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?