The Importance of Library and Archives Conservation (and Why We Should Continue Training Library and Archives Conservators)

By Beth Doyle, Collections Conservator

Conservation is at the core of my library’s mission to “acquire, organize, preserve, and deliver information resources and assist users in their effective use.”1 Every day we provide collection materials to students, scholars, historians and the public. Students certainly come to find information to fulfill assignments but researchers also come to find their family histories, facts for legal arguments, health and scientific information, or background material for their great American novel. Of course our patrons not only come to use our physical collections, they use our digital collections from their dorms, offices, homes and even the coffee shop down the street.

The conservation staff is critical to our mission to provide access to and preserve our collections both in their original forms and in their digital surrogates. If we place any value on the history and information contained in our collections then we must also place a value on the education and employment of conservation librarians. Our goal as librarians and as conservators is to put collections in the hands of people who want to use them, to help make connections between ideas and people who will take those ideas and create new and wonderful things. We are here to make sure that happens today, tomorrow, and decades from now.

Institutional Priorities

Over the past several years Association of Research Libraries (ARL) member institutions have made preservation of and access to rare and unique collections a priority.2 These collections most distinguish one ARL library from another and many resources have been put towards bringing these hidden collections into the open through better cataloging, exhibitions and digital conversion. However, as Lars Meyer points out in his recent publication Safeguarding Collections at the Dawn of the 21st Century,

Many preservation librarians and special collection curators anticipate that such exposure will lead to increased need for stabilizing artifacts (particularly preceding digitization), repairs, exhibit preparation, and complex conservation treatments in preparation for, or in response to, increased use. Both preservation and special collections communities, however, share a concern about whether libraries have adequate capacity, in terms of staff and skills, to address increasing conservation demands.3

This has certainly been true at my institution. Both small and large digitization projects often require pre- and post-imaging conservation to ensure the collections can be safely digitized and stored afterwards. With new high-output scanning equipment our digital production center will be better positioned to meet the growing needs of our digital collections program.4 Our exhibits program has expanded with the addition of a new exhibits coordinator (who luckily is also a conservator) and new exhibit spaces in our renovated library. Our exhibit program is fairly large with at least five exhibit areas within the main library alone5 and other exhibit areas located in our branch libraries. Conservation services are essential to making these other library programs successful.

Across academia we also see a trend towards the library as “meeting space” not just a collection of materials or a suite of services. At my institution our gate count increased over 50% when our renovated building opened and has continued to increase each year.6 While more people in the building doesn’t necessarily mean more use of the collections, patrons are doing things that may put our collections at greater risk including eating and drinking while studying, bringing in their pets on the weekend, or attending sponsored social events.7

With these increased pressures put on our collections it is up to conservators to make sure they remain in usable condition for current and future scholars.

Saving Resources

All of our institutions are examining their budgets more closely in these difficult economic times and it is easy to understand why conservation, and conservation training, could be seen as a luxury for any institution. However, it is vitally important that we keep training conservation librarians especially because we are in difficult economic times.

Our academic libraries spend a large amount of their yearly budgets acquiring, cataloging and making accessible new materials. Conservation is like an insurance policy on this investment. We make sure our collections can withstand several uses (multiple circulations, exhibits, class instruction, digitization, etc.) thereby saving money in the long run on replacement copies. Library conservation labs work most often on those items that cannot be commercially rebound and would otherwise be unusable due to their condition. We extend the life of our collections, making them available far longer than they would be otherwise. In the seven years I’ve been at my institution my staff has repaired over 44,000 items from our general and special collections, constructed custom housings for nearly 34,000 items, and recovered just over 6,500 items water and mold damage. Approximately two-thirds of the 44,000 items we have repaired are from our circulating collection. At our charge of $125 for a replacement copy we can estimate saving the library $3.8 million dollars in replacement costs for the circulating collections alone (assuming we can replace the damaged items at all).

