This week, I should be getting the last of our materials back from the Conservation Lab. I never got the chance to take a course on preservation and conservation when I was working on my MILS at Pratt, but I always wished that I had the chance to do so. Both preservation and conservation are enormously important to the archives profession, and this project in particular is a prime example of why.
Probably because I never took a class on preservation and conservation, I always get the two terms mixed up! So for those of you who can't keep the definitions straight either, here's are the definitions, pulled from the Glossary of the Society of American Archivists:
n. ~ 1. The repair or stabilization of materials through chemical or physical treatment to ensure that they survive in their original form as long as possible. – 2. The profession devoted to the preservation of cultural property for the future through examination, documentation, treatment, and preventive care, supported by research and education.
Notes: Conservation1 counters existing damage, as distinguished from preservation2, which attempts to prevent damage. Conservation does not always eliminate evidence of damage; restoration includes techniques to return materials to their original appearances (which may include fabrication of missing pieces). – However, conservation2 is often used to include preservation1 activities.
n. ~ 1. The professional discipline of protecting materials by minimizing chemical and physical deterioration and damage to minimize the loss of information and to extend the life of cultural property. – 2. The act of keeping from harm, injury, decay, or destruction, especially through noninvasive treatment. – 3. Law • The obligation to protect records and other materials potentially relevant to litigation and subject to discovery.
– preserve, v. ~ 4. To keep for some period of time; to set aside for future use. – 5. Conservation • To take action to prevent deterioration or loss. – 6. Law • To protect from spoliation.
Preservation2 is sometimes distinguished from conservation1, the latter describing treatments to repair damage. However, preservation activities are often considered a subdiscipline within the profession of conservation2. – Preservation3 is used in many public records laws to distinguish records from nonrecords; records are those materials that warrant preservation, that are set aside (usually by being filed). Materials that are not set aside for subsequent use do not fall within the scope of that legal definition. In this context, preservation is roughly synonymous with filing, with no connotation of permanent preservation.
In case you prefer to skip over those long definitions, I'll just note the part that pretty much sums it all up: "Conservation1 counters existing damage, as distinguished from preservation2, which attempts to prevent damage. Conservation does not always eliminate evidence of damage; restoration includes techniques to return materials to their original appearances (which may include fabrication of missing pieces)." In other words, we use preservation techniques, like photocopying acidic newspaper clippings or slipping items into acid free Mylar, to preserve the content of those clippings for the future. And we treat damaged items so that researchers can handle them safely and without contributing to further damage.
As I said, this has been especially important with the NYCC collection—as you may have gathered from previous posts, there has been A LOT of material in the collection in need of some major TLC. A large portion of these records were stored in unfavorable conditions and that was evident to Katie and me as we pulled out stack after stack of dirty, dusty, grimy material. Since archival documents are unique, and often times old, acidic, and fragile, they necessitate careful handling and storage in a climate controlled environment—otherwise you end up with a moldy, crumbling, unpleasant mess. There are some conservation and preservation issues that archivists can easily handle themselves: photocopying acidic paper, placing potentially damaging materials between acid free sheets of paper or in some kind of protective encasement, or using cleaning pads and powder or soft bamboo brushes to safely remove dirt from documents.
For anything that requires some really serious damage control (and when you have items that date back to 1768, you've got a lot of damage to control), we send items down to the talented, capable staff in the Conservation Lab. They deal with stuff like red rot on leather bound books
and board replacement on volumes with covers missing. They also relax tightly rolled documents, clean the truly dirty stuff, create special encasings for fragile materials, and generally make everything old and gross look new and pretty again. In other words, they do magical things to save materials that come to them in a sad state and make an archivist's job a little easier and a lot cleaner.