Getting Caught Up: Information Technology and Conservation (draft)

This is an early draft of an article that appears in Conservation: The Getty Conservation Institute Newsletter, as part of the theme "Conservation at the Millennium". This draft, is quite a bit longer than the published version; most of the material material deals with Conservation OnLine and is probably of limited interest.


Having been asked to write about the impact of Information Technology on conservation, I find myself reflecting rather on why IT has not had more impact on our field than it has. Clearly computing and networking have become inextricably entwined in our daily practice, yet one can't avoid the sense that we're not really getting as much out of the technology as we might, or worse, that somehow it is not delivering on its promises. Rather than attempt to review the current state of play, an exercise which space won't permit, and which would inevitably reiterate our common experience, I'd like to offer just a few observations on where we need to go from here. Perhaps because I lack patience and have expected our information environment to have evolved more thoroughly than it has to date, I will undoubtedly seem more a luddite Cassandra than the avid technology partisan I have been in the past. The common thread throughout these reflections is that technologies evolve more quickly than do the social and psychological adaptations needed to make effective use of them.

The rate at which a notion decays from being novel and interesting to being simply self-evident, if not downright trite, is a marker of just how completely expectations of rapid change have come to dominate our experience. To have insisted, a decade or so ago, that computers were more significant as communication tools than as computing machines would have been to take a contentious position, but today few would argue, and in the field of conservation, especially so. Where computation per se has played an important part in scientific research and analysis, it has--with the notable exception of imaging--made relatively few significant inroads directly into conservation practice. In the area of communications, however, the impact has been dramatic, especially since 1987, a year which saw the introduction of the Conservation Information Network and the Conservation DistList.

It is useful to distinguish, even if the distinction is blurry and arbitrary, between two major modes of online communication: interpersonal communications (email, online forums, two-way conferencing) and information dissemination/retrieval (databases, most web sites, online publishing). Both modes have become important parts of the conservation landscape, though with many users, one senses a greater comfort level with the former mode. To judge from many of the submissions to the Conservation DistList, far too many conservation professionals prefer relying on the direct advice of their colleagues to looking into the published literature; despite the enormous efforts that have gone into making access to AATA simple and affordable, and despite the DistList's frequent reminders to "Search AATA before you post", rather few participants appear to take the advice.

Conservation OnLine and Knowledge Environments

Conservation OnLine was originally conceived as a site for gathering together much of the large body of information that falls outside the traditional print literature, and for making print material available in ways that make it more useful (e.g. full-text searching of articles, hypertext dictionaries, etc.). It has to a very small extent achieved a portion of that aim, capturing for example the message traffic for a number of conservation-related email forums, providing unpublished technical reports (previously published and otherwise), a few online books, and full text versions of several print-based newsletters and journals. This sort of publishing has, I grant, great value, and in many cases making a print-based resource available online significantly enhances its usefulness to the community, so CoOL will continue in this line and will expand its current practice. Currently, retrospective conversion of JAIC and the Paper Conservation Catalog is in progress for inclusion in the AIC site in CoOL.

At the same time, and not entirely by design, CoOL has taken on an odd role as an online home for a number of conservation organizations, providing them an online presence and tying them together into a loosely defined network of interest. The participant organizations have both an individual identity--their sites are clearly autonomous and recognizably theirs and at the same time, they help to make up the virtual library that is CoOL as a whole. Searches in CoOL's main indices will return items from throughout the participant organizations' sites, as well as from CoOL proper.

It doesn't take much of a leap of imagination to see the notion of CoOL as kind of union catalog extended beyond the "walls" of the library, to encompass resources anywhere on the Net and analogies to the many popular portals and wide area search engines are not strained. Of course CoOL, like any web site, does include many links to resources beyond its walls, but these are conceptually separate from CoOL itself; they don't appear in search results, for example. What will be necessary, to differentiate CoOL from the popular portals, whose virtues and failings are well-known to us all, are: selectivity--the quality and specificity of resources included; the degree to which the cataloging and organization of resources are tailored to the needs and mind-sets of conservation professionals; and, probably, the willing involvement of remote sites.

Eventually, I envision the physical "body" of CoOL dissolving nearly entirely, replaced gradually with a virtual aggregation of information about resources everywhere on the network, and supplementing those resources with local documents where there are fillable gaps. There are a number of mechanisms by which this might be achieved. Remote site indexing software is an obvious solution, but the need to gather metadata sufficient to build a sophisticated information facility complicates matters and will in most cases require the active participation of remote sites--which is in itself a good thing, since we are really aiming for a collaborative structure of information sharing. A second, and somewhat less attractive, approach is that of mirroring; actively copying entire document webs from remote sites and making them available in CoOL. This is currently done for a number of organizations such as ICOM and UKIC, in order to provide quicker access for North American users. The use of mirroring to incorporate the content of a site as an intellectual entity into a local library is less usual. An example of this approach in CoOL is the SOLINET leaflets, which are mirrored from SOLINET's own site and incorporated verbatim into the CoOL collection.

