Do Library Conservators Need MLS’s?

By now you know that the “Mellon Meeting” has happened. We at PCAN have no details of what transpired yet, but through the grapevine we have learned that one question kept coming up: do conservators working in library and archives need a Masters of Library Science degree?

We would like to get your thoughts. If you would like to send this link on to your AUL or Director to get their thoughts, please do. The wider the respondents the better. So, without further adieu, the question:

Is it important that a book and paper conservator working in a library (or archives) have a library degree? If so, why? If not, why not?

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7 Responses

  1. While planning the design and staffing of conservation lab, a conservation services vendor once offered me what he felt was an unquestionably wonderful deal: you build the lab, Holly, then contract out the staffing to us. We’ll staff the lab with professionals who won’t have to be bogged down with library meetings and the many ‘other’ obligations of a full-time, library employee. They’ll stay put at the bench!, he cheerfully promised.

    For me, the problem with that scenario is obvious — and directly related to the question you pose, Beth. A conservator in the library who stays put at the bench risks being the first against the wall, especially in tough budget times like we’ve experienced. Without the ability to relate to, collaborate with, advocate among, and be respected by your library colleagues, a conservator’s expertise doesn’t translate into value beyond the conserved item. If your colleagues and administrators don’t understand, appreciate, witness, or aren’t constantly reminded of what conservation does and what value it brings to the everyday library table, the conservator as staff member doesn’t just loose their footing — conservation as a library function (and as a responsibility of stewardship) in that institution may be lost for decades.

    Do library and archives conservators need an MLS to be able to build and maintain those key relationships with their colleagues and administrators? In absolute terms, no. That’s why in nearly every library preservation / conservation job announcement from the past three years, the requirements read: “An ALA-accredited MLS or equivalent advanced degree in library or information science or related discipline.” Some even prefer simple equivalent experience in a library environment instead of a master’s degree. Most libraries are increasingly fluid, nimble environments and don’t want to be locked into the ALA-accredited paradigm, especially in the preservation arena.

    Does the MLS give a conservator the instant ability to build and maintain those relationships? Absolutely not. That takes years and personality and commitment to develop. But what the MLS degree does, generally, is give a conservator a basis for working with everyone else in their institution, a common understanding that forms the basis for collaboration, communication, and mutual respect. A great example arose just recently in a disaster recovery effort in which I participated: a group of conservators organized the very detailed recovery of a large number of circulating collection materials damaged by mold. While our job focused on salvage, we had to be attuned to the access needs and bibliographic value of these materials. When we brought the materials into our care, we had communicate that inventory to the collection manager so that the materials could be shown as unavailable in the public catalog during their recovery. We also had to consider the cost of our time in recovery efforts vs. the library’s ability to replace those collections, and communicate our recommendation (based on condition) regarding replacement to the collection manager and the acquisitions unit. Library conservators need to know about processes outside their area of expertise: acquisitions, cataloging, collection management, access, personnel management, digitization. While exposure to these specializations often happens during the graduate library / information science experience, many library conservators in training already have several years of pre-program experience in the library / archives environment. So no: conservators working in the library / archives environment do not need an MLS degree to get pass the initial review of application for most emerging jobs in our field. But they must have that equivalent level of education, experience, and potential, and that’s hard to achieve without a UT-like conservation / information science graduate program.

  2. As someone who still had Paul Banks as an instructor at Texas, my first reaction was, Yes, of course they do. Upon further reflection, however, I agree with Holly that, no, library conservators do not need an MLIS. Yes, library conservators need to work within the library on committees as any professional would be expected to. Yes, library conservators need to understand the rationales and workings of the institution they are attached to. Yes, library conservators need to have an understanding of the overall mission of libraries as compared to museums.

