivists in the 1980s.

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