Saturday, January 28, 2012

Portraits in Preservation - A Call for Students

I've received some positive feedback to the two Portraits in Preservation I've posted, and have a handful more people out there working on crafting their responses to my questions.

It has always been my intention with this project to include not only seasoned veterans, but also hear from people who are currently training, or recently trained, to enter the preservation profession. And, as I am looking for some way for this blog to recognize the American Library Association's Preservation Week, April 22-28, I've decided to attempt to post a Student Portrait in Preservation each day during Preservation Week.

I've already got ideas for some individuals to invite, but I need more, so if you are a student, a recent graduate, or just feel like a novice in the preservation world, or if you know one, I would love to hear from you. I would cast this net wide - hearing from those in those in traditional book conservation to those looking for a career in digital preservation.

You can contact me by commenting on this post, or direct message me on twitter @kevindriedger or email me at ksdriedger [at] yahoo [dot] com

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Replacing full shelves with empty chairs

The post has to do with nothing more than my amusement at one firm's promotional material.

It appears that the current trend in academic libraries is to strategically reduce and relocate print collections. One of the reasons for this, as I understand, is to make more effective use of the space currently being occupied by print collections. The firm Sustainable Collection Services "offers deselection decision-support tools to academic libraries. SCS tools enable carefully managed drawdown of low-use print monograph collections while supporting shared print archiving efforts." And I was struck by their picture depicting why you might do this.

Apparently there is a great need for more empty tables and chairs!

(I've no disagreement with the service SCS is providing and am not intending to comment on the movement to reduce and relocate print collections. I just think an image of replacing full shelves with a bunch of empty tables and chairs does not do a very good job of motivating me.)

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Portraits in Preservation - Jeff Peachey


I'm pleased that Jeff Peachey agreed to be the 2nd participant in my Portraits in Preservation project. Please let me know if there is someone you would like to see profiled (or would like to volunteer yourself - don't feel shy).

Portrait of Jeff at work
BIO Jeffrey S. Peachey is the owner of a New York City-based studio for the conservation of books and the inventor of conservation tools and machines. He is a Professional Associate in the American Institute for Conservation and was Chair of the Conservators In Private Practice. For more than 20 years, he has specialized in the conservation of books and paper artifacts for institutions and individuals. He is a consultant to major libraries and university collections in the New York City region and nationally. He was the 2011 Sherman Fairchild Conservation Research Fellow at The Morgan Library & Museum. Current research interests include the tools, techniques and structures of eighteenth century French bookbinding. Jeff's blog is at: http://jeffpeachey.wordpress.com/

Describe an experience that was particularly influential in your professional development.

One of the first part time jobs I had in conservation as a technician was making protective enclosures, but occasionally I got to do something slightly more advanced, like cloth case rebacks.  After a number of them, I distinctly recall the first one that I ever made that looked like something I hadn't made. In other words it looked more like it belonged to the book rather than to me.  I'm not quite sure how to describe how it looked; it looked different than a sympathetic treatment or even well crafted repair.  Even though I had made it, looked like something I had nothing to do with -- more objective than subjective -- neutral, subservient to object, rather than an example of my craft or treatment skills.  There was something unselfconscious about it.

I still get this feeling when I look at some treatments, both mine and others, and strive for it.  It is an entirely subjective perception, although perhaps no more that what is a judged to be 'sympathetic' treatment. Ironically, a current philosophical movement in book restoration, TomorrowsPast, seems to want to do just the opposite. They seem to advocate suffusing historic objects with various iterations of their personality and artistic vision.

When working on a book how do you understand your relationship with, or responsibility to, the person(s) who originally crafted the book?

Since most books are products of anonymous craftsmen, it seems the 'intent' of the craft object has to be determined from a larger knowledge of the cultural production of the time, rather than a specific worker. I guess there would be some distinct workshop practices, however, that one could develop a relationship or in-depth knowledge with.

How do you think working in preservation has shaped or changed your worldview?

It is difficult to say. Likely it produces a disconnect with current culture because of my hyperawareness of the importance of physical objects -- a bit out of step with current cultural assumptions concerning our virtual or digital existence.  Or maybe it is just working alone most of the time! The past does seem a lot closer when you spend a lot of time working on older objects.  I'm never sure quite how to respond when someone starts telling me about a 'really old' book from 1910 or something. Or when Apple recently announced that the ipad 2 is more durable than an old fashioned paper book. Huh?
  
What part of your preservation work most excites and engages you? Give specific examples.
 
