The end-of-conference BPG discussion groups are often the highlight of the week, and this year was no exception. The Library Collections Conservation Discussion Group (LCCDG) hosted a jam-packed session with seven presentations about how library conservators, who are often the only conservator at their institution and/or find themselves responsible for far more than just books and paper, become experts in all sorts of unexpected ways.
Sonya Barron, Conservator of Special Collections at Iowa State University Library, began the afternoon discussing approaches to accommodating 3D objects in the archives. Specifically, edible objects. First up was an ear of prize-winning corn. As Sonya emphasized to a chuckling audience, “Corn is very important in Iowa, that’s no joke!” The important corn was removed from its original display case, put through a few freeze/thaw cycles to kill off any pests, encapsulated in polyester film, and stored lovingly in a new archival box. A similar process was used for a small chunk of the Guinness World Record-holding largest Rice Krispies® treat (you can read more about that ISU invention at the Parks Library blog ). Sonya noted that though there may only be a few unusual objects tucked into your more traditional library and archival collections, 3D objects are often the ones that curators and professors want to show to classes and tours, so they need to be able to withstand frequent handling.
Deborah Howe, Collections Conservator at Dartmouth College, spoke next about being a conservator in the wilds of New Hampshire and the importance of reaching out to colleagues near and far. She emphasized the importance of networking with local experts – taking advantage of proximity to theatre, arts, engineering, and science resources on a college campus – and not being afraid to cold call fellow conservators across the country for advice. She maximizes funding and other resources by bringing in experts to host workshops for conservators in the region (which helps her fill her own training gaps as well). And after a productive visit from University of Iowa conservator Giselle Simón, who assisted with moving and initial examination of a large, heavy antiphonal in need of treatment, Deborah suggested that a conservator exchange program could be a good idea (personally, I think it’s a terrific idea).
Elizabeth Stone, Assistant Conservator at the University of Iowa Libraries, and Janet Lee, Conservation Assistant at the New-York Historical Society, talked about their long-distance collaboration to develop housing solutions for a small collection of Chinese dolls, shoes, and stuffed animals in the Iowa Women’s Archive. Using video calls, text messaging, and shared folders for images and documentation, they were able to design safe storage solutions as well as investigate the history and background of these objects. This presentation did a good job of highlighting the advantage of technology to facilitate collaboration quickly across many miles, and also that collaboration across disciplines leads to more research and understanding of ephemeral objects in archival collections.
Ashleigh Schieszer, Conservator at The Preservation Lab, a collaborative lab between the University of Cincinnati and the Public Library of Cincinnati & Hamilton County, spoke about her experiences as an emerging professional in a managerial position. She offered suggestions for developing leadership skills, like looking for leadership and management training within your institution, utilizing professional organizations, and seeking mentorship. Ashleigh emphasized the importance of transparency, clear communication, and a “let’s try this” attitude. She noted that institutional and cultural knowledge are often more important and impactful than conservation skills and that team learning activities within the lab have built cohesiveness.
Suzy Morgan, Conservator at Arizona State University Library, implored everyone in the audience to make more conservation instructional videos after a few of her recent experiences illustrated the value in them. When confronted with a large dress in need of housing, Suzy found plenty of written and photographic instruction on how to properly pack it for storage, but it wasn’t until she came across a video produced by the Minnesota Historical Society demonstrating exactly how to pack such a dress that she felt confident enough to move forward. Suzy also found value in creating videos of her own; when the attendance at a training she was scheduled to do in Myanmar tripled, the solution was to have some students in an adjacent room watching training videos while others participated in hands-on activities. She found that tracking down existing videos was a challenge; while there are good ones out there, certain topics are covered frequently while others get no air time. So, leveraging local resources, she used digital video equipment at the campus makerspace and made her own videos. She’s hoping to do another edit on these and shorten them in order to make them available to wider conservation audience.
Justin Johnson, Senior Conservator at the University of Washington Libraries, talked about his experience of working on a new lab construction project and the need for conservators to learn the language of architects and contractors. He emphasized that terminology is important – “design” doesn’t necessarily describe what we think it does, and calling your space a “lab” vs a “center” vs a “studio” can have unforeseen consequences in the architectural plans and execution. The need for clear, precise communication is critical, and Justin noted that misrepresenting priorities can be an expensive mistake. He cited the example that his team had designated a space as a meeting room, but were anticipating also using that space to construct boxes. They hadn’t conveyed this dual-purpose to the architects, though, and ended up with a lighting scheme appropriate to a meeting room but not sufficient for boxmaking.
Susan Russick, Special Collections Conservator at Northwestern University Library, wrapped up the session with a summary of the many non-book and paper objects she’s treated, or chosen not to treat, over the past few years and some of the risk management decisions and ethical conundrums posed by these objects. She reminded us that while the details may differ, the basic tenets of conservation are the same no matter what you’re working with. She frequently refers back to the AIC core document Defining the Conservator: Essential Competencies (and encouraged the audience to the same). A few other guiding principles Susan shared about how she approaches objects in the collection included: talking to the curator and *listening* to the curator, keeping in mind that she doesn’t always know what she doesn’t know when it comes to objects, trusting that if she finds consistency of information across a range of trustworthy sources then she can feel confident to move forward, and that for some objects, bringing in experts for training and/or treatment is the best option, while sometimes no treatment at all is the appropriate choice.
After the talks, the floor was opened for discussion. The audience was especially keen to discuss working with architects and contractors for new labs, lab management strategies, and instructional videos.