The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 13, Number 5
Sep 1989


Who is the Library Conservator?

by Hilary A. Kaplan

"What is meant by a trained conservator?" is the topic to be addressed when the Interim Meeting of the Working Group on Training of the ICOM Conservation Committee convenes in late summer, 1989. ICOM has thus sparked discussion about the preparation conservators receive (particularly the conservator trained in a formal academic program), the expectations of recent graduates, and the hopes of the institutions that employ them. While it is likely that the ICOM group will focus its discussion on the fine arts conservator, many of the questions raised about employee and employer expectations are valid for the library conservation community as well.

Having graduated from the Columbia University Conservation Program in May 1987, I will describe my personal experience in the program, as well as my evaluation of the currant state of the library conservation field. I have also conducted informal interviews with other Columbia-trained conservators, representing both recent graduates and those with more experience in the field, so that I may present a more widely held view of the library conservation field. Though the apprenticed or self-taught conservator certainly merits discussion within the context of library conservation, I will here limit my comments to the formal academic program-trained conservator.

I received a good foundation for my development as a conservator at Columbia. I did not expect to emerge as a polished, fully-experienced conservator, and like most other graduates of the Columbia Program, still recognize the need for continued education and development. It would be difficult to produce fully-experienced, well-rounded, production-oriented conservators in so short a period of time. But through the three years of the program, I gained the theoretical and philosophical background necessary to make educated and coherent decisions about conservation issues and treatments. I developed and refined my sense of judgement and learned to exercise this skill in conservation decision-making.

Judgement may be the single most important skill a conservator can acquire, for without the ability to evaluate appropriate actions, even the most well-developed bench skills prove inadequate. The value of this type of "technical/intellectual" expertise is incalculable, and difficult to attain in another manner.

During the course of the Columbia Program, the skills and techniques necessary to execute conservation treatments were, because of time constraints, emphasized less than intellectual aspects of conservation. Treatment instruction did, however, include several benchwork courses, and all graduating conservators have spent at least one academic year performing treatments in an established conservation facility. Beyond graduation, most graduates ideally look to gain further manual workbench skills from an experienced mentor. In the library conservation field, additional training of this sort is extremely difficult to achieve on an ongoing basis. Short term internships, where available, may supplement already existing knowledge and techniques. But if little time is available for the conservator to repeat these newly developed techniques, technical skills become difficult to maintain.

Because impeccable bench skills often take many years of repeated practice to acquire, few conservators possess the skill or confidence to open their own shops upon graduation. Many graduates of the program who do not find work with an experienced mentor accept what I will call "hybrid" or administrative-benchwork positions. These positions appear to offer the recent graduate the opportunity to direct preservation planning processes as well as physically treat collection materials. This type of library conservator may expect to directly participate in shaping the future of his or her library's preservation program. In accepting this type of position, conservators also attempt to fill a void in the library conservation field.

To help conservators maximize their effectiveness in a library setting, students in the Columbia training program acquire a general knowledge of librarianship. This means that program graduates are familiar with the philosophical and practical aspects of a working library. They recognize, for example, that dividing a single thick volume into two thinner volumes may improve the book's physical stability, and perhaps influence its accessibility, but would create additional work for a cataloger. Conservators are not only trained to understand what actions may be taken to stabilize a single item or an entire building, but what the consequences of these actions will be for library personnel, their patrons, and their materials.

Ironically, while conservators may be educated in library operations, most library personnel, including those responsible for hiring a conservator, may have only the vaguest notion as to who a conservator is or what the conservator does. The lack of understanding and agreement on the role of the conservator hampers the recruitment process for both the individual and the institution.

Library administrations would ideally like to see maximum accomplishment with minimum expense. The job may specify "conservator," but too often, that single person may be expected to simultaneously be all things to all people-technician, instructor, consultant, and administrator. And, all too often, it is the recent training program graduate who is inadvertently targeted for this jack-of-all trades position, because he or she may be the only conservation professional available or affordable to most institutions.

Conservators in hybrid positions who anticipate, but never experience, a benchwork component to their jobs can easily become frustrated with their circumstances. A mutual understanding of what may be realistically expected of both employer and employee is of primary importance from the word "go." A cramped or misused conservator is of no greater value to an institution than an unqualified employee. It is not likely that either individual would remain in the institution very long. It is not unlikely that the conservator will leave behind an expensively equipped, but uninhabited conservation facility.

Specific, realistic goals established in advance of hiring are important and cannot be overemphasized. They will enhance the hiring institution's ability to attract strong candidates. Library administrators who contemplate establishing a preservation program must decide how many preservation/conservation professionals are needed. Only the most gifted and experienced individual can interpret institutional needs, succeed at long-range planning, be an effective manager, and carry out traditional benchwork. Rarer still is the conservator who is able to balance these responsibilities without shortchanging any one area. Library administrators should consider whether or not one person may be reasonably expected to fill and excel in all roles, and how dividing responsibilities may be effectively accomplished.

