AIC’s 40th Annual Meeting, Book and Paper Session, May 10, “The Populist Conservator: A Sticky Case Study”

Presented by Whitney Baker, Head, Conservation Services, University of Kansas Libraries

This talk was an excellent tie-in with the overall AIC theme of outreach & advocacy. Baker’s recent research into the history and preservation of bumper stickers challenged her views of the conservation profession and how we are perceived by the public; in addition to highlighting some of her research findings, Baker used this talk to challenge conservators to think more broadly about the work they do and the image they project and to encourage grassroots approaches to connecting with the public.

Baker embarked on this investigation after noticing a patron in the KU Library reading room looking at a collection of bumper stickers. Not finding anything in the conservation literature about bumper stickers, Baker took a 5 month sabbatical (many in the audience were envious of this!) to conduct research into their materials and production.  Though bumper stickers are not likely to find their way into a conservation lab for full treatment, they are important pieces of 20th century ephemera so Baker focused on proposing low-cost, practical storage options for these collections.

Baker surveyed over 2,000 bumper stickers from collections in Kansas, Texas, and Washington, D.C. Political bumper stickers are some of the most common found in collections and are useful because they’re easily datable. Baker was able to trace the origins of the bumper sticker back to Kansas; Forest P. Gill, a screen printer from Kansas City, printed the first bumper stickers onto canvas in the 1940s. Bumper stickers became an extremely popular form of advertising post-World War II. Experiments with war materials like vinyl, silicone, and Day-Glo inks made it possible to mass produce eye-catching, weather-resistant, (sometimes) easily removable stickers. An expanding highway system and increased leisure travel meant that these small “moving billboards” could be seen across the country.

Almost all bumper stickers are screen-printed. Early bumper stickers were printed on paper, but these were not weather-friendly and were difficult to remove cleanly. Vinyl was promoted as a body stock in the 1950s and caught on in the 1960s; it was much more durable and removeable than the paper stock and since the lifespan of a bumper sticker was really only intended to be 2-4 weeks, this removability became a selling point. The liners on the back of bumper stickers, intended to protect the adhesive until the sticker is used, are coated with silicone and often contain a wealth of information for researchers, including dates, location, manufacturing and patent information.

Preservation challenges posed by bumper stickers include off-gassing, discoloration, shrinkage, and adhesion to adjacent materials. Baker recommends that bumper stickers be stored individually in alkaline folders; for those that no longer have their liner attached or are especially sticky, interleaving with silicone release paper is a good option. Storing them in polyester film can be problematic; she noticed that some of the more recent stickers with polymer-based inks were blocked to the polyester film.

Baker encouraged her audience to take every opportunity for outreach. Though some in the profession warned her that she wouldn’t be taken seriously if she pursued her research into bumper stickers, the public was certainly interested in the topic and word about the project spread in a variety of outlets, including news articles and a YouTube video. She also has an article coming out in the most recent issue of Collections. [Full citation for the article, which will eventually be available online in the KU institutional repository: Baker, Whitney. 2011.  Soapbox for the automobile: Bumper sticker history, identification, and preservation.  Collections: A Journal for Museum and Archives Professionals 7(3): 251-270.]

Baker’s tips for successful outreach:

1. Know your collections and what people use. This project was sparked by observing patrons in the reading room.

2. Identify a need.

3. Control the message. In the blogosphere, it can be hard to control where the message ends up, but try to be consistent in what you’re saying.

4. Create soundbites.

5. Be accessible. Avoid jargon. Baker quoted her husband on this one: “Stop talking about off-gassing!”

6. Consider your audience.

Baker challenged us to take off our white lab coats for a while, use the fascinating parts of our profession (of which there are many!) to reach out to people, and become more populist conservators.