A Future For Book Conservation at the End of the Mechanical Age

The following is the text of the 2010 Mim Watson Book Arts Lecture given at the University of Texas, School of Information, on 3/11/2010.

The problem of survival for the hand-bound book in America is a difficult one. There are many economic and perhaps even sociological factors involved which threaten the existence of hand binding, making this field some what uncertain as an occupation. Chief among these, I believe, is the ever-growing attitude that the book (like so many other objects of everyday use) is something ephemeral: read it and give it or throw it away. This attitude combined with the very understandable desire on the part of the book buyer- you and me- not to pay more than he has paid in the past for his books, has forced publishers into putting less physical quality into their books. I don’t believe that the situation is entirely gloomy. As the machine-made object comes more and more to dominate our existence, there is a small but growing group of people who value having the work of the human hand re-enter their lives. Most of these people, however, struggle valiantly against very difficult odds—principally economic—to keep our great libraries from falling apart.”

-Paul Banks, 1960, “A Controversial view of the Extra Binder in America”

If you roughly substitute ‘conservation’ for ‘hand bound book’ in the above quote, it is striking, 50 years after these words were written, how little has changed, or perhaps we have come full circle. It wouldn’t surprise me to read observations like this on a book-arts related blog. Survival in this field has been a struggle for a while, and still is today. Perhaps the entire history of books, as well as bookbinding and conservation, has been in a constant state of crisis, punctuated by continuing revolutions: paper, printing, the rolling machine, book cloth, stamping presses, stereotyping, publishers bindings, paperbacks, Printing On Demand and now, eBooks. As we know, there is painfully direct correlation between the decline of the physical quality of the books, and number in which they were produced. Tonight, I will examine some of the cultural forces that are changing how we use books, look at how this is affecting book conservation, then speculate a bit about the future. I’m afraid, however, that I have more questions than predictions.

To begin, please indulge me the opportunity to share some recollections of my relationship with this conservation certificate program when it was at Columbia University. Chela Metzger, when delivering Syracuse University’s 2008 Brodsky lecture, spoke about the role of luck in finding ones path in conservation. “The lucky combination of skills, opportunity and the right historical moment,” she succinctly said. I couldn’t agree more. When I started in conservation, as a technician working on a two year grant in the Columbia University Conservation Lab in 1990, I had no idea how lucky I was. Terry Bellenger’s Rare Book School was there and almost every Thursday night there was a book arts lecture. Nicholas Pickwoad was the instructor for the conservation program, and would often give public presentations. It seemed the students were always hanging out in front of Butler Library – didn’t they ever have lab time? Chris Clarkson was consulting Deborah Evetts at the Morgan, and would often stop by. Later Fred Bearman became head of the CUL and I worked closely with him for four years on special collections material. There were lectures at the Grolier Club, classes at the Center for Book Arts, advanced workshops sponsored by the NY Chapter of the Guild of Bookworkers, lectures at NYU’s Institute of Fine Arts, and an informal monthly beer meeting for binders and conservators. At the time, I assumed all of this was par for the course for any conservation job.

But I was very lucky, I later realized, to be exposed to a tremendous variety of educational opportunities. While the Advanced Certificate in Conservation has graduated hundreds of students over the years, there are likely thousands, and possibly tens of thousands, who have benefited from it in many various, undocumented ways. I am grateful how the program has enhanced and formed my knowledge of conservation, and feel a bit sad about its current demise.

Books and libraries are rapidly changing. Many believe that books are shifting from functional devices for delivering textual information to museum objects. Circulating collections are being replaced by online resources. Many undergrads refuse to use physical books for research. Libraries have gotten rid of card catalogs and opened up coffee shops in their place. If books become functionless, or unavailable, it can only be a matter of time until we question why we are spending all of this money to store them—they are expensive space wasters. Conceptually, off-site storage seems to have gotten us used to not gaining instant access to books in a library. I believe the first bookless library is at Cushing Academy, in Massachusetts. The headmaster of the school, James Tracy, states,”When I look at books, I see an outdated technology, like scrolls before books.

