Thoughts on the future training of library conservators

Oh, so you thought this blog was dead, eh? Me too. But then I went to the AIC conference and now maybe I have a few things to say. Mostly things about the future of education programs for library/archives conservators, which was a discussion panel held at this year’s conference in Philadelphia. Three programs were represented on the panel – Buffalo, NYU and Winterthur/Delaware.  Others have already blogged about their interpretations of the discussion, and it’s implications for the future of library conservation training. Kevin Driedger’s post is what really prompted me to sit down and write this post, but both Jeff Peachey and Beth at PCAN have a good “who said what” outline of the discussion – if you weren’t there, go read their write-ups and come back here. My notes are a jumbled mess that barely make sense to me, let alone anyone else, but I’ve got a list of all the tweets I made while the discussion was going on in situ. Feel free to just skip ahead to the next part, though.

•Interesting to hear how library conservation edu. programs really rely heavily on adjunct faculty. Not sure if that’s a good thing.
•Those Buffalo library conservation students have it extra good – they get an extra $1K stipend than the other students. WHAT.
•Wish they had given us a list of the admission req. for these programs. They all seem to be quite different. One requires German!
•”Offer more entry-level jobs for recent grads . Too many ppl fall into that 2-5 years of experience gap.” AMEN
•So far nobody has addressed the issue of too many grads, not enuf jobs. Lotta talk about equipment and labs, rare book issues.
•”Different relationship to objects and identity in the library. May be a challenge to conservators”. Do the programs address this?
•More institutions req. a MLIS for conservation jobs. Prog’s offering flexibility in curriculum to give students access to the MLIS.
•NYU program constrained in that they HAVE to give an art history degree. So [MLIS] degree has to be gotten after the program.
•Finally someone has brought up the job issue again. Museums can’t provide as many internships bc they have had too many staff cuts.
•None of the library conservation programs have increased the # of students each year. (But maybe it’s still too many?)
•The UT program created ppl who became advocates for libraries, not just conservation. Ppl who can think of the Coll. as a whole.
•Programs need to train ppl to address the institut’l needs of libraries, not just shoehorn conservators into a new type of conserv.
•”Critical: how are Lib&archives dif. than museums? How to train students in light of these differences?”
•”critical: training for born-digital works. This is where all the new material is in libraries/archives”. Aka it ain’t all like the Morgan.

Since I love lists, I’m going to give a breakdown of my biggest concerns regarding discussion about the education of library/archives conservators, some of which were addressed by the panelists and some of which were hardly brought up at all.  It’s also worth noting here than I’m a graduate of the program-formerly-known-as-the-Kilgarlin-center at UT Austin. So take my musings with a grain of salt, particularly since I’m also a conservator in private practice with one foot in the lab and another in archives (the processing/filing side of things, that is) and the digital lands.

1) All three of the programs have the library science component just kind of tacked on – none offer a full MLIS within the expected time of study. In contrast, at UT you came out with both a full MLIS and the “Certificate of Advanced Study” in conservation, after 2 years of classes and an internship year. I can’t say for certain just how many library conservator jobs require a MLIS (or MSIS, etc) but it seems like not having the degree could be a pretty big gap in one’s future job prospects as a library conservator. There is only so much value in handskills and benchwork if you cannot advocate for your profession, your job position and your projects. Again, maybe I’m being paranoid…but I fear that without a strong emphasis on the LIBRARY component of library conservation, these programs may be leading their graduates toward the old “Ivory Tower” (or ivory basement, as it usually is) mindset. Working in a library is about being part of a system, of an organization – and I see library science as the compass to navigate that system for the benefit of the collection.

2) There was a lot of talk about “collaboration” and partnering with other institutions to provide the full training experience. However, none of these programs have the capability to offer all the necessary components (i.e. treatment training, binding skills training, benchwork opportunities, library science classes, etc.) by themselves. Maybe I’m just being paranoid, but what happens if one of these collaborating institutions has to bail on the conservation program? Suddenly you are sitting on a 2-legged stool…

3) There was little discussion about digitization, or collections care or really much to do about anything that could be construed as preservation projects or other library-wide projects that conservators are often responsible for in archives and academic libraries. A LOT of the discussion geared towards the training of conservators in rare book treatments, conservation science and the use of expensive analytical equipment (i.e. things whose name contains the letter “X” or the word “scanning”), that most small-to-medium sized academic libraries don’t own or have access to. Someone who’s only interned at the Morgan Library (which I think is an awesome library, btw) or some other very fancy, private library is going to have a very rude awakening when they realize that those 19th cen. publisher’s bindings they’re planning to treat are also going right back into the circulating collection for any undergrad to throw into their backpack. I worry that a focus on (or an avoidance of anything except) rare book/single item treatment is overlooking a critical part of a library/archives conservator’s job and the accompanying skills that are needed for such work in libraries that include both circulating and special collections materials.

4) Jobs. Jobs. JOBS! Where are they? What are these programs going to do for their graduates, who will be entering a TERRIBLE job market that has continued to whittle away at the ability of conservators to pay their bills and eat food not purchased with food stamps? Are graduates going to be able to come right out of the program, degree in hand, and get a real, entry-level job without having to go for a second degree (a la NYU, which only gives out an art history degree) or another year of unpaid interning? I understand that it’s not the entire responsibility of the education programs to find jobs for their graduates, but I’d like to see more of an acceptance about the possibility that graduates may end up in private practice rather than in an institution. Are these programs going to be teaching grant-writing, insurance shopping or self-advertising skills?  Has there been a good dialogue between those in charge of hiring library/archives conservators and preservation administrators, and the directors of these education programs?  Are they on the same page regarding what skills the former wants and what the latter is teaching to the students?

