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?


  1. I am very appreciative of your opinions, especially since conservators who did not receive formal training have been left out of the conversation, which is not good.

    But I am curious - do you know any of the library conservators who already graduated from art conservation programs? Do a little research and you'll see that they are working in positions with much responsibility, which requires much knowledge on the library as a whole.

    We all have to think of broader preservation issues, even when working for a rare book library. Rare book libraries have reference collections, library binding requirements, and microfilm too. They also have digitization programs and collections that live electronically. This fear that there will be a loss of conservators who know about preservation is a little hysterical right now, and a little misinformed.

    Also, PA's had been trained separately at Columbia and UT for all these years. Why does this suddenly get overlooked now that art conservation programs are starting to be more formal about training book conservators.

    If someone hopes to be a PA, they should research programs at library schools that specifically train administrators, which still do exist. PAs might benefit from a few hands-on courses, but they aren't going to want to sit through countless hours of treating actual collection materials. This is a separate discipline. Art conservation programs focus on the craft of conservation - hand skills, treatment decisions, a deep knowledge of materials. Isn't that what the conservator track aimed for at UT (versus the PA track)?

  2. Marieka,
    Thanks for your honest and forthright comments. I don't think the word hysterical has ever been used to describe anything about me before. I'm kinda tickled by it.

    Your questioning my authority or knowledge to write what I wrote is perfectly valid.
    I don't think I ever written a blog post where at some point in the process I haven't said to my self "Who the hell do you think you are saying stuff like that?" Sometimes I reconsider and delete, and sometimes I work through it and hit "publish."

    My intent was not to malign the competence of anyone graduating from one of these programs, and I apologize if you felt slighted.

    What I think I was ultimately trying to say in my post is that there seems to me to be a disconnect between the type of training these programs are providing and the kinds of preservation staff I think libraries need. Whether my assessments of the types of training these programs are providing and what kind of preservation staff libraries need are correct is entirely debatable. I fully acknowledge that my assessments of these two situations are based on less than "complete" knowledge and less than vast experience. Perhaps I should know better and just shut up and let people who know what their talking about do the talking. I guess I choose to set that bit of wisdom aside.

    One a different note - you say there are current programs that are training preservation administrators? Pardon my ignorance but where?

  3. Hey Kevin, Great post. So here are my rambling thoughts:

    I can hear that old song "looked at life from both sides now" song in my head (severely dating myself!). I started as a librarian, then became a bookbinder, then a conservator, then a conservation educator, and now a conservator again with graduate teaching responsibilities. Who knows where it will all end up.

    I can appreciate the concern for PA education. There ARE conservation administrators in museums, though I am not clear on how they typically are formed. My bet is they are conservators who moved into admin for whatever reason? I would say maybe Pitt and Rutgers still have formal certificate style PA programs. UT Austin has lots of classes you can put together different ways and could still be a reasonable place to get PA background, though it has changed with the end of the formal cons/pres program of course. Simmons is a good place to get PA courses as well. There are PA fellowships for another year I think, and those have been a great thing for entering PA's. I hope the PA situation gets an airing at ALA this year.

    You know, none of the blogs on the AIC session really went into it, but I think Ellen Cunningham-Kruppa mentioned a Mellon funded survey sent out to the UT grads and those who employed them. This survey was completed before the program was shut down, and it is owned by UT it seems, so publishing the results has been difficult. Lack of science background and a continuing concern for craft skills came through as concerns in this survey, and of course digitization/AV stuff. Hopefully more of that survey will see the light of day, but indeed, Mellon did do a "market" study, and has moved forward accordingly to their lights based on that survey and other observations.

    Having worked in the UT context for some time, I guess the philosophy there(a philosophy set out by Paul Banks as I understand it) was train high (B+ or even A) and scale as needed for different jobs once you get them. And while we absolutely did circulating style rebacks, we also did 2 semesters of paper conservation, photo, complex historic bound structures, AV, etc. None of these could ever be done quite "enough" in school, but they were covered. I was never trained in circulating collection concerns, library binding, Microfilm etc when I was in library school or at North Bennet School. At North Bennet we focused only on craft and not on the library context or production, with the idea that we could learn that stuff later if needed. Not sure that was always true, but in general I think it worked.

    Respect for and understanding of the library/archives context is key, but frankly, I saw plenty of disrespect for that context by the library school faculty themselves, who may not have ever worked in a library or archive at all, and saw concern for the physicality of information as a rather pedestrian and non-academic concern. That sort of thing was discouraging, though of course I have worked with lots of library school faculty who did not display that attitude.

    Kevin, I am QUITE SURE there is a disconnect between professions as they actually play themselves out, and graduate school!! At best this disconnect can inject fresh air into both sides on a regular basis. At worst the disconnect is just sad, and hard.

    And by the WAY, What is this silliness about D, C, and so on? Well. I am a child of the 60's and 70's, and really have very little use for grades...

    Thanks as always for your blog. The concerns you are airing are ones I also had folks say to me face to face at the conference, among many others. Folks care about library conservation, and about book is that articulate care that the community will need to help our field ...those in it, and those who want to enter it.

  4. Thank you Chela for your gracious and helpful comments.