If paper books are dead, are digital books ‘undead’? Aren’t these books like zombies – living eternally in a digital netherworld, occasionally assuming a temporal physical form, and if they die a replacement is quickly created? But whether books are dead, or undead, convenience may be what finally replaces the paper book. I often succumb to the convenience of screen reading, because it is good enough for certain purposes. Sometimes I will just look up a book on Google for a citation, rather than walk ten feet over to my bookshelf.

If libraries are changing, and the use of paper-based books is declining, where does this leave book conservators? Isn’t one of our main tasks to preserve and restore the functionality of books? I’ve seen a steady decline in the number of treatments preformed within institutions over the past 20 years, not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Maria Fredericks observed in a panel discussion at the Center for Book Arts last week, that robustness and the desire to treat a book so they would last ‘forever’ were overriding concerns behind treatment decisions in the 1980’s – this resulted in a lot of disbinding, washing, deacidifying and rebinding. Although the Florence flood is often cited as the birth of book conservation, in some ways the 1980’s marked the cutting of the cord. Conservation became differentiated from bookbinding and book restoration; funding was plentiful, the Graduate Certificate Program was set up at Columbia, and in many libraries the bindery was converted, often with resistance, into a conservation lab.

Perhaps, an unintended consequence of the need to establish book conservation as something visually and materially different than bookbinding or book restoration, was a somewhat identifiably ‘conservation’ look to many treatments preformed in the 1980’s. These books often look very much like the 1980’s, rather than the time period that the book is from. Similarly, forgeries, over time, look more like the time period they were made in than the time they proport to be from, although I’m not implying these treatments are forgeries! It would be an interesting project to visually trace how notions of a sympathetic treatment have changed over the years. The early 1990’s started a trend towards less invasive treatments and minimal intervention which continues to this day. But minimal intervention has an endpoint. One of the most difficult decisions a conservator has to make is deciding when a somewhat more aggressive treatment preserves, during storage and use, more information than is lost through the invasiveness of a particular treatment. It is a decision no one takes lightly, and is complicated by the unique nature, unknown material history and uncertain future use for each book.

Although treatments are guided by the philosophy of minimal intervention, many of us were initially attracted to conservation because of the hand skills and craft aspects. Ironically, most of us, by mid-career become permutated into an administrator. A colleague of mine at a large NYC institution said she only does one treatment about every three years. The opportunity to spend a lot of time carefully documenting, looking at and treating a spectacular, or sometimes an unspectacular book is deeply rewarding. I’m not trying to deny the importance of preventive conservation and a host of other competencies a conservator must possess, but acquiring treatment skills is perhaps the most time consuming, humbling and frustrating aspect of a conservators education. I’m sure many of us have been dazzled by the technical skill of the binders who made the books we work on, and just as often are dumbfounded by the amount of time lavished on poor quality materials. Learning craft based skills takes years and years of practice after the end of formal education. So if the need and frequency of treatments continues to decline, how will conservators get enough practice to learn, improve and maintain their hand skills? And how will it be possible to continue the transmission of these skills?

Without high-level craft skills, many collectors and dealers, and quite possibly curators, could look once again to binders or restorers to repair their books to the level of historic sympathy, tactile qualities and aesthetic integration they expect. Most discussions about the future of book conservation tend to ignore the fact that about half of all conservators are in private practice, and that most historic and artistic objects that get ‘fixed’ are not treated by conservators. In my own experience, I rarely compete with other conservators for jobs – the problem is competing with Billy Bobs’ Budget Book Bindery. Many of the somewhat invisible aspects of conservation – such as documentation, the quality of materials, research, professional development, adherence to AIC’s Code of Ethics – can add a lot of expense to a treatment, putting a conservator at a severe disadvantage economically when competing with a restorer for a job. When I started in private practice, I once gave a client duplicates of all documentation– he looked at them and said all those slides looked expensive, I’m not going to pay for any more of them. And the Antiques Roadshow style experts, who inform the public they can get a book tarted up for a minimal sum does’t help matters. All conservators need to continually explain, validate and explicate what they do, in a way the general public can understand and get involved with emotionally. There are many compelling narratives surrounding conservation that we can use to engage the public imagination. Otherwise, what we do, and our profession generally, will remain invisible. And if it is invisible, it will undervalued.

