At the risk of poking too many bears, I’ll offer an observation for consideration – the American Institute for Conservation (AIC) does not own the concept of “preventive conservation” (nor, for that matter, does it own the concept of “cultural heritage” which the web address might imply, but that’s a discussion for another day). The principles of “preventive conservation” existed, and were active, long before it became an active topic of discussion in AIC over the last 7-10 years. “Preservation” as a discipline and profession goes hand-in-hand and largely mirrors the history of conservation practice, with preservation generally defined as the range of strategies/activities used to prevent degradation in cultural heritage materials, while conservation’s traditional training has been in the repair/treatment of that damage or degradation. There are strong elements and subsets of practitioners of preservation/preventive conservation in each of our allied professional organizations (American Library Association (ALA), Society of American Archivists (SAA), American Alliance of Museums (AAM), The Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC), and others), with, for example, professional committees within both ALA and SAA, and yet the communication between these groups can be extremely limited. To use one example, in a single University Library setting you may find a Preservation Administrator whose primary professional contact is ALA. They may supervise the Conservation department, with the conservators attending AIC as their professional organization. The Archives/Specials Collections professionals may not be supervised by the Preservation Administrator, but nonetheless perform critical preservation functions in their daily role – they attend SAA. Each professional, within the same organization plays a significant preservation/preventive conservation role, and yet all three receive their primary professional guidance on how to approach preservation/preventive conservation of the same material from a different professional group. This, to put it simply, is a problem.
Each profession has critical information to communicate – AIC, ALA, and SAA all have active publication programs that focus partially on preservation/preventive conservation practices (not to mention the wealth of material from independent publishers). The risk, or perhaps problem, is that when we only have the bandwidth, for whatever reason, as individual professionals to focus on one professional “home,” it is easy to be unaware of the broader resources, let alone determine which one is most applicable to our personal situation. AIC provides guidance for storage conditions for certain materials – so does SAA. Those numbers don’t always match, nor do they necessarily match the guidance provided in, for example, the 2019 ASHRAE (The American Society of Heating, Refrigerating, and Air-conditioning Engineers) chapter for the environmental design of Museums, Galleries, Archives, and Libraries – which was primarily written by conservation scientists and practitioners, not engineers. Don’t get me started on how well any of those have historically matched up with ISO or other international guidance. ALA has a number of publications on library design – those vary greatly compared to the published SAA standard for Archival and Special Collections Facilities, and the primary authors of that resource are entirely different than the architecture/engineering/facilities practitioners who commonly attend AIC. The underlying theme is that, even though we’re all working in the interest of preservation/preventive conservation, we’ve had a tendency – at least at the professional organization level – to work independently, without enough regard for what our conservation/museum/library/archives and even architecture/engineering colleagues are saying. When examined at the individual level, the typical reality is that folks have limited means and bandwidth (for a multitude of reasons) to work collaboratively across disciplines, no matter how closely related.
There are signs that we’re getting better – the 2019 volume Preventive Conservation: Collection Storage was co-published by SPNHC, AIC, the Smithsonian, and the George Washington University, and won the 2020 Preservation Publication Award from SAA. This is a key example of collaborative work that we need to learn from, encourage, and continue. The simple truth is that cross-disciplinary collaboration cannot be assumed, and may not always happen organically – we have to first admit its value and need, encourage ourselves (regardless of professional identification) to step beyond our range of comfort, deliberately create the opportunities for communication and sharing, and finally dedicate ourselves to taking meaningful shared action on those topics, such as preservation and preventive conservation, which are truly universal to all disciplines of heritage work.
Jeremy Linden has been the Principal/Owner of Linden Preservation Services, Inc., since 2017. He is an active educator and consultant, and works closely with colleagues in libraries, archives, and museums on issues of material preservation, mechanical system performance, energy-savings, and sustainability. He was previously the Senior Preservation Environment Specialist at the Image Permanence Institute from 2010-2017. Jeremy earned an MLS in Information Studies and an MA in History from the University of Maryland, and a BA in History from Vassar College. Formerly a certified archivist and HVAC professional, Jeremy has over 20 years of experience working in the cultural heritage field.