45th Annual Meeting – General Session: Beyond Treatment, Wednesday May 31, 2017, “What’s so Ethical about Doing Nothing?”, Jonathan Ashley-Smith

Despite describing himself throughout his presentation as a 20th century dinosaur, Jonathan Ashley-Smith gave a very humorous and thought-provoking presentation on a topic that is very relevant to conservators of this and any other century. It overlapped and contrasted in a very interesting way with Elena Torok and Meg Loew Craft’s paper, presented shortly afterwards, “In Support of the Bigger Picture: Preventive Conservation as a Recognized Specialty”.

There was a lot of depth to the presentation – too much to be clearly conveyed in this post – and I hope that a paper is published so that I and others can take the time to digest and debate the issues raised. To cut to the chase, Ashley-Smith’s presentation lamented the loss of in-depth treatment knowledge and well-developed hand skills in the ‘modern’ conservator. He attributed this partly to the increase in preventive conservation activities in institutions, partly to the shift away from a craftsman model towards a more intellectual or scientific focus, and partly to a decline in the teaching and maintenance (including professional development) of interventive treatment skills.

In presenting this thesis, Ashley-Smith did not deny the need for preventive conservation. He sees the increase in preventive activities as a response to budgetary pressures, where arguments of economies of scale and the risks associated with interventive treatment are encouraging institutions to favour “doing nothing”. He does remind us, however, that preventive conservation does not do nothing – you can alter the dimensions or rate of degradation of artifacts through altering their storage climate – with obvious potential benefit as well as risk. Furthermore, objects are not held in suspended animation in storage, they are just in a waiting room until they are “displayed, mended, rehoused, thrown out, studied or mauled”. In storage risk can be controlled but not eliminated.

With regards to his second point, Ashley-Smith argues that the decline in practical skills has occurred due to an increased focus on the intellectual, brains over hands. He cites the example of a skilled conservator with 40 years experience who was asked to leave his university teaching position because he did not have a doctorate. This is causing a decline in standards where conservators no longer have the required knowledge and hand skills to undertake complex treatments. In such a case it is unethical to undertake treatments where you do not have the required skills and experience, but it is not because the treatment in itself is unethical.

In addition, Ashley-Smith contends that there has also been a move by professional conservation associations to reduce risk, which is being achieved through increasingly narrow interpretations of what constitutes ethical treatment. In their turn, codes of ethics reference greater enforcement of ethical standards, with associated exclusion of those who do not meet the standards. This can be exacerbated by
social media where conservators can be shamed away from actions that others believe are wrong, and leads both to conformity and hiding skills, also preventing the development and celebration of treatment skills.

As a solution to these issues, Ashley-Smith has several propositions for conservation professional associations: to embrace diversity and inclusion, and reject conformity, through stimulating consistent reasoning and active discussion, and encouraging individual accountability; and to create more fellowships and internships for further study and practice of interventive treatment in individual conservation specialisations. If institutions are unable to accommodate this then it could be achieved by supporting the private conservation sector to offer training in hands on skills.

In finishing with a quote from Joni Mitchell, “that you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”, Ashley-Smith left the audience to think about and debate this important topic.

45th Annual Meeting – Sustainability, Wednesday May 31, 2017, “With Room to Grow: Design and construction of a new conservation facility at the University of Washington Libraries”, Justin P. Johnson

Having a new conservation space built is the greatest hope and fear of many conservators – such an opportunity to take advantage of, and also to potentially go wrong! Justin Johnson’s presentation about their experiences at the University of Washington Libraries in Seattle, WA was a great insight into the process, and, given they seem to largely be pleased with the outcome, demonstrates that you sometimes can get what you want, as well as what you need.

The previous conservation space was located in a basement, cramped at only 2000 sq ft, and had last been updated in 1963. A new conservation position, partly funded by the Andrew W. Mellon foundation, was the impetus to create a new conservation space with more up-to-date equipment and space for the now four full time conservators, plus up to three part-time students and interns.

One of the early things the conservation team did was to create future goals for their space. Some of these included:

  • increasing the ability to undertake major treatments on collection items, while maintaining general collection work
  • incorporate book, paper and photograph treatments in the same space
  • have the ability to teach and train student conservators and interns
  • have a flexible and open space that could be used for workshops and research as well as treatment

The team also consulted widely with conservation scientists and treatment conservators of many disciplines.
A new space on the rooftop was identified, double the size of the previous space at 4000 sq ft, with natural light from five skylights. However, there were limitations on HVAC and ducting placement for a fume hood. Services with restrictions were placed in the design first, with other equipment fitted in around them. The fume hood location was determined first, followed by the rest of the wet lab: sinks, exhaust trunks, microscopy, suction and humidification, light bleaching and materials storage.