Book conservation is much closer to its craft origins than other conservation disciplines. This may be why book conservation education is often separated from other disciplines. It also may be why book conservators are sometimes suspiciously regarded by conservators in other specialities. Craft values and professional values can appear contradictory, if only superficially compared. No one expects a paintings conservator, for example, to also be a creative artist. But it is necessary for a book conservator to be a competent bookbinder, unless the societal role of books changes so dramatically that books are no longer needed to function. If books are no longer required to be functional objects – which I can’t really imagine, since a functioning book is the fundament to access – then there would no longer a need for a specialized book conservator. An object conservator, for example, can construct a box or cradle. One of the principal purposes of conservation, as envisioned by the American Institute for Conservation, is that objects should be preserved so that they can be enjoyed by future generations- if a functional object cannot function, how can it be enjoyed?

This is the linchpin for the future of the field. The primary question is not if a book conservator needs an MILS, it is deciding if the overall cultural expense of transmitting the specialized set of skills used to maintain the functionality of a book, while preserving its artifactual and historic integrity, is important. Unfortunately, given the corporate model that currently pervades our cultural institutions, we may just let the market decide. I desperately hope this does not happen.

The engineering, technological and material science skills to make a book function while preserving existing evidence, is unique to the domain of a book conservator. Book conservation works almost completely opposite to other types of conservation; it involves a constant refining and increasing specialization of knowledge and skills – learning more and more about less and less. I’ve worked with several paper conservators who lack a basic understanding of how a functioning page needs to be properly repaired. Without an understanding of book history, it is impossible to determine what is material evidence and what is damage. Without a knowledge of book structures, it is difficult to determine what is rare or unique, and should be preserved as is, as opposed to a common structure that should be made functional once again. Many treatment decisions are extraordinarily complex and impossible to quantify, given the large number of often unknown variables. Each book, and by extension the treatment decisions surrounding it, raises questions about the impossibility of conservation ever becoming entirely scientific, since all books and treatments are unique. And no treatment is truly reversible.

Because of the close relationship between bookbinding craft and book conservation, it is vital that conservators not only to preserve books, but learn, document, and transmit the collective craft knowledge of bookbinding as well. Working closely with someone more experienced is essential to learning and transmitting this knowledge. I doubt that anything can take the place of one-to-one transmission, as previously conceived of as an apprenticeship, or currently as internships. However, some new forms of technology – ironically the very forms that are challenging the role of paper books – can preserve types of information almost impossible to document textually. Hand tool woodworking provides an example of how craft skills were ‘rediscovered’ after almost a generation of neglect.

Woodworking with hand tools, which had declined precipitously starting with the power tool craze of the 1950’s, was rediscovered in the early 1970’s. Most of the rediscovery came from textually documented sources, attempting to reconstruct exemplars of workmanship, and possibly the most important aspect, learning to use and maintain specialized, high quality tools. It is a striking example of how a long lasting professional trade was rediscovered by amateurs. Today, hand tool woodworking is experiencing a renaissance, and there are more small, local tool makers fabricating higher quality of tools than have been available for a long time. Inherent within books themselves, both physically and textually, is some of the information necessary for the transmission of the craft of bookbinding. And this is part of the reason we conserve them. So there is some hope of a rediscovery of the skills, even if they disappear for a while.

Although the craft skills of bookbinding, and books themselves aren’t going to disappear tomorrow, next week, or even in our lifetimes, the use of books as the primary instrument for the vernacular transmission of textually based information is slowly ending. The book didn’t start out in vernacular culture, and it won’t end in it, either. The inexpensive, commonplace paper based book will have circumscribed a brief, yet explosive period of human history, roughly starting with the enlightenment and ending with the web.

The rapidity in which print culture is changing will affect us in varied and unpredictable ways. Take, for example, the shrinking of the newspaper industry. It is difficult to get good quality newsprint (I know, an oxymoron) to use as wastepaper. In a recent order I was sent a coated, shiny paper more like something used in magazines. I suspect as newspapers die out, this will become more of a problem. ACE Grinding, who regrinds my board shear blades, make most of their money from resharpening newspaper guillotine blades; I doubt they could survive on the 20 or so conservation labs in NYC who get their blades sharpened once a year. Will any library binderies exist in another 20 years? Will someone produce a bookcloth even remotely sympathetic with 19th century books? Quality sewing thread is difficult to find. Leather? Binders board? Leather dyes? High quality handmade paper and tissue is possibly the only bright spot. The difficulty in procuring quality materials is a constant battle; I won’t bore you with the details. One tip, however, if you ever find a material you really like, buy enough for the rest of your career if you can possibly afford it.

