42nd Annual Meeting – Case Studies in Sustainable Collection Care, May 30, “Becoming ‘Fit for Purpose’: A Sustainable and Viable Conservation Department at the British Library,” by Dr. Cordelia Rogerson

In this presentation, Dr. Cordelia Rogerson spoke about radical changes in the approach to treatment decision-making at the British Library under her direction as Head of Conservation. The changes in approach were sparked by deep cuts to the Library’s budget, resulting in a reduction of the number conservators working in the lab by half–from 70 conservators to 35. At the same time, there was increased demand for conservation work in the busy library where collections are constantly in use. These cuts forced conservators to evaluate the fundamental nature and purpose of their work to determine if they could do less treatment without compromising use of the Library’s collection.
In response, the British Library conservation department adopted a “fit for purpose” model to govern how much treatment to do for materials sent to the conservation lab. Items are evaluated to determine what treatment is absolutely necessary for the immediate projected use of the item, and only this necessary treatment is undertaken. “Vulnerable damage” (such as a long tear across a page) is likely to be repaired, while “stable damage” (such as a loss at the corner of a leaf that does not interfere with safe handling) will be left untreated in many cases. This represented a shift away from a previous emphasis on full (or more complete) treatment for the majority of the materials coming to the lab. The new model does still allow for high priority items and items selected for exhibition to receive treatment beyond stabilization.
After applying “fit for purpose” to seven discrete projects with positive results, the model was adopted as the guiding principle for all work in the lab. By doing only the work deemed necessary, the lab has greatly increased the number of repairs completed each year. At the same time, the efficiencies gained have actually allowed the conservators to devote more treatment time to high priority collections.
As one of only two conservators working in a lab for a medium-sized special collections, I found that many of the challenges, decisions, and compromises of the changing operations at the British Library sound familiar. I appreciated hearing how a “fit for purpose” decision-making structure works in the setting of one of the largest institutions of its kind and the dramatic impact it can have in cost-savings and efficiencies on this scale.
In the future, I would be interested to hear more discussion of “fit for purpose” decision-making in the conservation of library and archival collections, digging deeper into the diverse interpretations that might emerge for a range of materials in varied contexts.