A multi-purpose documentation room was designed, where curtains could screen off an area to allow for photography or artefact examination and low-tech analysis, but still allow the space to be open to the rest of the lab area.

At one end of the main space a storage, office and reception area was located, with the rest of the space being fitted out for the main treatment work, including space for 10 work benches and more storage. This space had an open focus to encourage communication and collaboration as well as reconfiguration, when required.

While an architectural team was engaged to create the space, the conservation team were heavily involved, thinking through the design of furniture (especially for storage purposes) and thoroughly investigating the departmental work flows and how they would work in the space.

The conservation team drew their workflow movements on paper and overlaid them on the design drawings and also used computer tools, such as Live Home 3D Pro, to visualise the space and move furniture around to try out new orientations. This software was very useful to ‘walk through’ the space, make adjustments to the design and then send them via pdf to the architects. It also facilitated communication between the conservators and architects and saved a lot of money in lengthy redesigns which would have occurred in a later phase of the project.

15 months after the initial bid phase, the team moved into their new space in February 2016.


Q1) What is the climate and do you know the air exchange rate? A1) Aiming for 70F/50% but are still in the process of balancing the AHUs. They are finding that the fume hood competes with the HVAC.

Q2) Who did the lighting design? A2) It was done by a UWA group at the end of the project; the Live Home 3D Pro software has a large database of furniture and lighting which can be added to the design.

Q3) What was the total budget? A3) Got support from the Mellon grant, UWA donors and campus funding. A lot of money was saved in design fees by the proactive work of the conservation team.

Q4) What was the size of the benches and the area around them? A4) The benches both fixed and moveable are all the same height and measure 60” x 38” with 3.5’ between benches.

Q5) Detail on the skylights: specification and R values? A5) The lighting system has an automated system to take the daylight into account; the lights reduce on a bright day (which is rare in Seattle!).

43rd Annual Meeting – Sustainability Session, May 15, “Conscientious Conservation: The Application of Green Chemistry Principles to Sustainable Conservation Practice”, Jan Dariusz Cutajar

Jan Dariusz Cutajar, graduate student at UCL, began by commenting that inspiration from last year’s AIC conference had caused him to investigate this topic. Cutajar states that in some instances the terms, ‘sustainable’ and ‘conservation’ are used interchangeably, but he argues that each term needs to be carefully defined: ‘sustainable’ as reusable, not causing harm to the environment, people or culture. Sustainability has environmental, social and economic faces – it is a cultural construct.
Cutajar believes that currently sustainability initiatives are not well integrated into conservation programs.
The existing Green Chemistry principles, outlined by the mnemonic “Productively” he has replaced with a mnemonic of his own devising: “To Conserve”, which stands for:
T – Temperature and pressure considerations
O – Only use what you need
C – Conscientious waste prevention
O – Optimizing Health and Safety
N – Negligible toxicity is best
S – Safer, alternative methods
E – Environmentally non-persistent, biodegradable chemicals
R – Renewable materials and energy sources
V – Verify solvent sustainability
E – Examination and monitoring
These principles must work in combination with the eco scale: factors of time, price, safety and fate of materials.
Cutajar surveyed a range of university and institutional conservation laboratories and private practitioners about their sustainable lab practices with regard to chemical usage. He discovered that there is a general awareness in the profession of the impact of chemicals but differences in available time, money and other resources resulted in different approaches. He found that university laboratories had the most sustainable practices, with institutional conservation departments being hampered by time pressures such as digitization and exhibition programs, and private practitioners being restricted by both time and cost considerations. He feels that stronger communication of sustainability principles and a cohesive change in attitude and habits within the sector will further improve sustainable conservation practice.

43rd Annual Meeting – Book and Paper Session, May 16, “Let me Help You Help Me: Outreach as Preventive Conservation”, Library Collections Conservation Discussion Group

