The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 9, Number 6
Nov 1985

Preservation vs. Conservation

Pam Darling's distinction between the terms preservation and conservation in the July CAN, submitted as a letter to the editor of CAN, is reprinted here in full with permission of the editor and author.

To the Editor:

In CAN Number 20, Michael McColgin expressed his dismay over the report of my usage of the terms conservation and preservation at last year's St. Louis Conference. Since I intend to define these terms in much the same way at this year s repeat of the conference, and because your readers will certainly be interested in this ongoing discussion, I hope you will have space for this excerpt from my remarks:

Libraries are responsible for the care of materials which are physically endangered, and library preservation encompasses everything which serves to prolong the life of those materials and/or their informational content. I use the term "preservation' in this broadest sense, reserving the term "conservation" for those activities which involve physical treatment of individual items by a "conservation technician" or professional conservator.

There are other opinions on this terminology matter. Some hold conservation to be the broader term, with preservation restricted either to preventive maintenance activities, or to saving information through replacement or reformatting, as in "preservation microfilming." Friendly arguments have been going on about this for years now, and dictionaries don't help much, generally listing the two as synonyms.

In the museum world, where every item is unique, conservation is--quite properly in my view- -the dominant term since physical care is virtually the only option. Microfilming the paintings or recording the appearance of woven baskets on an optical disc and discarding the originals would hardly do! the museum-oriented American Institute for Conservation reserves its most privileged membership categories for hands-on laboratory conservators. For AIC, conservation is the broader term, and those who have come to library work with a hands-on object-oriented background have tended to bring that use of the term with them, so that a few libraries still have "Conservation" offices or departments which encompass more than physical treatment. The published literature also reflects this dual use, one recent book actually using preservation as the broader term in the text but defining conservation as the broader term in the glossary.

While we may bemoan this apparent confusion, I think the trend within the library world is clear: this conference ["Library Preservation: Implementing Programs," Alexandria, VA, March 8-9, 1985] is on library preservation, sponsored by the Preservation Section of RTSD and the Preservation Office of LC; the title of one of the first full-time positions in a research library was changed this year from Conservation Librarian to Preservation Librarian; national planning within the library world has always been cast in terms of developing a "national preservation program"; the National Endowment for the Humanities has just established an Office for Preservation.

Human language tends to shape itself through use, regardless of our hunger for standardization. In this instance, I am inclined to think the differentiation in use between museum-oriented and library-oriented professionals is not an altogether bad thing because our concerns, while overlapping, are by no means identical.

I don't expect everyone blithely to agree with this position, but I intend to continue to use conservation to refer to that subset of activities dealing with physical treatment, within a comprehensive preservation program which also includes preventive care and replacement or reformatting of information. And we are, after all, only talking about the first three letters. At Columbia, where we have two advanced certificate programs, one for conservators and one for preservation administrators, we sometimes adapt the familiar antisexist-pronoun trick and refer to the con/preservation education programs. If you can't beat 'em, join 'em.

Pamela W. Darling
New York, NV

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