Sunday, June 26, 2011

Question Authority

“The Utility of Discourse Analysis to Heritage Studies: The Burra Charter and Social Inclusion” by Emma Waterton, Laurajane Smith & Gary Campbell. International Journal of Heritage Studies v.12, no. 4, July 2006, pp. 339-355.

In my late teens and early twenties I, like many others, had an assortment of “Question Authority” paraphernalia - postcards, bumper stickers. I was just another well-educated, suburban, middle-class,white male who was sure “the system” with it’s conservative thinking and oppressive whatever needed to be taken down. Now that I’m middle aged I don’t think my ideas have changed all that much but now, rather than spending all my time brooding in my parent’s basement I find myself fixing plumbing problems and watching South Park reruns and don’t really have the energy and enthusiasm to fight the system.

I do, however, think the “Question Authority” line has as much relevance now as it did then, except now I have to acknowledge that I - and I’m going to guess that you too Mr./Ms blog reader - that I am the authority. Being a well-educated, suburban, middle-class,white male means you are part of the authority. Questioning authority is all well and good when authority is some thing out there - but it is so much more important, and challenging, when authority is you.

Questioning one’s own authority requires a deep level of self-awareness and detachment. It requires stepping outside of one’s own world-view to acknowledge that there are other legitimate world-views and, more importantly, questioning your own authority requires the ability to detach from your world-view in order to critically observe and analyze it.

And yes, this curious introduction to a blog post will wend its way to the topic of conversation.

How does the language we use about conservation, and related topics like heritage, reflect our deeper and often unspoken beliefs and agenda?

The authors of “The Utility of Discourse Analysis to Heritage Studies: The Burra Charter and Social Inclusion” investigate the idea of “heritage” particularly as it it used in The Burra Charter: The Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places of Cultural Significance. To achieve this investigation, they use the technique of discourse analysis.

As I am not a student of discourse analysis, and not particularly skilled in any form of literary analysis I cannot provide an expert’s critique of what the authors are attempting to accomplish. I am, however, intrigued by what they have to say and will briefly report it here.

The authors look at the use of the idea of heritage and state that the literature presents no clear sense of what that word actually means. With this vagueness comes “the prevalence of an uncritical, common-sense understandings of what heritage entails. Smith refers to this as the Authorized Heritage Discourse (AHD) which, she argues, promotes a consensus approach to history, smoothing over conflict and social differences. This representation, which incorporates a set of conservative, if not reactionary, and distinctly Western, social meanings, has become ubiquitous in the public’s understanding of heritage.” (pp. 339-340) (The authors are citing Smith’s Archaeological Theory and the Politics of Cultural Heritage.)

They continue “Smith points out, any attempts at engaging with community, or stakeholder groups must take into account the power relations that underlie the dominant heritage discourse, as they may inadvertently work to discourage the equitable participation of these groups whose understanding of the nature of heritage are excluded from that discourse.” (p. 340)

To paraphrase the previous quote: In order to authentically engage with a larger community in discussion of heritage, you must be aware of, and questioning of your own authority, and especially the language you use to express that authority in that conversation.

I pull out the following three quotes not because I think they speak specifically or solely about the Burra Charter, but because I think they speak about much of western conservation literature.

“The distinctive styling of semantics works to construct objective, factual, and thus seemingly natural account of the conservation process, when it is in reality privileging a particular perspective.” (p. 347)

“Perhaps more importantly, the idea that conservation values of experts might be just another set of cultural values is entirely absent in the discursive construction of this text, and for that matter all texts of this sort.” (p. 349)

“In our view, community participation must hing on the concept of negotiation, not only over conservation and heritage values but also over the very meaning and nature of heritage, so the conservation ethic itself is open to renegotiation and redefinition.” (p. 351)

Authority does not have to be questioned because authority is always wrong, but authority should be questioned in order to bring to light our unspoken beliefs, and to enter into a more authentic dialogue with all interested parties on questions of heritage and preservation.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

Preservation for the people

In corresponding with a colleague recently I was reminded of this image/slogan which was a constant presence on my earlier blog but had not made its way onto this blog. I continue to be quite pleased-with-myself over this image and it continues to capture at least some of the spirit I try to bring to my work and writing. I still have the one, and only, t-shirt with this emblazoned on the front.

(And just to clarify for people who may not be familiar - the fist is holding a bone-folder - a tool commonly used by bookbinders/conservators.)

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Palin emails and digital preservation

(This post has nothing to do with Sarah Palin as a politician, or celebrity, or anything closely resembling politics.)

Photo by Brian Wallace/Associated Press

Copies of something like 24,000 pages of emails sent to and from then Alaska Governor Sarah Palin were released this week. I took interest in the fact that they were released in the form of thousands of pieces of paper. Upon receiving the paper news organizations began a frantic project of scanning and crowd-sourced researching the emails. While on first observation this migration of the emails from electronic to paper may seem odd, wasteful, and somewhat anachronistic (why didn't they just give the news organizations the electronic files?) I think it reflects some deeper preservation challenges.