The structure of this session was three brief presentations followed by three breakout groups to discuss each of the presentations, with the presenters rotating between the groups.
Laura McCann, Conservation Librarian at NYU Libraries, was the first presenter and spoke about library training of student employees.
She gave an interesting presentation on the process their library has undergone in developing a more efficient and successful training program for student workers. Originally the Conservation Department of 3 staff members conducted hands-on training of small groups of students through workshops. While this had benefits of being able to design their own teaching content, increasing awareness among para-professional staff about the work of conservation and library materials preservation needs, and improving communication between conservation and other departments, there were problems such as the students being distracted during the workshop or not attending due to scheduling conflicts, and conservation issues not being correctly identified or work being poorly performed by the students when in placement.
By reaching out to the other library departments, a new approach was devised. Now there are fewer sessions and they involve a presentation (not hands-on) and pizza! The students’ managers are present and the sessions are compulsory. This has resulted in less conservation staff time required in training, more students receiving the training and a large increase in the number of library books correctly identified for conservation treatment.
The next step from here is to adapt this model to other situations, such as NYU’s new allied libraries in Brooklyn, Abu Dhabi and Shanghai with the challenges of geography and time differences added to the usual constraints of limited conservation resources and staffing. Ideas that they are exploring include Preservation Training LibGuides and short video tutorials.
Dawn Walus, Chief Conservator at Boston Athenaeum, spoke next about outreach and access at her institution.
The Boston Athenaeum has a wide and varied outreach program. They hold architecture tours of the building, open house events for the public to view spaces such as the conservation laboratory, evening events with their curators, tours and workshops with groups of young children, and an annual conservation fundraising evening. Members have special events such as specific tours and conservation lab visits, and digital images of the collection made by the digitization team feature in a digital photo frame in the membership office.
As well as public encounters, the Boston Athenaeum offers summer institutional exchanges, internships in conservation through a relationship with the North Bennet St bookbinding school, and scholarships for researchers to study the collections available in the research room. They also take advantages of public curiosity of collection institutions through articles in traditional and social media.
This last point linked well to the third speaker, Suzy Morgan, Preservation Specialist at Arizona State University Library, who spoke about using social media to promote conservation.
Social media is a very powerful tool that conservators can use to direct and control the conversation about conservation without the message being misrepresented or diluted by traditional media. She pointed out that it is resource-light, requiring ‘only’ staff time and not expensive equipment, specialized staff (such as IT) or knowledge.
People are very curious about conservation, so there is a fresh audience out there waiting to respond to your efforts. The online community is very interactive, allowing you to have a conversation with both positive and negative responses, and presenting teaching moments as well.
Some advice Suzy gave was to look at how large institutions are using different social media platforms and copy the approaches you like. Be humorous, allow for some silliness, and keep it short. She reminded us tha the work conservators do is very photogenic and social media platforms are ideal for sharing photos, sound clips and short videos, which often represent our work better than text.
Finally, she said that there are lots of resources on the internet to explain ‘how to’; don’t be discouraged by the well-established platforms that large institutions have, be prepared to give it a try – start small take it slowly, and have fun.
Discussion groups
The three presentations were followed by breakout groups where each presenter came to speak to a group about the issues raised in their talk.
Laura McCann:
–        Q: How many students per year do you train?
–        A: About 20 people; they are tied into the general student orientation program for the library. Also, they use short training videos for patrons and para-professionals.
–        Q: Have you made your own training videos?
–        A: No, not yet. Need management approval. Also, some rare book departments might want more hands on or intensive training for their materials.
–        Q: Could we crowd source this?
–        A: In theory some of these information guides should be able to be assembled collaboratively, but each institution will likely want to add their own specific or specialized information. Other ways of distributing information include putting information cards around the library and in the reading room, or using table tents to inform general readers.
Dawn Walus:
–        Q: What is a good/not good age range for children to come and tour a conservation lab?
–        A: Young children can really appreciate a ‘book hospital’ or ‘make a book’ workshop experience and then take home a souvenir to show to siblings and parents; teenagers are hardest to engage – insist on no cell phone usage in the lab
–        Have workshops on old audio-visual equipment, as some people still have these things at home but don’t know how to use them
–        Q: How can you tell is your lab tours or other outreach programs are a success?
–        A: Speak to docents to see if they get questions about conservation programs; have a kids activity table and monitor its usage; talk to membership office and see if have increase in memberships or donations
Suzy Morgan:
–        Q: Is the social media you do part of a larger institutional social media program?
–        A: No, they are personal accounts, but contribute to the library’s larger social media efforts
–        Q: What is your favorite platform and which are the most effective?
–        A: Suzy is into Twitter and Tumblr and having a go with Vine; she hasn’t tried Instagram. Tumblr is easy to start, has no length limit, can post text, photos, video, links etc and also schedule posts for future release. Each platform has its own style; some are more personal and interactive than others. You need to work out your communication style and decide on the audience you want to reach, then write appropriately.
–        Q: Do you have restraints on your content ?
–        A: No, because she is doing it through personal accounts. To avoid onerous institutional policies, it takes time to build management trust in the social media program to see that no inappropriate content is released.
–        Q: Any advice on gaining institutional trust?
–        A: Start by offering to help with the social media program, provide content and slowly build up your involvement. Show examples of other institutions’ successful social media programs to build faith in your own.
–        It was noted that some institutions force staff to spend large amounts of time contributing to social media programs, and that can adversely affect the time available to spend on other work. If this is the case, ask for help from other staff/workshop participants etc and delegate. You could also point back at your job description if social media is not included.