45th Annual Meeting – Book and Paper Session, May 30, “Medium Rare: An Innovative Treatment Approach to the Space Between Special and General Collections” by Quinn Ferris

In her talk, Quinn Ferris discussed a new conservation workflow recently implemented at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Library, called “Medium Rare Conservation.” This new workflow was initiated in response to the realities and limitations facing the conservation staff at the UIUC. The library’s holdings are massive (24 million items, including 13 million volumes), and must withstand frequent use (1 million patrons visit the library annually). Meanwhile, recent budget cuts have eliminated the possibility of hiring additional permanent staff, while services are never allowed to be reduced.

The “Medium Rare Conservation” workflow is a response to the problem of inadequate resources facing so many university libraries. It is a streamlined approach to treatment that combines elements of special collections conservation (ethical and logistical considerations) and general collections conservation (speed and efficiency).

The term “medium rare” is not new. It was used in 1987 by Stephen Ferguson to describe a category nineteenth and twentieth-century books that, while not considered rare, were “endangered” in the sense that the poor quality of their materials resulted in rapid decay, and finding replacement copies was difficult and expensive. In contrast, the term “Medium Rare” is used at the UIUC to indicate the appropriateness of a specific conservation treatment approach. It does not describe an item’s value, priority, or rarity. A book designated “Medium Rare” in this context could, for example, belong to either special or circulating collections. Because the term has been used in both ways in recent years, it can be problematic and cause confusion. Ms. Ferris addressed this, explaining that she supported the development of more precise terminology. Specifically, she suggested more neutral or objective language for categorizing based on complexity of treatment required, such as numbers 1, 2, and 3.

The “Medium Rare Conservation” workflow was established as a way of increasing efficiency, but as with any major change, its implementation required significant time and patience. The designation needed to be clearly defined and given a list of criteria that would allow for easy identification of collection materials to be channeled into the new workflow. For example, items requiring basic mending, flattening, or simple book repairs (such as those performed regularly on circulating items) could be categorized as “Medium Rare,” while any treatments involving leather work or the use of solvents, could not. Treatment documentation guidelines needed to be created. This involved building a new interface within the existing treatment documentation database, and developing a regimen of abbreviated photo documentation.

Once established, the workflow yielded a number of benefits, some more surprising than others. Treatment turn-around time was decreased, and a greater number of collections were served. Closer working relations with colleagues were established. Treatment opportunities were expanded for conservation technicians, interns, and student employees, who are now able to perform simple treatments on special collections materials. Meanwhile, conservators are allowed to focus their treatment time on items requiring greater care and more complex interventions.

The “Medium Rare Conservation” workflow at UIUC is still in it’s infancy, and will continue to be fine-tuned. Still, it was clear during the lively Q&A session at the end that the issues raised by this talk are on the minds of library conservators. How should Medium Rare treatments be prioritized? Should items be treated if they are available in alternate formats? Stay tuned to see how this kind of hybrid conservation work develops at UIUC and other library conservation labs over the next few years…