At this point I seem to be following the typical trajectory: before conservation, more interested in visual arts, then bookbinding, later book conservation but most enthusiastic about doing treatments.  Now I seem to have a more compelling interest in historical issues about bookbinding history and connoisseurship: how an object was made, what it meant to a culture and society, etc...   Because we are on the cusp of most books shifting from primarily functional objects, we have a duty to not only conserve the objects, but what remains of the still alive craft . I really get a kick out of researching, writing and teaching about these issues.

If you were teaching what you do to a student, what would you say is the most important thing to learn in order to do your job well?

Looking, then making. Documenting, which not only records, but helps us to see more. Also, I'm always amazed how much a good teacher can help us see more. After careful observation comes making models, period bindings, reproductions, facsimiles, mock ups, dummies, replicas, maquettes, or historical reenactments -- whatever you want to call them, all in an attempt to understand more about a book's structure, function, material nature and mechanics. 

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Portraits in Preservation - Peter Verheyen

This is a first in what I’m hoping will be a series of profiles of people who are involved in the library preservation world. My intent with this project not to write individual histories as it is to create personal portraits.  My interest is the broader brush strokes of their life in preservation. My hope for this project is that these portraits will help the community of preservation professionals learn something about themselves – both individually and corporately – and their relationship to their profession. Thanks to Peter for being my first participant.

Selected Bio (from Syracuse University Library website)
Peter D. Verheyen began his involvement in preservation and conservation while a work-study student in the conservation lab at the Johns Hopkins University Library. He interned in the conservation lab of the Germanisches Nationalmuseum in Nuremberg, Germany, 1984 and 1986, and completed a formal apprenticeship in hand bookbinding at the Kunstbuchbinderei Klein in Gelsenkirchen, Germany, passing examinations in 1987. Studied at the Professional School for Book Restoration at the Centro del bel Libro in Ascona, Switzerland in 1987. Mellon intern in book conservation at the Folger Shakespeare Library, 1988. Worked in Chicago with Heinke Pensky-Adam at Monastery Hill Bindery and as assistant conservator to William Minter. In 1991 he began work as assistant conservator at the Yale University Library. In 1993 he became rare book conservator at the Cornell University Library, before establishing the conservation lab at the Syracuse University Library where he is now Head, Preservation and Conservation. He is past Exhibitions and Publicity Chair for the Guild of Book Workers. His bindings have been exhibited widely with the Guild, and in invitational and solo exhibitions throughout the USA and abroad. In 1994 he founded Book_Arts-L, in 1995 the Book Arts Web, and began publishing The Bonefolder: an e-journal for the bookbinder and book artist in 2004. A full vita can be found at http://www.philobiblon.com/vita.shtml.


Describe an experience that was particularly influential in your professional development. 

The most significant one was landing a work-study job in the preservation department at Johns Hopkins when I was an undergrad. At that time John Dean had built up a very comprehensive apprentice training program for book conservators, and a full-fledged art on paper lab. John was amazingly generous with his time (and patience) and encouraged me to learn as much as I could, let me work on some personal (albeit very basic) binding projects and in general opened up the field to me. This was in 1981-85. Sensing I was serious he told me to take advantage of my dual citizenship and bilingual skills (German for both) and a) do an internship in a bindery conservation lab in Germany, and b) apply for formal apprenticeships, both of which I did. 

Frank Mowery at the Folger also encouraged me in this.  After 3+ years (formal apprenticeship and studies in conservation in Ascona) I returned to the US and began my career as a book conservator and binder. While trade binding and conservation may seem antithetical, those experiences taught me how to work, how to organize workflows and processes regardless of techniques and work at hand. These are skills that are very relevant for managing my own workflows and those of a larger lab with more space. The quantity of books bound during that apprenticeship also made most processes second nature, thus allowing me to focus on the details. As a conservator and now preservation department head, those experiences inform and reinforce my conviction that our work must meet not just the needs of an object, but also the greater needs of the collections and organization in terms of cost/benefit.

How do you think working in preservation has shaped or changed your worldview?

Hmmmm…. It has made me realize that it’s a miracle that as much has survived as has, and that the challenges of print preservation are nothing compared to what we are increasingly dealing with in the form of preservation of the digital. Digital for preservation is just a tool, but the preservation of the digital is necessary to ensure that those “artifacts” will endure. While hands on conservation will not help with the preservation of the digital, the fact that we work with materials that despite, or in spite of condition can still be used after hundreds of years is a good perspective. In addition we’ll need to adjust our treatment approaches to support digitization for preservation, something that involves accepting that we may not be able to treat to the level we feel the object needs. This was a great topic of at the 2011 AIC meeting.

What part of your preservation work most excites and engages you? Give specific examples.
 
