AIC 2010 Roundup: Discussion on Educating Library Conservators

Future of Book and Paper Conservation Education–Summary of Discussion

This session was organized by Karen Pavelka and Jennifer Hain Teper, and was facilitated by Beth Doyle. In light of the events at the University of Texas at Austin iSchool the organizers wanted to have a positive, forward-thinking discussion about how we can educate future library and archives conservators. [From here on I will use the term “library” but please understand that this also incorporates archival conservation practice.] Approximately thirty people were in attendance.

A lot of discussions are occurring across disciplines, in various organizations and amongst individuals. Many feel this conversation needs to be broadened to include not only practitioners but administrators from institutions that employ conservators, Columbia/UT-GSLIS/iSchool alumnae, allied organizations (e.g. SAA, AAM, ALA-ALCTS, ALA-LAMA, AIC BPG, AIC-CIIP, etc.), funding agencies and educational institutions. Preferably these discussions could happen openly and perhaps electronically so that broad participation can be encouraged.

Karen provided some background information for the audience. Columbia University’s library school was the first home of a training program for library and archives conservators as envisioned by Paul Banks, the program began in the academic year 1982-1982. When that library school closed, the program moved in 1992 to the University of Texas Graduate School of Library and Information Science and was called Preservation and Conservation Studies (PCS). In 2005 through a generous grant from Judge William and Margaret Kilgarlin, PCS was renamed the William and Margaret Kilgarlin Center for the Preservation of the Cultural Record (aka Kilgarlin Center). The Kilgarlin Center accepted up to ten students per year, had no PhD level faculty on staff (although the director, Ellen Cunningham-Kruppa is working towards one), and focused on teaching rather than producing research. Research agendas, academic status of faculty and enrollment (thus income) are very important to the iSchool (and to any academic institution). NEH had funded the faculty salaries at the PCS/Kilgarlin Center since 1980 but informed the school that they could no longer provide funding to support faculty salaries (Charles Kolb from NEH had more to say on this at the BPIG discussion at ALA Midwinter). The iSchool decided to suspend admissions for the conservation certificate in 2009 pending a review of the program. The iSchool attempted to find other options for funding Kilgarlin Center’s faculty salaries but none were found. [More on the UT-iSchool’s administrations viewpoint was presented at BPIG’s midwinter meeting with Andrew Dillon, Dean of the iSchool.]

The PCS/Kilgarlin Center program taught students a broad approach to conservation that encompassed not only the physical nature of the item but library theory and practice. Paul Banks’ original vision was to get book mending ‘out of the basement’ and on par with professional positions. Unlike museums a library’s holdings are meant for use and must function accordingly. This means that conservation must take into account not only value and importance but use and patron needs as well. Participants who work within the museum community said that museums are beginning to look at value and use in ways similar to libraries, thus closing the gap between these specialties. This may help broaden the conversation and bring new perspectives to the conversation of where we go from here now that University of Texas at Austin is essentially not training library conservators.

Do conservators working in libraries and archives need a Master of Library Science to be effective in their jobs? is it required by institutions for these positions? The answers of course vary by institution and by individuals and their position description.  Many conservators with an MLS believe that it helps them navigate the complexities of working in a library especially if they are in administrative positions. An advanced degree is often required as part of a library-professional job description, if the institution ranks their professionals as faculty, is used as part of the promotion process or is tied to other benefits such as compensation and retirement incentives. The MLS informs the preservation management portion of the job, and the conservation certificate informs the bench portion of the job.

That said many libraries seem to be moving away from an MLS-only hiring practice and accepting other advanced degrees to fill positions, such as a degree in information technology, art history or other subject areas. Conservators who were trained through one of the art conservation programs felt that an MLS was not necessary to work in a library setting or if library skills were needed they could be learned on the job. Libraries are changing and perhaps it is time for the preservation and conservation professions to change, too.