There is a second direction in which CoOL might move, and one that complements the concept of CoOL-as-virtual-library. Looking at CoOL with even the most generous eye, one must perceive a lack of depth of coverage; in no subject area can one find more than a token offering, enough information to get started, perhaps, but not enough to do the level of research needed to make treatment decisions. The answer, I believe, lies in what have come to be called Knowledge Environments:

"A knowledge environment is an information service that:

Built by cooperation between technology specialists, subject domain specialists, and librarians, the KE attempts to make available--either directly or by links to remotely held resources everything a researcher needs for serious work in a single subject area, organized by people with advanced subject domain knowledge in such a way as to make the knowledge useful to the specific user communities. Equally important it incorporates facilities encouraging ongoing discourse within the user community.

When I first encountered the concept of a Knowledge Environment, I thought immediately that this is exactly the end that CoOL and similar resources should strive toward; a single locus from which the conservation professional can, with maximum efficiency and comfort, locate thorough and authoritative information in any format, be it electronic or print. To some extent CoOL does carry some of the incipient elements of a KE: for example, the inclusion of online forums, especially the integration of the Conservation DistList, fosters the development of ongoing communications within the community. What is lacking, obviously, is depth and thoroughness of coverage.

In considering Knowledge Environment for conservation, the question of scope of coverage is a difficult one: just how narrow should the focus be? While we might build KEs that coincide with existing conservation specialties, I suspect that a narrower coverage will be necessary, perhaps similar in scope to those of AATA's special supplements.

Building a KE is not a trivial task, and funding both their development and maintenance will be a challenge. Existing KEs are principally subscription-based, a model for which, given the limited economic resources of our field, I've not much optimism. The most likely avenue for development would seem to be project based development of isolated components of the KE, which are later joined to form an integrated environment.

For an excellent example of a working KE, see the Signal Transduction Knowledge Environment, provided by Science (American Association for the Advancement of Science) and Stanford University.

Distance Learning

For as long as I've been in the field, a driving theme has been the need for ongoing training opportunities for conservation professionals, whether refresher courses, colloquia, or advanced academic classwork. While excellent opportunities for continuing professional education exist, there remain obvious obstacles--for both the provider and the student, especially mid-career professionals--to taking full advantage of these: cost, travel, time away from the lab are all serious considerations. Of all the applications of IT that have developed in the past decade or two, none have spurred my optimism more than distance learning. Sitting on the nexus between information dissemination/retrieval and interpersonal communication, distance learning leverages IT to provide instruction to conservation professionals at remote locations. It offers a practical solution to each of problems above and provides flexibility to both teachers and students, enabling working professionals to fit continuing education into their ordinary work-life. Significant distance education projects in conservation are already in place. At the University of Western Sydney, the Nepean School of Civic Engineering and Environment offers a Master of Applied Science in material conservation), a three year part-time program for those entering the field, available via distance learning as well as through on-site classes. Also in Australia, at the University of New South Wales, the School of Information, Library and Archive Studies offers a number of courses via distance education including: preservation administration and preservation and conservation of audiovisual materials. In Canada, the Cultural Resource Management Program at the University of Victoria offers distance courses in heritage conservation, conserving historic structures, and museum-related topics.

Most exciting of the current distance education projects is that of Paul Messier and Irene Brückle who have put together a two-way interactive videoconferencing system and used it to teach a course via the Internet on the examination and identification of photographs for students at the Art Conservation Department at Buffalo State College.[2] The topic calls for a great deal of student-teacher interaction and involves very subtle visual discrimination, which must be conveyed between the students in Buffalo and Messier in Boston. As such, the project served as a robust proving ground for the concept of using technology for distance education in conservation. By all reports, the system appears to have been most effective, and offers us hope that this technology will be of great significance in conservation education.

On a less elaborate scale, for subjects that do not require a hands-on experience or extensive real-time interaction between students and teachers and that have a reasonably static and well-defined content, web-based tutorials seem an excellent means of teaching, especially for courses that are (or should be) repeated frequently, as online tutorials can be "replayed" without incremental cost. Topics in which theoretical aspects dominate are ideal candidates for this sort of treatment.

Network collaboration

By now, many conservation professionals have had at least some experience serving on committees or task groups conducting their work via email, and have experienced both the indisputable benefits and the unexpected frustrations attending this mode of communication. From the earliest days of electronic mail, users have noted the awkward situations that can arise from email's lack of those non-linguistic components that make face-to-face communication seem so easy, the kinesic and aural cues that make up phatic communication, the body language that signals the content of what is not being expressly said, or in this case written. The early development of emoticons ("smileys"), was a useful, but ultimately feeble attempt to overcome what is fundamentally an innate characteristic of the medium. Despite it's speed and glibness-encouraging easiness, it is not speech, nor is it quite the same as print; there really is a distinct quality to electronic communications, and for the most part our psychological perspective has not yet adapted to the new mode. With our life-long grounding in telephony and print--almost polar in terms of their sensory and psychological foundation-we have developed shared expectations of how communication works, expectations which the new mode undermines. We are developing new behaviours--maladaptive perhaps--derived from these expectations, which at best lead to wasted time and effort, at worst to failure of the effort, and in any case to a gnawing sense that something about this mode of working just isn't quite right.

