Sunday, January 9, 2011

A bit about terminology

I will very likely make abundant use of the terms preservation and conservation on this blog. I state at the outset that I will use these terms mostly interchangeably, being intentionally open in their meanings. This is obviously not a precise way to communicate, and I’m not sure if it is the most intelligent approach - the more academic way seems to be to create very precise definitions of terms - but precision here seems difficult and artificial.

Just the other day an entry titled Difference Between Conservation and Preservation showed up on a Google alert which highlights the challenges of trying to be precise with these terms - it imposes meaning that other communities don’t agree to.

I come from, and mostly work in the library world. In the library world preservation and conservation have developed a generally agreed upon, if somewhat vague, set of meanings. In the last few years I’ve had much more interdisciplinary conversations with the archive, museum, art, and other cultural heritage institutions and within these communities there are different sets of meanings for these terms - and different terms are introduced. (I’ve occasionally used the ‘con/preservation’ construction, but it really isn’t all that satisfying.)

I think there is value for the individual disciplines to have their more precise meanings, but any attempt on my part to attempt to communicate with the larger cultural heritage community and to try impose precise definitions on these terms seems like a waste of time. Things don’t mean what I say they mean just because I declare what they mean. Meaning is community created, and we’ve got a diverse community.

Eventually, the various cultural heritage communities may see the need to come to agreement on uniformly agreed upon meaning for these terms - but that is not my call.

(My blog is titled Library Preservation in large part because, in a web search, it is the combination of these two terms that yields results I am most interested in - preservation in a library context.)


  1. What an interesting idea.

    In my experience when communicating with others in the sub-discipline of the heritage field in which I work, both these terms have an implied meaning, and as long as we continue to only talk to our own field then there will be no need, or desire, for clearer definitions.

    I want to emphasize that I think that whilst you are correct that these meanings are specific, and precise, at the same time they are implied only through repeated use, and are not defined "on paper" so to speak.

    However, this is all interesting, because as you say with increasing interdisciplinary work comes a need for more precise definitions, and choice of language. In fact there comes a need to think about all the words we use, and their implied and potential meanings. The question then is how do we all come to agreement on such issues? Or, do we in fact need to? Can multiple meanings for the same word be accepted in an interdisciplinary scenario?

    What a lovely post, really got me wondering.

    Cheers, Dan.

  2. What a lot of discussions in perspective.
    See here below the Resolution on terminology accepted on ICOM-CC conference 2008.
    The use of those terms Conservation / Preservation lead to a lot of discussion. As you can find on ICCOM-CC blog: comments of Iwona Szmelter about the use of Preservation and Conservation Terms in English, Latin or Germanic speaking countries. As comments about the resolution from the ICOM-CC itself...

    Ciao, Baudouin

  3. Thanks Dan and Baudouin for your helpful comments. The only problem is your comments seem to help muddy the water even more. (That's not necessarily a problem, recognizing muddy water as muddy is better than pretending that muddy water is clear.)

    Dan, I like your comment about meanings of words being "implied only through repeated use". Our challenge is how do different communities who repeatedly use different terms effectively and accurately communicate with each other.

    Baudoiun mentioned the ICOM-CC resolution on terminology which opts for "conservation" as the umbrella term. (I'm thankful for the reminder to look beyond the US borders for people's thoughts and opinions on these issues. I need to spend more time with ICOM-CC and IFLA.) What was most intriguing, however, was Iwona Szmelter's comments on the choice of an umbrella term, and what happens when translating into other languages. "That is why I try to avoid the term “conservation”, because what this term denotes might be interpreted in different ways in the Anglo-American, Latin and German traditions." It's a good reminder that we don't just have different disciplines to contend with, but different languages as well.

    In the end, I guess I'm still just as baffled as I was about terminology and will continue to use preservation and conservation and hope someone knows what I'm talking about.

  4. The use of an umbrela term can be very usefull indeed. The choice of "conservation" as umbrella term can be seen as a compromise trying to match differences between languages.
    In Dutch language "conservatie" (Nl) is close to the english, so as "conservazione" (Ital) or "conservation" (Fr). In Dutch "conservatie" is understood but not realy match the meaning of a umbrella term. "Behoud" or even "Bewaar" would be beter. That's why the term "preventieve conservatie" is mostly used in conservation at least in Flanders. This term apparently comes from work of art conservation field: "la conservation préventive" in French.
    Anyway it become more and more confused, I agree.
    At last, did the use of "conservation" in English as umbrella term something to do with the "conservasionist" field ? What give the idea that holistic or structuralism have something to do with this.