    However, most importantly, library conservators need to be good at their specialty, conservation. The expert training can often be sacrificed when the needs of the program demand fewer classes of students (as what happened with Texas when the funding for stipends was cut). Less time at the bench is not a good thing for a conservator in training, especially in a field where there are very few entry level positions to give someone the quality mentoring opportunities. Train the library conservators to be conservators and have one or two general classes in library science to give them context. An MLIS is not required.

  3. I think it is important to remember that the work of a library conservator is done within the much larger context of the systems and structures of a particular library, as well as the larger library world. I think the person responsible for understanding and guiding conservation within this context should be a library-degreed professional. I don’t think the person responsible for the technical aspects of the actual conservation work needs to be a library-degreed professional, but should work under the vision and oversight of one. I think a library conservator will be able to do their job better if they have a MLS, but I don’t think the difference is enough to warrant the time, energy, and money required for the degree.

    In simpler terms, I think libraries should have preservation administrators – who have library degrees, and conservators, who don’t need library degrees, but work under the administration of the preservation administrator.

    A significant challenge, it seems to me, is that institutions and their human resource structures like degrees and certifications because they provide for easy check boxes on job applications and there is no standard certification/degree for library conservators apart from a library degree. It becomes much more difficult for human resource departments to discern qualified/unqualified candidates if there is no degree/certification to use as a litmus test.

  4. Obviously I am a little biased as I have an MLIS and an Advanced Certificate of Study in Library Conservation. That said and out of the way, I believe library conservators do benefit greatly with an MLS/MLIS as do the institutions they work for. I agree with much of Holly’s reasoning and I have talked about this at my previous post.

    There are a few other tangible reasons we benefit from an MLS. I firmly believe that to work effectively in today’s collaborative academic library you need to have the same tools and language librarian’s use. It’s been my experience that you have more credibility with professional librarians when you are seen as ‘one of them’ versus when you are seen as the ‘glue and craft lady’ in the basement. And, frankly, you get better pay and benefits if you are a professional librarian than highly skilled labor.

    I’ve put together a Google Docs spreadsheet with recent job postings for professional library positions, conservation/preservation positions, and rare book librarian positions. You can see that almost all of the professional librarian positions require the MLS or MLIS. Again, I ask the question out of equity…why do we assume that a cataloger or reference librarian or public services librarian should have an MLS but a conservation librarian doesn’t need one?

    I do agree with Kevin in one aspect. I think if a library (and I am talking mostly academic libraries) has a preservation librarian with an MLS, then yes, maybe the conservator doesn’t need one as long as all of the standard preservation functions were being met by that PL. However, it seems like many institutions have hired conservators with MLS’s because they feel they are getting a two-for-one deal. U-Texas trained conservators took all of the preservation administration classes (on top of the library school classes and the required conservation classes)…so I think many libraries see us as super-charged preservation librarians who can do both preservation administration and conservation. Most institutions really need a preservation librarian more than a conservator, but hiring a conservator is probably an easier sell to the administration.

    I think the real benefit of a training program firmly seated in a library school is that you don’t have to spend more time and money getting the education you need to succeed in an academic library. I teach preservation at a local library school and have one student who is determined to be a conservator. That student will graduate with his MLS, and he is working very hard now to get the bench training he needs to get a job in an academic library. I have one more friend who has done this, too, and it takes about twice the time, money and probably the commitment to the profession as what we needed to get through UTexas.

    Right now the MLS credential is important to my institution (as I’ve been told) and in many academic settings as noted by the recent job posting requirements. That said, I am a firm believer in multiple-entry points into this profession and hope that the “or equivalent” stays in the position requirements as long as those people are treated as professionals and afforded the same benefits as other librarians.

    If I didn’t want to participate fully in my profession as a librarian I would not have chosen the Texas program. I would have gotten an art degree and spent my day fixing things and only fixing things. I, personally, feel more engaged in the library and where it is going by being a professional librarian. I’ve sacrificed bench time to do it, but I think I’ve gained a lot, too, especially in the variety and depth of the work I do. If no library conservation program emerges from this upheaval I will be deeply concerned for the profession and its status within libraries.