It may be helpful for library personnel who are thinking of establishing a preservation program to call upon the expertise of individuals from outside their institution who are experienced in assessing preservation needs. While consultancy costs may at first glance seem exorbitant to librarians on meager budgets, experienced consultants may help focus administrative attention on an institution's real preservation needs. They very well may, in the long run, save money which otherwise would have been inadvisably spent.

At least one individual involved in a library preservation program should be experienced in the full-time administration of library operations. What is needed from the outset is an individual with a thorough understanding of organizational functions and institutional needs. For this reason, it may be easier to teach the experienced library administrator the fundamentals of preservation, than to give the rank-and-file preservation enthusiast instruction in administration. Am NEH-funded project at the University of California, directed by Barclay Ogden, has demonstrated success of programs which target proven library administrators and prepare them for preservation administration positions. The experienced library managers in this project, from eight University of California campuses, brought a no-nonsense "get the job done" approach to preservation management. In the words of the final report, "The project acknowledged that managerial experience and familiarity with an institution's unique situation and needs was a prerequisite to success in implementing any mew program."*

The library administrator for preservation should interpret the preservation needs of the collections from a managerial standpoint, and evaluate the practical applications of preservation to a particular institutional structure. Working at the organizational level, this individual will integrate preservation thinking into library policies. When the conservator is part of the preservation team, the preservation administrator will also serve as a liaison between the administrative needs of the institution and the subject expertise of the conservator.

The experienced administrator recognizes how to establish lines for intraorganizational communication as well as to garner institutional support when needed. This individual works with the conservation professional, knowing how and when to listen and rely upon the technical knowledge and problem-solving skills that the trained conservator can offer.

Potential employers should be reminded that though there are conservators who possess inherent administrative skills, the conservation professional focuses primarily on the theoretical and practical applications of conservation, and generally has no more or less administrative experience than any new graduate of a library school. Yet, for conservation to be skillfully and sometimes delicately introduced into the library environment, administrative finesse is essential. It is here that we must look to the seasoned library administrator to employ the managerial skills and political savvy necessary to promote and sustain a library preservation program.

Whereas more standard library functions like cataloging or reference services are generally well-coordinated and accepted components of the library's organization, conservation is often regarded as "the new kid on the block." Because the relationship of this relative newcomer to the more traditional library functions has yet to be consistently and clearly defined within the library or conservation literature, it must be repeatedly articulated and consciously developed within the context of library operations.

The long-range solution to this problem will be achieved through greater communication between library and conservation fields. The library school curriculum might place greater emphasis on conservation in a broader context--the application of conservation principles to all collections, not exclusively to the special collections. Another remedy would encourage conservation as part of ongoing library staff education. However, it is ultimately the responsibility of library administration to understand what the issuance of a preservation mandate means: to know what type of administrative and financial commitment is called for. Preservation cannot survive as a mere "trendy thing." Proper planning, implementation, and administration are time-consuming and costly. The impact that the recruited conservation professional may have in the library environment will emphatically depend upon a continual commitment of financial and administrative support.

Conservation, like librarianship, is a complex profession. Part of conservation's appeal for many an aspiring conservator is its diversity of elements merged into a single occupation. Many of the complexities of the profession are often hidden behind a final product--an artifact, or maybe hundreds of artifacts, that are now treated and stabilized. To accomplish that treatment, the conservator relies on judgement, creative instinct and problem-solving skills which he or she may reinforce with a knowledge of materials chemistry, building engineering and environmental controls, or manual dexterity.

We cannot, however, allow the complexities associated with the library and conservation fields to obstruct mutual understanding and communication, since our ultimate goal is the wellbeing of the collections. We may look to our professional organizations and publications to promote an ongoing dialog on the role of the conservator: who the conservator is and what the conservator does. Because this role does not lend itself to concise description and may differ from one library to the next, agreement on its definition may not be automatic, nor easily reached. Thorough exploration and discussion of this issue will help bring about a more fluid exchange between library and conservation fields. In so doing, we can identify where the strengths and talents in both fields lie, and assess how we may put then to best use.

*Barclay Ogden, "Final Report to NEH Preservation Implementation Project, University of California, Berkeley." The archives field has also recognized the advantages of seasoned managers as preservation administrators. The Society of American Archivists and NEDCC, with funding from the NEH Office of Preservation, sponsored a pilot project designed to train experienced archival administrators to plan, implement, promote and support comprehensive preservation programs in their institutions. Selected administrators from 15 repositories participated in the Preservation Management Institute in June of 1987. For further information see "Archivists Train for Preservation Management," by Genevieve Troka, in National Preservation News, No. 8 (October 1987) p. 11-13.

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