The use of books for accessing textually based information is gradually declining, and even apart from my obvious pecuniary interest as a book conservator, I feel a sense of loss. Part of it is similar to the loss of a companion, part of it nostalgia, but part of it must stem from a deep respect for the subtle sophistication of the codex structure itself: I can’t think of a comparable technology that has been so durable over the past 16 centuries. Fine bindings can be gorgeous, small press books beautiful, but books that are functioning, working documents are perhaps the most gorgeous, beautiful and meaningful of all. Collectively, they are the primary documents of human intellectual life.

Outside of the book world, there are more general cultural trends that are very troubling. We are at, or have just passed the end of the mechanical age. I’m frightened how much of my life and thoughts only exist digitally. I’m worried that ‘things’ will not last long enough to acquire use value. I’m concerned that the general public doesn’t have much interest, let alone comprehension, of how and why things work, what they are made of, and most importantly why their physical, material nature has meaning. And I’m troubled by the ease in which we discard a functional object which is no longer fashionable.

In the United States, the notion of fixing things is disappearing – has anyone here had a pair of shoes resoled recently? I have a collection of Popular Mechanics magazines from the 1950’s that not only contain articles about how to fix many common household items, but also how to build the power tools to accomplish these tasks! Most things now can’t be fixed; if it breaks, it is discarded or a large chunk of it swapped out and replaced. I rebuilt my VW bug engine when I was in high school, but the only thing I can do to my current vehicle is to change the windshield wipers. There will be no need to repair a book produced on the Espresso Book Machine when a new one can be printed cheaply on demand. If my kindle ebook reader fails, I just buy a new one; actually, I’d probably walk away from it and read the few books I’ve purchased on my computer. I suspect we will interact with objects for briefer and shorter periods of time, and know less and less about them. The oldest prevalent complex machine still in use, at least around the East Village of NYC, seems to be 1970’s era bicycles. I can only foresee a consistently more difficult battle to try and argue for the expensive preservation of the non-textual aspects of books, when most of the owners have no awareness or ability to interpret these elements.

Despite all of this gloom and doom, however, the codex seems to be continually reinvented. Lulu, Blurb and the scrapbooking phenomena form an interesting counterpoint to some of my aforementioned concerns. These new forms make me wonder if there is deeply ingrained need for the codex, and the demarcation and fixity that it exemplifies, and that we will always have some form of it. The satisfaction that children feel, for example, when turning their scribbles into a book is remarkable. And although I personally find scrapbooking mildly repugnant because of its extreme commercialization, limited opportunity for artistic expression and deskilling of the bookmaking process, if it gets people thinking and working in the book form, I can only encourage it. Keep in mind that scrapbooking is big; at the burned out city center of almost every Midwestern town, right next to the tattoo parlor is a store selling scrapbooking supplies.

Will books disappear in a manor similar to VCR’s, film cameras, vinyl records or CD’s? I’ve seen photography wiped out faster than I could have ever imagined. I was still buying new lenses for my 35mm rangefinder in 2001. By 2003 I was shooting a lot of digital for fun, and by 2006 was using it for documentation. CD’s replaced albums, but albums are now back as a retro technology with bands releasing new work on them. Cheap Trick even recently released an 8-track tape. But as film disappeared for snapshots and vernacular uses, earlier processes, like non-silver printing, are experiencing a resurgence for fine arts applications. I have a friend, in his late 20’s who is grinding his own lenses to make a 16 x 24 view camera. But photography is only about 185 years old–will the sixteen century history of the multi-quire codex affect the speed of its replacement? Will books enjoy an art-based retro-vogue? Or could they become a conjoined with the current fetish for the handmade, reversing some of Paul Banks concerns?