Virtually all modern information today begins its life digitally. Whether that information is an email, tomorrow's Washington Post, or the next Stephen King novel. This digital information may then be reformatted into another format like print. The print version can then also be reformatted into things like microfilm. (This digital beginning and ease of format migration makes it more challenging to decide which is the original/authentic version.) Each of these formats can be preserved but each of these formats present their own preservation challenges.

With preserving emails, unless you've got the skills and services in place to ensure long-term digital preservation, then printing and storing in a good environment is probably the most effective technique. I know that state governments are rapidly building up their digital preservation capabilities, but sometimes putting something on paper is just the safest way to go. And we are seeing how quickly this print collection can be scanned back into digital form.

I'd be curious to know the State of Alaska was archiving Palin's emails in paper format, or if they preserve them digitally and printed them for dissemination.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Some rambling thoughts about library/book conservation education

At the AIC meeting this past week there was a session about the 3 new library conservation education programs. The event has been well covered on the internets by the tweeting of @queensuzy and @fletcherdurant, and the blogging of Beth on PCAN and Jeff Peachey on the AIC's Conservators Converse. What follows is a bit of a ramble, a bit of a rant, and a bit of a response. (I had initially planned to write this as a response on the Conservators Converse blog, but as my response grew, I grew uncomfortable about inflicting my words on some other organization's blog. So I post them here, but be sure to read what everyone else wrote. I will also note that one of the joys/dangers of writing for one's own blog is the freedom I have in approaching editing and rewriting. I usually write my posts, and then edit and rewrite not until I think the post is done, but until I go "Oh hell, I'm tired of this." Nothing I post on this blog is ready for publication. )

I noticed when I read Jeff's report that when he wrote about the training of "book conservators" my immediate response was "No, library conservators." Not a criticism - not a big point - just an observation of my response. I guess the library thing is pretty important to me.

I suppose that a reason we are so concerned about training future library/book conservators is because ensuring a healthy future for our profession validates what we are doing today. Few things would make us feel more lousy about our profession than if the library & conservation world decided they didn't need conservators - that our profession was no longer needed. So, a robust training program assures ourselves, correctly or not, that we and our work are still valued.

I'd really be curious to know how much "market research" went into designing these programs. I don't mean to imply that I don't think they did any (well, maybe I do mean to imply that) but I would be curious to know how they assessed the need that these programs are designed to fill, and what kind of future needs do they project.

I was curious to read the comment from Judy Walsh of the Buffalo State program that these “training programs are a learners permit." Is this point made explicitly clear to those looking to enter the program?  "Okay, for 3 years you will pay us lots of money and spend lots of energy and you will receive a degree that, by itself, many institutions won't consider sufficient to hire you." (There's also a bit of cruel irony in Mellon funding the training of entry-level conservators but the employment opportunities they fund are only for advanced-level conservators.)

I remain less concerned about the training of conservators, then I am of preservation administrators. This is not because I think PAs are more valuable than conservators, I just think a PA's value is less recognized. As library collections and their management becomes more complex and diverse libraries need people who have a general sense of the whole of library collections. (I fully acknowledge that my assessment for libraries' need for preservation administrators is based on absolutely no research of the market's perception of their need for preservation administrators. It actually seems that the market doesn't perceive much of a need for preservation administrators. Markets can be idiots!)

I guess its natural and to be expected that conservation programs would train conservators, and not preservation administrators. I am not aware hat the art/museum world has anything like a PA in their professional job descriptions.

Now for a bit of possibly unnecessary self-disclosure - which I think may help explain some of the source of my comments. I'm a D-list conservator. (Okay, maybe C-list, but D-list has a better pop-culture ring to it.) I write this as a pretty realistic assessment of my training and abilities within the library conservation world. I don't have an advanced conservation degree and I don't work in a recognized and respected library program, but I've trained with some good people and I've been working with books as physical objects in a library setting for about 15 years. I do pretty good work. I know what I can, and can't do, and work within my limits (most of the time.) I think there are a lot of D-list conservators out there and I think a lot of libraries rely on the work of D-list conservators (if they even use the conservator title) to care for their collections. Despite all the work of D-list conservators, and despite all the need for D-list conservators, there is no official/institutional structures/training to account for D-listers.

The 3 training programs appear to be  aimed at creating a handful of B+ conservators trained to work on the "treasures" of the library - the rare and special collections materials, but can they do anything else?

What are libraries to do with their vast medium-rare, and less-than-rare collections? Do these programs train people to do ordinary tasks like 15 minute rebacks of common, modern hardcover books? (An incredibly useful skill to have in a library, if for nothing else than to train a newly hired book repair para-professional.) Do these programs instruct about such things as commercial library binding and microfilm - shudder - which remain useful preservation tools, but are completely outside the realm of the art conservation world in which they are embedded.

It would seem to me that especially as the libraries are looking at models of shared print repositories, and dealing with issues of mass digitization projects, and trying to understand the relationship of their physical collection to their digital collection, libraries will need people who can think smartly about the broader related preservation issues. Libraries will need these people, but will they find them?