Is the library school model still a valid one or could/should other models be developed? Again, there were mixed opinions on this. On the one hand, the single-school model such as Kilgarlin provided a context within which all lessons were learned, that being the theory and practice of librarianship and how conservation fits within that setting. Many felt that library skills could be learned on the job and bench skills should be emphasized in school, many voices were heard to say the exact opposite. There are many ways into this profession and we need to remain flexible in thinking about how we will move forward with developing training programs. If an MLS is no longer considered necessary to work within a library setting, many felt we would need to make a strong case for the need for an advanced conservation degree to keep our jobs at a professional level, avoiding a slip back into the “basement” as Paul Banks described.

Existing conservation programs want to help address the immediate need to train qualified library conservators and they want to help develop new opportunities for students wishing to go into this specialty. Funding agencies such as the Mellon Foundation and NEH are also interested in supporting new training opportunities and are open to ideas. Partnerships between existing schools and library schools are being explored and more cross-institutional efforts like this will be needed. Winterthur and Simmons are discussing a partnership that would allow conservation students to take library school classes. Developing more internship and fellowship opportunities is important, too, and more institutions need to participate in this way.

One of the more complicated parts to this is the question of where the profession is going. The conservation profession seems to be undergoing some growing pains and we need to take care not to restrict ourselves by demanding too much training (e.g. multiple degrees) or requiring too little. How we got to this point in the field is not necessarily how we should continue forward. Audience members thought we should build on what has already been done, including the AIC’s Essential Competencies document and the iSchool program assessment. An external assessment of the field could be another useful endeavor if it was expanded to include not just iSchool graduates but all conservators as well as the key members from the institutions that hire them. An assessment of the future demand for conservation is needed to get a full picture of where we think the profession is heading. We also need to consider the growth in non-print collections and the needs that our institutions will have for those collections.

Ideally more than one program addressing the needs of the library would best serve the many interests of conservation students and material-types held in libraries. It was felt that more competition would make each program stronger and they could learn from and support each other. Lois Price (Winterthur) will also be looking at non-U.S. programs including West Dean College and Camberwell to see what we can learn from their programs. Other models we can investigate include Rare Book School, and medical training (compensation is linked to continuing education). Several people expressed the desire for a collaborative, interdisciplinary model that was flexible to allow for a variety of conservation specialties, one that didn’t make the students follow a rigid course but provided options to explore areas of interest such as digital preservation. The audience also expressed concern that we not become so prescribed in our training programs that we lose the benefits that come from having people in the profession that have entered it via different routes and experiences.

For a long time people felt that the UT-Austin program was the only option. We now have an opportunity to embrace change and to think more broadly. Several ideas were generated on where we should go from here:

  • Continue looking at other training models and take the best ideas from those.
  • Broaden the discussion to include as wide an audience as possible.
  • Better advocate for and market ourselves and our skills so that our institutions understand the value of our services (and thus ourselves).
  • Work with the current conservation programs to improve opportunities for people who want to go into library conservation.
  • Develop preprogram opportunities for people who may be interested in going into conservation.
  • Develop more third year conservation internships and postgraduate fellowships (and jobs).
  • Partner with national, state and local funding agencies to provide on-site training opportunities for conservation students (e.g. IMLS <;)
  • Consider incorporating conservation technicians into this conservation. There are more of them working in libraries than conservators and they also need training opportunities.
  • Encourage research and publications across the field.
  • Exploit current venues to keep the conservation going including the Emerging Conservation Professionals Network, PCAN, AIC Blog. We need people to voice their ideas!

We as a profession need to be better at marketing and advocating for ourselves. Will we wait for another Terry Belanger or Paul Banks to emerge to lead us in a revolution? or can we work as a group so we can have a say in what will ultimately become the next training program?


2 Responses

  1. […] AIC 2010 Roundup: Discussion on Educating Library Conservators […]

  2. i posted my thoughts to my blog just after the meeting. it’s different in perspective — my thoughts are more general and less descriptive. a good discussion, and i hope there’s more to come.

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