If books become rare, treasured objects once again, they could increase in market value, which could increase cost effectiveness of their conservation. But what type of book will be preserved? I wonder if a decrease in the use of books will be proportional to the increase in their sentimental value. Could this affect their need to function? In some ways, conservation is becoming like a third world economy – there are a very few upper class, high level treatments, and the masses environmentally stabilized or rehoused. If, far in the future, owning and accessing a book becomes a rare and exotic experience – a direct, physical, tangible link to an earlier time period and technology – I can only see their value increasing. After all, home viewing hasn’t replaced the unique experience of watching movies in public. And talkies didn’t replace the live theatre. But talkies did replace silent film, while color has yet to completely obsolete black and white. And on a pragmatic level, books in general, and specifically those from the handpress period, are currently seriously undervalued.

I doubt any of us think ‘books are dead’. However, the eroding funding to preserve the book is of grave concern. The days of rapid growth in conservation seem to be over. In NYC at least, there are fewer jobs than there were when I started in this field, as well as fewer grant funded positions, and more uncertainty about the future of existing positions. And there are more conservators. I do think there will be one growth area: private practice. Across all conservation specialties, almost 50% of us are in private practice. Some by design, some by default, some taking time to raise kids, some waiting for a real job, and some because they couldn’t keep a real job. There are many varieties of working in private practice; some of us own a business, some work freelance for others, some work part time in institutional labs, etc…. In my dealings with institutions, most archivists and curators are relatively familiar with the basics of environmental monitoring and preventative conservation. I suspect some more small labs will close and preservation duties are assumed by existing staff. I wonder if this could create opportunities for those in private practice for project and contract treatment work?

What might some of these treatments be? This is pure speculation, but I imagine some specific problems – pigment consolidation, inappropriately bound vellum text blocks, scrapbooks, split wood boards, iron gall ink, photographic albums, reversing leather dressings, brittle paper, modern first editions – will all be key areas for extensive future research and treatment. I also think there will be a need for treatments addressing aesthetic concerns; as books are read less and looked at more, presenting bindings and books as treasure objects will likely increase, as well as increasing the need for preserving their aesthetics. Additionally, there are tremendous opportunities and possibilities for new designs of inexpensive, attractive protective enclosures, as well as more versatile wedges and cradles for safe handling and exhibition, both for institutions and private collectors. There are many aspects of a standard, drop-spine box that are in need of improvement and redesign. I’m also sure there will be many as yet unidentified problems, some likely caused by our current practices, if history is any guide.

In conclusion, it is the history, tradition and even metaphoric associations, that will sustain, perhaps in a radically different form, the cultural importance of the codex. Fighting to preserve and interpret its importance is nothing new. The aesthetic, historic and artifactual values need to be constantly brought to the publics attention. This is perhaps the biggest current failure of conservation, as a whole– the lack of adequate outreach and public education. We spend far too much time bickering about internal affairs.

Figuring our how to construct a viable life in bookbinding or conservation has never been easy. The current economic and cultural climate makes things very difficult. So I applaud the conservation students in this audience for having the courage to commit to this weird, changing, undefined, but immensely rewarding field. Despite the challenges, I’ve never regretted joining it. And I hope all the conservation students get ‘lucky’ as you continue your own varied, unpredictable, yet undeniably exciting career paths.

Book Conservation in the US and the UK

The practice of book conservation not only changes over time, but some of the ethics, underpinnings and treatments vary in different countries.  In November 2009, I had the opportunity to install a board slotting machine in England, teach a three day workshop on its use, and give a presentation on the history of board slotting.  During the course of a week,  I had time to talk shop with conservators from a number of institutions, and recorded some of my impressions from these conversations.

THE JOB SITUATION

Currently, it seems slightly better in the UK than in the US.  No one I spoke to experienced hiring freezes or a forced four day work week during the summer, like many institutional conservators experienced here.  Many of the jobs in the UK are short term or part time, but these were often to get renewed.  Because of their National Health Care system, this employment uncertainty is much more doable than here.   It is a nightmarishly difficult, and sometimes impossible, to rapidly change health care providers here.

Salaries, traditionally lower, seem to be catching up and in some cases equal to what a conservator would make here in the US. Perhaps this is due to ICON’s efforts to establish minimum accepted salary standards.  The cost of living is higher, however.  Salaries for conservators in private practice, however, seem to lag well behind the US, likely because of a much longer craft oriented bookbinding tradition that competes for rebinding and restoration type jobs. Overall,  there seemed to be a less alarming reallocation of funding for digital projects at the expense of treatments. Perhaps the bulwark of a longer tradition of caring for cultural objects provides a buffer against the current rush, at least here in the US, to digitize everything by noon tomorrow.