While no longer working at the bench unless training staff/students or otherwise teaching, I find that preservation involves endless creative problem sets. It’s not just how do we treat this item, but how do we clean/protect 1 million plus volumes, and how can I develop my skills to learn to deal with new formats (film, video, audio, etc.). Syracuse has been a leader in audio preservation and is about to dive into video. These are growth areas for us, but also for most research libraries as how we record information and history evolves.

If you were teaching what you do to a student, what would you say is the most important thing to learn in order to do your job well?

Become a sponge, a lifelong learner, someone who continually strives to develop the skills (hand, research, analytical) to evolve with the job. Invest in yourself at all levels with professional development, developing a resource library, tools, etc. Take risks, look beyond the immediate confines of the field, ask questions and question. Learn how to provide the greatest cost/benefit with the work one does. Continually look at the landscape in your work environment even (or especially) if it doesn’t relate to preservation – how are things changing in terms of use, resources ($$$), organizational structure? Actively seek out the intersections with preservation and identify ways to get on everyone else’s radar. Be willing to adapt and change. Don’t hide, stand out. While it is very easy to be seduced by romantic notions of the field – they are nice and I was (still am to a degree) – things are volatile and the field writ large is changing too fast.  These skills are essential for success and survival.

Bonus question (optional) - What do you preserve and why?

I love history and problem solving. We will not be able to save everything, but we should help save as much as we can. I also love working with the materials, and books as 3-D mechanical objects are fascinating.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Post-Modern Pluralism and Library Preservation


My final post coming out of last year’s project to read and respond to a variety of books is perhaps my most challenging post to write because in the midst of reading one book I added a second book, and neither book is about libraries, and one book is only tangentially about preservation. I think the two books have something to say to changing understandings of cultural institutions, changing understandings of conservation, and ultimately to changing understandings of authority.

The two books are Letting Go: SharingHistorical Authority in a User Generated World edited by Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski, published in 2011; and Conservation in the Age of Consensus by John Pendlebury, published in 2009.

Letting Go speaks out of and to the public history and museum community and essentially tackles the issue of how to understand and where to situate authority in a user-generated, participatory museum context. What is the role of the professional and of expertise when you move from the elites telling the stories of the elites, to elites telling the stories of the non-elites, to non-elites telling the stories?

The volume is an enjoyable, colorful and well illustrated collection of chapters in a variety of formats including interviews, case studies, and thought pieces. The volume was an interesting read for me in part because the specifics of the subject matter are all quite new to me, and it is eye-opening to see how this profession is dealing with these challenges. But more importantly, the issues and concepts that are raised in this book, especially of situating authority, are certainly relevant to the world of libraries and even library preservation.

A potential distinction between the world of public history and library preservation is that of interpretation. Communicating history is all about interpretation and context, while the library preservation world generally hands over the task of interpretation to curators and readers. History is told through objects and texts which must be preserved but our work tends to be of a technical nature and it’s hard to understand how cultural context might influence preservation decisions.

Several of the chapters had interesting discussions of the place of expertise in a user generated context and how expertise relates to authority. I was most taken by Kathleen McLean who writes in “Whose Questions, Whose Conversation?” “We also need to separate our own notions of about expertise and knowledge-generation from the associated concept of ‘authority’ … The assumption that expertise inherently confers authority and power makes it almost impossible to support the open invitation to conversation and exploration that is essential to live in museums.” (p. 71-72)

While reading Letting Go I glanced through my notebook and saw at a while back I had written in the margins the title Conservation in the Age of Consensus. I knew nothing more about this book than its title and the Consensus word suggested to me that this book might also tackle the issue of situating authority.

Conservation in the Age of Consensus is about preservation of buildings and built environments in the UK and very much like the Letting Go book it discusses the transition from an elite, professionally driven approach to a more community involved focus. This too turned out to be an enjoyable read which resulted in pages and pages of quotes and notes – so much so that I don’t know where to begin (or end).

Pendlebury takes a closer and more systematic look at how the transition from elite driven to a more community-oriented understanding of conservation, and the related shifts in understanding of authority fit within the larger post-modern context. While his use of conservation is always directed at building conservation, much of what he says easily extends to other areas of cultural heritage conservation.

He perceives conservation as thoroughly seated in the intellectual world of modernity. “Conservation, though it has sought to adapt to the uncertainties of the contemporary world, in an intrinsically ‘modern’ sensibility, relying on an ethically based rationalism, involving, for example, scientific principles of selection and emphasis on authenticity of material fabric.” (p. 217) The primary interest of modern conservation is authenticity and related to that is the authority to declare that authenticity is important, and the authority to declare what is authentic.

