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."

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