Because there are so many older books in Europe, the general public considers them commonplace and functional, rather than treasured relics.  I’m not suggesting Europeans don’t value their cultural heritage, but for them, a 19th century book is not all that old; additionally these books can be somewhat slighted because they are a product of technology, not craft.

Conservators tended to be much more international than here.  I’ve met conservators working in the UK from the US, Canada, Serbia, New Zealand, France and Italy. Additionally, I have to confess a degree of jealousy when examining the overall age and quality of materials that my English peers were treating–generally they get to work on better stuff.

EDUCATION

Once again, possibly due to the demise of the Kilgarlin Center,  more Americans are choosing to get their conservation training in England.  Camberwell and West Dean both seem to have bumper crops of new students.  There is even a US/ UK alliance between North Bennet Street School and West Dean, though I am unclear if it is official or not: complete the rigorous two year NBSS program, with its emphasis on bookbinding craft skills, then enter into the 2nd. year MA at West Dean for conservation training. It is almost like training in the US is back to where it was in the early 1980’s, with potential conservators forced to devise their own conservation education based on a variety of sources–bookbinding courses, on the job training, internships, an MILS and countless short term workshops.  In some ways this is nothing new– book conservators have always had to be proactive in their education. Given the lack of new, entry level jobs, coupled with the lack of training opportunities and the decrease in funding for treatments, I am growing increasingly apprehensive about the future of book conservation.  Books are rapidly loosing their unique status as interactive, movable functional objects, and becoming more like any other museum object. Will  future book conservators only learn how to safely house and display them?  Will future book conservators be trained in the various MA art conservation training programs; Buffalo, The Institute of Fine Arts, Winterthur, Queens?  The conservators I have met from these programs have been top notch, highly skilled and very professional.   Since book conservation, historically, has been so closely linked to its craft roots, emerging initially in the working library, not in a museum setting, should we consider the preservation of these craft skills a necessary part of an overall book conservation training program?  In many ways, this shift in book conservation education mirrors the shift of the societal role of books themselves.

HEALTH AND SAFETY

The EU also brought in stringent (and to my mind sometimes ridiculous) health and safety rules.  Board shears (called ‘board choppers’ in the UK) are retrofitted with a large Plexiglas fin, similar to a Kuttrimmer, to prevent users from putting their head under the blade to align material to be cut.  This often results in a nasty cut on one’s forehead when, out of habit, one tries to align the material under the blade.  Even a Tormek (slow speed water cooled grinding stone) had to be outfitted with an ’emergency’ on-off switch.   Since it is possible to touch the wheel when it is in motion without abrading your skin, I am suspicious about the necessity for this switch.  Quite fortuitously, UK conservators never use sharp knives and scalpels, otherwise they might be required to wear kevlar gloves, a thick leather apron and safety glasses!

TEA TIME

The sacrosanct ritual of tea time seemed to promote employee bonding and encourage a general sense of well being,  as well as providing a respite from the sometimes tedious nature of performing  conservation treatments. In general, Europeans have a more nuanced understanding of work. One gets the sense that the workplace was made for people, not people made for the workplace. I suggest this attitude be more widely emulated here, and vow to start with my studio!

SIMILARITIES

Many of the frustrations expressed are quite similar on both sides of the pond.  The most common being the lack of time to actually do treatments, given the amount of administrative duties.  Another is the amount of time that exhibitions and loans take, often to the detriment of treating serious, complex problems on other books.  And there is a persistent sense–sometimes spoken, sometimes unspoken– that book conservators, because they work with their hands in a profession closely related to a craft,  are somewhat closer to shoemakers than other museum professionals.

Most book conservators, attracted to this low paying field for a variety of reasons, are personable, intelligent, practical, curious, decent people.  They are the kind of colleagues  one chooses to socialize with outside of professional obligations, often sharing a love of good food, as well as a deep, often thankless commitment to preserving the most perfect and durable technological invention of all time:  the book.

I suspect there are many familiar with both the US and UK conservation worlds, and am interested to hear some other comparisons and perspectives.

