The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 7, Number 1
Mar 1983

The Forum, a New Feature

Recently, in conversations with Bob Feller, I have become aware of a general communication problem in conservation. It is not a problem that can be solved by providing newsletter readers with facts and news. Conservators themselves find it hard to deal with through the grapevine, an meetings or in journals. This problem is the lack of opportunity for thoughtful analysis, evaluation and discussion of issues relating to the health and future of the field. Somehow, existing publications seem to be either too informal and limited as vehicles for extended discussions, or too infrequent and slow-to-reach-print for discussions of current issues. No blame can be assigned here, for moat newsletters are not in a position to commit space for this on a continuing basis, while professional journals, as permanent repositories, are unable to give high priority to rapid publication.

In centuries past, before the rise of modern magazines and mass mailing permits, there were two forums for serious discussion of current issues in all fields: pamphlets and personal correspondence. They were tremendously influential and effective in the development of thought. Privately published pamphlets and long letters were passed from hand to hand at the discretion of the latest recipient in much the same way that photocopies of articles are passed around today. The French Enlightenment would have been only a feeble glow without the stimulation of individual publication and correspondence among its leaders.

Personal letters are still useful for discussing issues of the day freely and in depth, but people rarely find much time for them nowadays; and the self-published pamphlet has gone out of style.

Bob Feller and I agreed that a special column in the Abbey Newsletter might provide the kind of forum needed. His contribution will initiate this column.

Others are invited to contribute for succeeding issues, at whatever length the subject seems to call for. Contributions will be reviewed and, if acceptable, will appear in the next possible issue.

Ellen McCrady


The contributor to this issue's Forum is Dr. Robert L. Feller, The Mellon Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh.

A field that has grown as much as conservation has in the last decade or two finds itself in the need of a variety of vehicles of communication, both for news and technical material. A considerable number of newsletters, bulletins and journals have come forth to meet these needs. For example, Studies in Conservation and the Journal of the American Institute for Conservation effectively communicate the results of research. Under the leadership of van Asperen de Boer, the triennial meetings of the ICON Committee for Conservation began some years ago to provide a somewhat less formal opportunity for conservators and conservation scientists to present, by means of the conference preprints, brief reports on research developments and the state of the art in more than 20 special fields of treatment and analysis. AIC's preprints of papers given at the annual meetings have set a high standard for prompt and direct communication of results. The biennial special conferences of IIC, such as the most recent one held in Washington, D.C., on "Science and Technology in the Service of Conservation," have resulted in excellent publications in which each conference has assembled extended discussions around specific topics. Lastly, the annotated bibliographies that have regularly appeared in Art and Archaeology Technical Abstracts provide extensive literature surveys of special subjects. Today, nearly every conservation-oriented organization issues a newsletter.

These various publications provide a welcome and necessary variety of means through which the results of new research and overviews of specific topics can be published. There is, however, one type of communication that the field has seen very little of: the thought-provoking commentary which serves to underline the importance of certain proposals or undertakings, point out deficiencies in the field, or comment on means for advancement of the profession.

The urge to write editorial commentaries apparently has not been a very strong one in American conservation circles. Whenever we have felt the need to comment on the needs of the field, we seem to have relied largely on letters to the editor. It is my contention, however, that for several reasons, letters are not the moat appropriate vehicles for the needs of the conservation profession. The size of the space usually allotted for letters is seldom adequate to convey all of the thoughts that the writer may wish to convey. Letters to the editor do not constitute a very formal literature citation if one wishes to refer to them in the future.

Another reason which may not be obvious seems to be related to the cultural setting; in England, the tradition of using letters to the editor to make serious commentary on current events may perhaps be more time-honored than in the States. In this country, there is a connotation that such letters may serve as a place where cranks tend to express their views. If this opinion is indeed widely held, it may, in part, explain why many of our colleagues are reluctant to write to the editor: they may feel that their remarks will not be taken seriously or that they themselves may be reckoned as something of a crank.

I particularly sensed the need of an opportunity for editorial commentary in recent years at the time when the National Conservation Advisory Council (NCAC) was trying to arrive at a consensus as to what the needs of the field were and what the nature of a National Conservation Institute might be. While those directly involved with the NCAC made every effort, at meetings and conventions, to discuss the pros and cons of recommendations that might be made, the field of conservation during that period did not have the benefit of extended editorial commentary from colleagues not directly responsible for carrying out the objectives of the NCAC. If I recall correctly, there were few, if any, letters to the editor on the subject.

R. J. Gettens used to object regularly to the conduct of the annual business meetings of the IIC-American Group, complaining that, by the time all the committee reports were in, there was little time for discussions of policy and of directions for the future. The same can be said for many of the past annual meetings of the American Institute for Conservation. One way to circumvent this situation would be to give members a chance to express their ideas and opinions more frequently in the journals and newsletters. Having a formal page or department is, of course, not the only way this might be done. It is one device, however; that has not been thus far widely exploited in conservation. I, for one, therefore welcome the announcement that the Abbey Newsletter intends to establish a policy of publishing readers' commentaries, one more of the outstanding services that this newsletter has become justly famous for.

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