Not all special collections start their lives as such. It is important to remember that many materials in our circulating collections are not widely held by other institutions and may some day be transferred to special collections. Having trained conservators on staff along with well-trained conservation technicians ensures that these materials are treated with care and respect for the original bindings and the information they contain.
We can calculate the savings our services provide my library for special collections, which make up about one third of our output. We can estimate an average of three conservation hours per item for a total of 43,560 conservation hours over the past seven years. If we were to send that amount of work to a vendor, at a very conservative estimate of $75 per hour we would have spent $3.2 million in contracted conservation services. We can conservatively calculate our in-house rate at about half that of a vendor. The library can use those savings to contract conservation for items we cannot do in our lab, or use those funds for other needs. If your library has no conservator, contracting with a vendor that specializes in library and archival materials makes economic sense since it will keep your most valuable materials in usable condition for much longer than leaving them on the shelf unattended.8

Simply put, conservation is a service that protects and adds value to the investment we make in our collections and allows us to do more with the funds we have.

Saving History

Beyond the economic value there is the no less compelling argument of the value of saving historic documents for future research and discovery. As a conservator I have had many encounters with objects that have taught me something. As a conservation student at the University of Texas at Austin School of Library and Information Science I worked on a map that Stephen F. Austin himself drew in 1830. As a native Texan I felt connected to my home state in a way that I never had before simply by witnessing this piece of history.

Several years ago I was in a meeting at my institution discussing the digitization of the William Emerson Strong photograph album9 of important Civil War figures including John Breckenridge, Robert E. Lee, and Jefferson Davis. To me this was simply an interesting and historic object that didn’t need much conservation work. What gave me pause in that meeting was seeing a photograph of a long-lost family member whom no one in my family had ever seen. His name is Howell Cobb,10 and all we knew about him was that he was a high ranking officer in the Confederate Army. I have been told that if I had been a boy I would have been named Jefferson Cobb, after Thomas Jefferson (another one of my kin) and Howell Cobb (my father is also named after him). Imagine stumbling upon this mythical figure from your family history quite by accident and being able to play a small part in its digitization. These kinds of genealogical discoveries are made every day in our libraries, archives and historical societies.

As I write I have two researchers waiting for me to finish the conservation of a two-volume set of letters that Louisa Whitman wrote to her son Walter. These are ordinary letters from a mother to a son that speak of quite simple things such as family news. Because of who Walt Whitman became these are now incredibly valuable and open a window into the life of the Whitmans that few scholars have witnessed. Soon they will be digitized and I am proud to say that I had a hand in making this project happen. My library has digitized other Whitman documents that are now available through The Walt Whitman Archive, an online multi-institutional depository of Whitman-related materials used by countless researchers the world over.11

It is this personal connection to history that makes our work so interesting and so worth the effort. Students, genealogists, scientists, writers and other patrons come through our doors every day searching for that connection to history that sparks an idea or even a career. Without conservators it is safe to say that much of our personal histories and national treasures would be either deteriorated beyond use or lost entirely.

Giving Back to the Profession

Library and archives conservators work on treasures both great and small, saving their institutions money and saving our cultural heritage for current and future research. But just as important is their dedication to the profession. My résumé is likely similar to that of my colleagues. I have taught the Preservation of Library and Archives Materials class at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Library and Information Science since 2003. I have developed and taught classes for Lyrasis and the Triangle Research Libraries Network, written articles for online publications such as LisCareer12 and Archival Products Newsletter,13 and presented and chaired discussion groups at numerous local and national conferences. Our lab has hosted practica for library school students and fellowships for newly graduated conservators. We provide education and instruction for our faculty, students and the public in the form of one-on-one evaluations, workshops, training sessions and presentations. We don’t simply sit in our basements working on objects, we are out there helping the library, archives and conservation professions move forward.

Training Library and Archives Conservators

According to a May 2009 survey14 conducted by the American Institute for Conservation, only 9% of the respondents work in libraries and archives. This group also reports the least amount of professional experience at an average of 13.8 years in the field. If we do not continue to train professionals in this field we will have very few qualified conservation librarians to head our in-house programs or to work in the private sector. There will be fewer professionals to deal with the growing preservation needs of our audio/visual and digital collections. The amount of research and publishing will dwindle leaving gaps in our understanding of how and why both old and modern materials decay and how best to care for them. There will be fewer professionals teaching, presenting at conferences, and providing needed public outreach and education. In short there will be far fewer of us to act as stewards for the voiceless collections that are in our care.

Not everyone has the skills to be a conservator, it is extremely complex work requiring fine motor skills, a working knowledge of organic chemistry, an understanding of materials dating back millenia, a basic understanding of preservation and conservation theory, and the ability to translate all of that into practice. To be successful you need extensive training, internships and mentors that allow you to practice your skills while learning new ones.