The American Institute for Conservation has also compiled information about conservation education.

And in This Corner: Conservators in Private Practice vs. Institutional Conservators?

“…the pursuit of important issues is always divisive and controversial, because it challenges the status quo. In my view, this is almost always the equivalent of being committed.”

– José Orraca, one of the founders of CIPP, in an Address to the CIPP in Vancouver, 1987 (1)

It has been 22 years since the Conservators in Private Practice Speciality Group (CIPP) was formed in an unscheduled meeting in Washington DC. According to Susan Barger, “The goals of this group were to provide support for conservators in private practice, to cultivate respect among conservators who worked in different settings, and to encourage wider participation in the AIC.” (2) Forming an new specialty group within AIC was no easy task, and the founders of CIPP displayed remarkable pluck and courage by encouraging the larger AIC board of directors to recognize the special needs of private practitioners. CIPP members initiated the AIC referral system and are responsible for many inventions in the field.

From the beginning, however, there were tensions between those who worked for institutions and those in private practice. For a while, there was a two tiered membership in CIPP, with “Real” CIPP allowed voting rights and “Occasional” CIPP (coined COPP, Conservators Occasionally in Private Practice) allowed to be nonvoting members. The following definition of a CIPP was adopted: “A conservator in private practice is an individual whose only employment in the profession of the conservation of artistic and historic works is as a proprietor or employee of a private, independent, conservation service or facility, and who is not a staff employee of any non­profit institution. CIPP Bylaws 1987.” (3) This important distinction performed a valuable function by preventing conflicts of interest from the staff of institutions and regional centers in developing the agenda of CIPP.

Things, however, have changed in past 22 years.

The membership of CIPP has hovered around 400 for most of its existence; current estimates rank the number of actual private practice conservators at 1,700. The job market, which once held to a fairly stark line between institutional and private practice, now offers a number of positions that blur the boundaries, and these positions seem to be becoming more prevalent, due to Cultural institutions adopting a corporate business model, rather than a philanthropic one. Now, for example, there are “project conservators” who work regularly for an institution for 10 years or more without benefits, underpaid institutional staff moonlighting evenings and weekends to make ends meet, labs who’s administrative workload has overwhelmed the staff so that they must hire those in private practice to do treatments, conservators who leave the institution to raise children while working freelance, large non and for profit conservation centers who don’t consider themselves to be in private practice, institutional conservators who have to work on non institutional work to raise money, and many, many other types of arrangements. Job situations have become much temporal and fluid in the past 20 years. Conservators move back and forth between private practice and institutional jobs several times in their career. Concentrating on differences has not allowed the mission of CIPP to flourish.

Things need to change in the next 22 years.

What was once necessary to demarcate the differences between those working in an institution and privately is becoming an impediment towards professional respect and exchange of knowledge. What was once healthy adolescent individuation is in danger of becoming resentful coveting. Some CIPP members envision a fairy tale scenario about the ease of the life of an institutional conservator, and resent the institutional authority conferred on those in positions of power, since we have to create reputations for our business and ourselves. Exaggerated rumors of this anger and resentment dissuade younger conservators from joining CIPP. Rather than spending our time looking inward (which is also a grave danger for AIC as a whole) we need to look for ways our particular interests and skill sets can interact with the whole of conservation.

Conservators in institutions need conservators in private practice— for special projects, referrals, expertise outside of their specialty, etc. And conservators in private practice need institutional conservators—for referrals, access to expensive equipment, research, etc. The relationship is becoming more symbiotic, not antagonistic. The skill sets inside and outside institutions are remarkably similar. Running a business, working within time and cost constraints, performing treatments, managing projects, supervising and training staff, documentation and analysis are similar in both contexts. At least in the book conservation field, if cost cutting and redirecting of funding towards digitization continues the majority of conservators could soon be in private practice.

Ultimately the goal of all conservators is the same: advancing the body of knowledge that allows us to provide the best possible preservation for the cultural property entrusted to our care.

(This is an expanded version of an address I gave to the Conservators in Private Practice Specialty Group of the American Institute for Conservation on April 24, 2008 at the 36th Annual Meeting held in Denver, Colorado.)

NOTES

1. Barger et al. “CIPPing Champagne” AIC Newsletter, Lead Article, January 2007.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.