  5. Good comments Beth. I agree that the non-MLS, highly skilled labor approach for conservators would definitely send them down a notch on the library organizational heirarchy.

    Upon further consideration, I think some of my challenges in dealing with this question are my lack of broad experience in different kinds of libraries as well as my lack of knowledge of what library conservators are actually doing.

    I think there might be value in approaching the topic from a different angle. Rather than ask ‘does a conservator need an MLS’, the question I ponder is what do libraries need in pres/conservation staff? My impression is that most libraries need (want) a preservation librarian with adequate bench skills. It is also my impression that most people hired by libraries as conservators do much more than sit at the bench and “conserve” and are often also playing the un-named role of preservation librarian.

    I think an appropriate arrangement for many libraries (particularly small-medium sized) is to have on staff a preservation librarian and others who can adequately handle 80-90% of the conservation work, with the with remaining work contracted out to professional conservators.

  6. I agree with most of the above comments and believe that an MLS is ultimately not necessary for a library conservator, beneficial though it may be for a fuller integration into the library workings and bureaucracy. However given the current circumstances of book conservation education, might it be more helpful to ask whether library conservators benefit from their training being situated in a library program as opposed to an MFA?

    I don’t think that it would be contentious to state that the Kilgralin Center’s curricular weaknesses were in scientific research and technical analysis, particularly in comparison to the other conservation training programs. At least in my time there (2005-2008), the focus was on developing hand-skills and practical knowledge. I suspect in part that this focus increased my own interest on book history and book structures, work that was more (soft) humanities than hard science.

    Now in the real world, albeit with limited experiences at this time, I find that even those techniques of technical analysis that I studied have only limited application in my everyday work flow. The overwhelming quantity of items in library and archives collections that led Peter Waters to formulate the tenets of “phased conservation” tend to limit the amount of time that I can commit to any single treatment before moving on to the next project. Again, this may be due constraints on my own knowledge or institutional support to conduct research, but I suspect that with the exception of a few institutions, most library conservators have limited time to commit to exhaustive analysis of single-item treatments.

    The focus of the UT program on batch treatments, preventive intervention, and the generally overwhelming nature of problems of library collections seems to have prepared me well for the type and speed of the work that I am currently facing. I wonder if book conservators who came out of art conservation programs feel the same way? I do want to make clear that the few book conservators that I have met from the art conservation programs seem to be very talented and good at their work, however, they also seem to work at those institutions that engage in intensive single-item treatments ( I should point out that it is a pool of two, so reader-beware). My understanding of the Winterthur/Buffalo/NYU curricula is that they focus on this single-item, research-heavy approach that is more common in museums than in libraries. If book conservation training is to move to one of these existing programs, I wonder how future graduates will integrate into the more mundane realities of ARL workflow and how this new new educational program will alter their current curricula to better prepare graduates for the job market?

  7. Is it important that a book and paper conservator working in a library (or archives) have a library degree? If so, why? If not, why not?

    There are a few variables I wanted to point out. I don’t know if you can pinpoint, across the board, that a person with an MLIS degree = a person with X skills. So, you may rephrase the question to be “is it important that a conservator working in a library has X skills.” I think it is crucial to identify those attributes that we desire from MLIS grads on the choose-your-own-adventure road to becoming a conservator.

    I am a conservator working in an academic library. From person experience, I can safely say I would not feel qualified to do my current job coming out of an arts program vs. MLIS. Why is that? As an arts major, I learned to approach objects a certain way. As an information master, I learned to approach objects as part of that information ecosystem, learning to speak the language, etc..

    My treatment decisions are greatly influenced by the library ecosystem, the scanning capabilities, the users, public safety…all of these things outside of the object. I think in the end, MLIS professionals can see and sort out the informational value of an object, and make treatment decisions within this context.

    Can we really make any requirements for posting conservation positions within a library? not really – because there is no set path to becoming a conservator of library and archival material.

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