The Kilgarlin Center for the Preservation of the Cultural Record at the University of Texas at Austin School of Information is the only graduate conservation program in the United States that focuses on training conservators who specialize in library and archival material. Since moving to Texas in 1992 the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has granted awards to support Kilgarlin’s mission to train conservators. This year the NEH funding for Kilgarlin’s two conservation instructors will end leaving the future of the conservation track in doubt. It is unclear at this time whether the University of Texas or the School of Information will fund these two positions, other private or public funding may be needed to for Kilgarlin to continue its conservation training program. This news has hit especially close to home since I am one of its graduates and know deep down the importance of this program and the work that its graduates do every day for institutions all across the country.

Conservation makes a difference in the intellectual life of our nation and to anyone who has ever stepped inside a library, archive, school or other institution of learning. We need to support the Kilgarlin Center and let the University of Texas and the School of Information know how important this conservation training program is to our institutions. We must urge them to fully fund the conservation program at the Kilgarlin Center, and we must do it now.

The preceding represents the opinions of the author. Opinions expressed do not reflect those of Duke University, Duke University Libraries, or any other organization with which the author may be affiliated.


1Duke University Libraries. “About [Internet].” Durham, NC: Duke University Libraries; July 10, 2009 [cited August 11, 2009].

2Association of Research Libraries. “The Unique Role of Special Collections [Internet].” Washington D.C.: ARL; August 6, 2009 [cited August 13, 2009].

3Meyer, Lars. “Safegarding Collections at the Dawn of the 21st Century: Describing roles and measureing contemporary preservation activities in ARL libraries [Internet].” Washington, D.C.: Association of Research Libraries; May 2009 [cited August 14, 2009]. Page 19.

4Duke University Libraries. Digital Collections [Internet]. Durham, NC: Duke University [cited August 14, 2009].

5Duke University Libraries. Exhibits [Internet]. Durham, NC: Duke University [cited August 14, 2009].

6Telephone conversation with Michael Finigan, Head, Access and Delivery Services, Perkins Library, Duke University Libraries. August 4, 2009.

7Duke University Office of News & Communication. “One World, One Party [Internet].” Durham, NC: Duke University; March 2, 2009 [cited August 10, 2009].

8With no conservator on site, selection for conservation becomes more important. I co-presented on this topic at the 2008 ALA Rare Books and Manuscripts Section preconference with Kristen St.John, Conservator, UCLA. To date RBMS has not published our presentation on the web but I am happy to make the handouts available upon request.

9Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University Library. William Emerson Strong Photograph Album [Internet]. Durham, NC: Duke University; October 17, 2008 [cited August 11, 2009].

10Howell Cobb, William Emerson Strong Photograph Album [Internet]. Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University Library. Durham, NC: Duke University; October 17, 2008 [cited August 11, 2009].

11Folsom, Ed and Kenneth M. Price, editors. The Walt Witman Archive [Internet]. Center for Digital Research in the Humanities at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln; 1995-2009 [cited August 14, 2009].

12Doyle, Beth. “Careers in Preservation Librarianship [Internet].”; Februrary 2005 [cited August 11, 2009].

13Doyle, Beth. “Starting a Branch Repair Training Program [Internet].” Archival Products News, vol.11, no.2; 2004 [cited August 11, 2009].

14American Institute for Conservation. Highlights of Conservation Professional Needs Survey [Internet].” Washington, D.C.: AIC; May 2009 [cited August 4, 2009].

One Response

  1. Thanks for your thoughts, Beth. The Kilgarlin program fills an obvious need and must continue.

    The challenge I have when thinking about conservation training is that most libraries don’t have the resources or need for a Kilgarlin-trained professional. The problem as I see it, is there are few opportunities for training people for conservation/repair positions which are less “advanced” than the ARL conservator positions. There are short certificate programs for preservation – like the Preservation Management Institute at Rutgers – but I don’t know that there is anything comparable for training in the basic skills of good book repair, box making, etc. It seems that so much of this kind of training is cobbled together through assorted workshops and whatever else can be found.

    It could be that this kind of training and the positions they would fill are economically unsustainable – these tasks might best be done more economically by the commercial library binder. But I still think there has got to be a better way of training really good conservation techs, book repairers, and small college conservators.

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