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Subject: Collections conservation

Collections conservation

From: Harry Campbell <hcampbel>
Date: Tuesday, July 20, 1993
Recent Distlist postings have given a pretty clear impression that
"collection(s) conservation"--relative to library collections--may
mean different things to different people.  Yet, much of the effort in
recent years to improve general collections care has been based on this
concept.  Also, much emphasis has been placed on the concept in
discussion of the AIC Code revisions.  Should we assume that improved
care for general collections is "conservation"?

Collection(s) Conservation is a term that has recently become popular as
a reflection of the growing awareness of the need for more careful
planning and management of library collection care programs.  Many of
the principles, embodied in the AIC Code of Ethics, which formerly
existed only in the realm of rare book conservation have gradually been
extended into the bindery and repair departments of many libraries .

Many library preservation professionals accept the notion that
collection(s) conservation may refer specifically to preservation of
general circulating collections in their original format.  To maintain
collections "in their original format" is an effective way to provide
service in support of the educational mission.

Format vs Object:

It's interesting that in this definition of collection(s) conservation
we acknowledge the importance of the "format", yet we fail to take the
next logical step to distinguish between format and the actual existing
"object".  Even though "format" refers to the physical (usually) form,
preserving an item in a particular format is primarily to maintain
convenient access to information. Prolonging the utility of the format
is more important than preserving the existing object, and often
requires that materials be replaced, removed, duplicated, or otherwise

Does "conservation" imply retention of the format, or does it go beyond
format to include preservation of the original existing materials?  And
does preservation of the format require strict adherence to conservation
ethics and standards?  Is it possible, or is it necessary, to reconcile
the unceremonious rebinding--or otherwise substantial alteration--of
thousands of books, either commercially *or* in-house, with a philosophy
(AIC Code) that is intended to preserve the artifactual features of
objects? Even if we consider the "object" to be the collection, is our
purpose to preserve the existing physical features of the general
collection?  Perhaps the physical format (or an acceptable alternative
format), but probably not the exact existing materials.

General Collections and the AIC:

The collection(s) conservation concept has influenced recent discussions
in relation to the AIC Code revisions.  Library collections, in
particular, have been at the center of this discussion (with some very
respectable and eloquent spokespersons calling for a more flexible and
inclusive code).  Do general library collections fit in these
discussions--even if they are part of the "aggregate", along with
special collections?

Is there a difference between general library collections and other
types of collections of physical cultural property? Although they may
have a similar societal value or importance as part of our cultural
heritage and holdings, they are *unique* in their nature (information
resources) and how they are used.  There is relatively unlimited access
to these materials for borrowing and unsupervised handling and use (or
abuse).  Few other types of collections that I can think of, even
"special" library collections, allow, or are intended for basically
unrestricted use by the general public.  The only exception that comes
to mind may be a "working" historical site collection, where many items
that are used (costumes, furniture, farm implements, etc.) are, in fact,

There may be important reasons to recognize the distinction between
different types of collections, and between maintenance and conservation
activities.  Do we really want to stretch the AIC Code thin enough to
cover maintenance of general collections? Although conservators of other
types of collections (including rare books) may have legitimate reasons
for wanting to revise the Code, is it realistic for those who provide
care to general collections to insist on a code that is so broad?  Is
the Code really deficient, or are issues related to general collections
simply irrelevant to the Code?

Library Collections Conservation Discussion Group (LCCDG):

The LCCDG has made great progress toward improving the quality of care
for general collections.  But, does the work of the LCCDG actually
address practical collection maintenance activities, rather than
conservation as intended or defined by the AIC?  Of the categories--and
actual samples--discussed at the recent LCCDG meeting at AIC, all
related to treatments intended for general collections, and many involve
substantial physical alteration of the materials.   This is not to say
that maintenance activities should not be guided by conservation
principles and include conservation techniques, but the objective of the
treatments is to preserve and enhance the format of the materials and
their ability to withstand regular use.

Even within the LCCDG there is little consensus on many small treatment
details, and sometimes on whole procedure categories. This is as it
should be, considering different institutional priorities, resources,
and requirements for a variety of practical solutions.

Are we using our energy and our resources wisely?  Just as naturally and
assuredly as we reject old-fashioned and potentially damaging
treatments, why are we so disinclined to reject procedures that are
disproportionately elaborate and expensive--in terms of time and
materials costs? Is one any more or less wasteful of our library's

In 1904 Douglas Cockerell wrote, regarding the binding of library books,
"Some books must be bound as well as possible, regardless of the
expense, some as cheaply as they can be bound well, and others as well
as they can be bound cheaply."  His philosophy may seem over-simplistic
today, but it is still essentially applicable.

Basically, Cockerell was referring to rare books, books of permanent
research value, and items of temporary interest or value, respectively.
His second and third categories address "general" collections, and the
need to find practical and affordable solutions based on the particular
institutional value of the collections.

Every day we are confronted with damaged books that have permanent
research value and are typical of the vast majority of items in the
collections.  Depending on priorities and available resources, the
standard options might include commercial binding, in-house repair or
rebinding, or reformatting.  All of these choices are valid, and all are
based on the need to prolong the useful research life of the collection
in a particular format, and not on particular artifactual

Conservators and Collection Maintenance:

Many library conservators work with both special and general
collections.  While a conservator may (should) try to uphold the spirit
and letter of the AIC Code when treating rare books, should he or she
feel a conflict with that code, or be limited to strict conservation
practices, while performing procedures which essentially maintain the
usability and format of the general collections?

Is it a cop-out to distinguish between conservation of special
collections and maintenance of general collections, or is  it a sensible
acknowledgement of different approaches required for collections with
different types of value?

As evidenced by the recent comments on the DistList there appears to be
widespread conflict and misunderstanding among library conservators
regarding the concept of collection(s) conservation, and the proper
place of general collection practices in relation to the AIC Code.

I don't believe it is necessary for the library  preservation community
to adopt the term "conservation" in order to justify improving the
quality of collection care; or to garner financial support from granting
agencies; or to justify the hiring of qualified professional
conservators to run the care programs (especially if care is provided to
both special and general collections).  I also don't believe that
conservators need to call *all* of the work they perform or supervise
"conservation" if, in reality, it is something else.

We have lately been cautioned that we risk our professional credibility
if we don't all pull together in the name of conservation.   My fear is
that we risk marginalization in the library community if we fail to
differentiate between general and special collection care approaches,
and to proportion our use of limited resources appropriately.

Harry Campbell

                  Conservation DistList Instance 7:13
                 Distributed: Wednesday, July 21, 1993
                        Message Id: cdl-7-13-004
Received on Tuesday, 20 July, 1993

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