In shifting toward a post-modern approach to conservation we begin to shift the underlying rationale for conservation from moral precepts and authenticity to considering things like economic and popular interests. “There are, however, significant dangers for the conservation sector in pursuing an agenda of diversity and pluralism, not least where the values of the wider public are found to diverge from those of professionals.” (p.186)

Pendlebury, who is both insightful and self-aware, adds a further wrinkle to this endeavor to a community driven conservation “Underpinning the drift towards pluralism and inclusion as part of official conservation policy-making is an assumption that communities want to be empowered and engaged into the arena of formalised cultural heritage.” (p. 203) He also raises the very real possibility of what happens if the authority ceded by the cultural elite is taken up by the economic elite?

As I was reading this book and thinking of how the UK world of building conservation compares to the US world of library preservation the issue of who gets to decide what is preserved and what that preservation looks like was an interesting contrast. Building conservation in the UK, and it seems also in the US, are guided by government policies at the federal, state, and local levels. Except for perhaps the functioning of government/legislative libraries I am not aware of any real government policies directed at preserving published material. Federal agencies provide some leadership and funding – which is perhaps more successful at directing results than simply setting policies – but I’d be curious to see any examples of legislative action directing preservation of library materials.

So, yes, Letting Go and Conservation in the Age of Consensus are two quite different books that have little directly to do with library preservation, but that doesn’t mean they don’t raise issues important for the library preservation world to ponder. I think the library preservation community would benefit from following the lead presented in these books and take a closer look at itself and its conception of authority.

I'm still not certain how the library preservation world fits, or can fit, into a more post-modern, pluralistic framework. For example: is there such a thing as a feminist critique of preservation? I can't bring myself to say "no", but I guess I'm not bright enough to know what it might be.

Part of the challenge, as I see it, is that we in the library preservation community tend to approach library preservation as a technical concern - there are physical materials which have physical problems which we respond to with physical treatments. It is hard to find the interpretive issues, cultural influences in that. It's a bit like looking for culturally influenced plumbing practices - they might be there but it seems like you would have to look pretty hard.

With no intentions to dismiss the intricacies of good plumbing, I would like to think that the library preservation community deals with concepts larger than good craftsmanship and technical know-how. Intellectually, how does library preservation cope with the pluralism of a post-modern world where their profession may not be the sole arbiter of preservation authority?

A further question that arises for me out of this reading is where does the library preservation community situate authority. Is it in standards? Is it in the "wisdom of the elders?" Is it in that which produces a more usable/marketable product? I'm guessing that a whole-hearted discussion  within the library preservation community of what we accept as authoritative  might start to reveal some of our own interpretive differences and differing levels of "letting go."

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Year End Thoughts, and New Year plans

It seems the thing to do for blog writers to look back on the year that was - so here goes:

My intent for this blog for this year was to read and interact with a bunch of books circling around the topics of "library preservation theory" and "cultural heritage institutions". I feel like I read a lot and it was a good learning experience for me. (I now have a notebook with pages and pages and pages of notes and quotes.) I moved outside my original topics of interest, if only because there just isn't much to read in the area of "library preservation theory" - I wish there was, but no. Moving beyond my original topics of interest has been a rewarding experience as well.

I still have one book response blog post to write - hopefully soon.

I have a new plan/project for this blog for this new year - one that will be a stretch. Rather than focus on the preservation related stuff people have written, I want to focus on the preservation related people themselves. I've said before that I think conservators, and other preservation professionals, are the least studied and least written about part of the preservation world. So, I want to focus on the people who are actively involved in preservation activities, especially library related preservation activities. I want to interview these people about their life in preservation. I'm a bit anxious about this next project because I'm not one who naturally approaches people to ask things of them (I don't like to impose myself upon others) and we are a community of professionals who don't have a tradition of public self-reflection - we reflect on objects and techniques, not on ourselves. I've not yet developed the format this new project will take.

A few other year-end blog related thoughts:
This blog has not been as popular (if page views are a measure of popularity) as my previous blog. I'm not too surprised or disappointed about this as the content and format of this blog are arguably geared at a narrower audience. (Plus I rarely post job ads which always got a lot of traffic on my previous blog.) While I am not speaking to a large crowd, I do hope that some of what has appeared on this blog this past year has been at least a little helpful, informative, or interesting to a few people now and then.

What I am annoyed about, however, is that my former blog, which I killed and took offline, some charlatan managed to partially resurrect (or zombify) and that site still shows up much higher than my current blog on web searches.That just ticks me off.