Of the problems I've observed working in online task groups, the one that seems most vexing--and one that is perhaps easiest remedied--is a tendency for the group never to reach closure or consensus, or more precisely to fail to realize or acknowledge when consensus has in fact been reached. This would appear to be rooted in the asynchronous nature of email and the lack of kinesic cues; one is just never quite sure when the discussion is over. Similarly, there is also a tendency toward false closure, an attitude among participants that having written on a subject once, they are done once and for all when the essence of discourse is that it "runs about", following point upon point before settling into any sort of resolution. During the period during which the early HTML specifications were being developed, members of the IETF developed a discursive technology intended to solve this problem, email forum software geared toward the more-or-less formal discussion of a large number of issues--in this case specific clauses of a proposed specification, and voting at various stages in the discussion. While this seemed to work well, most discussions are less structured than those; nevertheless the idea showed promise and other collaborative tools--notably collaborative authoring tools, have since been developed. Most are designed for use within an intranet, but internet-based systems are finding there way to market and some may be of interest for collaborative work among conservation professionals.

These technological solutions, however, rather beg the question. The point, really, is that we have not yet adapted socially and psychologically to the new media. An obvious quick-fix is for a leader to declare a deadline and to announce formally the final consensus, but in practice the oft-noted democratizing proclivity of network discourse seems to militate against that. In practice, more often than I can remember, such discussions have been resolved offline, typically face-to-face or by phone, with participants asking each other "are we done?". One assumes that with time our vocabulary of online conventions will grow sufficiently to make such aberrations unnecessary.

Electronic texts

Computer mediated communication is a supremely effective information discovery tool, but reading substantial bodies of text from a display screen--even offline with comfortable mobile devices--is for most readers not compatible with careful, considered reading, the kind of reading needed to transform information into knowledge. Alex Pang, a colleague at Stanford, commented that when he assigned an all-web reading list, he noted a marked superficiality in his student's reading, but that when he instituted a print-on-demand system, encouraging his students to read from hard copy, the situation improved. This phenomenon is common, and is probably a factor in the continuous retreat of the "paperless office". Indeed, when I watch people reading web pages online, I notice that they tend to scroll quickly, scanning and seeking, rather than actually reading; ease of scrolling encourages this mode of acquisition, rewarding rapid scanning with quickly found answers, an electronic form of speed-reading.

The implications for information management in technical fields are clear. On principle, I am no fan of presentation-oriented document formats, but for as a short term solution, I concede that when presenting presentation of complex, hard-to-read materials, online services should offer print-friendly version in--more or less--platform-independent formats such as PDF, at least until our readers better adapt to online presentation. In the longer term, we must relearn to read.


Elsewhere I have written about some of the technical challenges facing those who would construct database and document authoring systems to support conservation treatment and examination documentation. [3] Beyond those technical issues, however, lies a far more intriguing problem. A colleague pointed out that conservators spend much of their time looking intently at objects, and that having to lift the eyes and hands to use a computer breaks the concentration enough to interfere seriously with the examination. [4]

Over time, humans have learned to integrate handwriting so completely into our our behaviour that writing while looking does not introduce a cognitive disjuncture, but we have yet to adapt to computer input in the same way. Indeed, with the current configuration of computing devices, it would seem unlikely that we will ever fully adapt, although the more recent handheld computers may be moving in the right direction. In the past year or two however, voice recognition technology has made great advances and it is now possible to buy consumer-level dictation hardware and software that are accurate enough, and convenient enough, to suggest that it will not be too many more years before conservators will be able to dictate treatment reports at the bench and have them converted to machine readable text in realtime. When that is achieved, computer-based documentation systems will cease being mere record store-houses and will begin, at last, to facilitate the creation of richly detailed examination and treatment records.


1. From "Creating Knowledge Environments", Information About Information Service Briefing, Vol. 1 No. 9, July 31, 1998 Outsell Inc. [Quoted in "Leveraging the Intranet in Knowledge Management." Mary Lee Kennedy, Director, Information Services, Microsoft Corporation

2. Brückle, Irene and Paul Messier. Photography Conservation Training Via Videoconference: A Project Report [abstract]". Electronic Media Group. AIC Annual Meeting, St. Louis, June 11, 1999

3. Henry, Walter. "Application Development for the Conservation Lab," in Advances in Preservation and Access, Volume 2, 1995, edited by Barbra Buckner Higginbotham. Learned Information, Inc.., Medford, N.J.

4. Lisa Mibach, private communication.

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