I could keep going on, but as usual I have more questions than answers at this point.  The panel was rather eye-opening and I hope that the topic can be revisited every couple of years at the conference and perhaps more frequently in the blogosphere/twitterverse/internet tubes/etc.

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7 thoughts on “Thoughts on the future training of library conservators

  1. I instigated a blog resurrection. Woohoo!

    Thanks so much for your thoughts, Suzy. I think they are particularly useful coming from a UT Austin grad.

  2. Suzy,
    Great thoughts and very valid concerns. I think this discussion is just beginning and needs to happen in many places in a sustained way. As a latecomer to the MLS, I see it’s value in providing context to the environment in which one will work and give those hiring the hope that conservators with it will be able to contribute to the collections as a whole. The conservation/preservation field need to be proactive in identifying where and how they fit into that puzzle and make sure that they are seen and heard, and that includes digital and other formats. The landscape is changing (fast) and we need to be looking ahead.

  3. I really appreciate your post! There are a few things that I have to point out though. Remember Jake Nadal’s comment that libraries are starting to NOT hire people with the MLIS? He stated that they are looking more at people with other degrees, which I interpreted as adding diversity to the library environment. It made me jump a little to be honest, as I’ve been working hard on my MLIS for the past three years with the impression that it still is very important.

    I think the UT perspective is crucial for this dialogue, but it doesn’t seem like the programs invited past students from art conservation programs who are now library conservators to share their thoughts on the positives and negatives of their educational experience when they were devising their plans. Was the students’ point of view considered? There aren’t many of us, but there are enough whose opinions could have been utilized in some way in the planning stages.

    I left Buffalo knowing very well the difference between general collections care and single item treatment. There is no shock in store for me. But that realistically comes from work experience, which I had before going to school, and the thirst for knowledge about all things library preservation-related. I knew I had to get internships in both environments while in school too, to delve further into each type of environment. Students in art conservation programs will not be oblivious to these issues. I also wouldn’t be worried that book conservators leaving the art conservation programs are not going to be advocates for the library.

    If the new students are going to take 6 library courses for a certificate in library science (the same number taken in the UT program), they won’t be far behind. The difference is they will have a Masters in Conservation with a certificate in library science, rather than a Masters in Library Science with a certificate in conservation. I am happy I took all the library science classes Michele Cloonan listed in her presentation because they do prove to be useful, but am I really using all 14 courses that I have had to take?

    I am also wary of lumping digital preservation into the training of library conservators, as I believe it should be its own discipline entirely. Being aware of the issues is important, but there are so many nuances and rapid changes in this field – how can we expect it to be placed into a book conservators’ curriculum in any substantial way? When students graduated from UT, were they ready to become stewards of digital collections? Someone who graduated just a few years ago probably learned different concepts than someone who graduated in the last class. How much training was really provided for this in the first place?

    I think there should be a student panel at a future meeting so we can discuss these things further. I hope the future students who will be a part of the pilot programs will be able to participate as well. Their insight will be just as valuable.

  4. Marieka,
    There is digital preservation (DP) and digitization as preservation. They are different yet interrelated. In terms of digital preservation, what I have learned is that our perspective from the print/paper world with objects that have endured centuries if not millennium is helpful in introducing IT types to real long term thinking, i.e. we need these digital objects to continue to endure well beyond our lifetimes. What use is a CD that may last 500 years if there is no hardware and the formats no longer exist…

    At the same time digitization will become an essential tool for the preservation of collections. In some cases it may be the only thing that endures (if DP works – see above) once the object has deteriorated beyond use. I’m thinking of brittle books, cellulose acetate, … As an example, I am thinking of a photographic negative collection at Syracuse that is deteriorating FAST. Of the 13,000 negatives in the collection I was able to have almost 4,000 digitized making sure to include representative samples of all projects/portrait sittings/folders to capture the ESSENCE of the collection. Conservation treatment of the collection was not an option give the numbers and expense and we will hopefully be able to slow down the deterioration once our new remote storage facility goes online in 2 years. View that collection online at http://digilib.syr.edu/cdm4/browse.php?CISOROOT=%2Fsipprell .

    For print holdings (monographs and others) in library collections Google Books/HathiTrust will eventually reduce the amount of volumes repaired from the circ collections and allow conservators in those settings to focus on the local and unique that distinguish their collections. Given the decline in resources overall, that is logical. What needs to follow is libraries beginning with real coordinated collection development so that not everyone is working to preserve the same stuff… For truly unique and special, digitization can also help meet research needs without (in many cases) needing to handle the objects, contributing to preservation…

    I think the RIGHT MLIS and ongoing professional development can, and should provide this kind of context…

  5. ps. I hope these art conservation programs that will be offering course work and specializations in the book will also offer perspectives on single item treatment AND the large collection based workflows that are part and parcel of working in a research library environment. Both are needed, but being able to work in a large scale is essential if a preservation/conservation program is to remain viable.

  6. Pingback: The future of book conservation training, or thoughts from the education panel at LCCDG 2011 « Conservation Occasional

  7. Pingback: Highlights of AIC « Work of the Hand:

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