Tag – We Are Not It

26 12 2007

I’ve been searching for other paper conservation blogs. I’ve Googled and Asked. I’ve looked on Technorati, Digg, Del.icio.us. I’ve varied my search terms. I’ve decided…Houston, we have a problem.

“Paper conservation” brings us mostly to discussions about saving trees, and a very interesting blog about a conservation experience in the Antarctic. “Paper conservator” might get you here, and to a nicely-done British book conservator blog-he tells me he is now at the Huntington- Broken Books, or Mr. Paper’s look into the paper industry in it’s many permutations, including a bunch of stuff on paper dresses, and to a blog by a newly hired paper conservator in Australia. “Art conservation” – not much except conservator’s private practice websites, training programs, the Distlist and other publications, and vendors – no blogs that I’ve yet found. “Preservation” is mostly buildings, unless you add the word “Library”. “Book conservation” brings you to the ubiquitous Future of the Book. Frustratingly, many feed search results provide articles about political conservatives instead of conservators. “Art restoration” is mostly articles written by non-conservators.

Bottom line is that any combination of search terms only yields a handful of relevant results, and anyone looking for a blog talking about our profession has to rummage like the most persistent flea-market hound. We’ve got to do better than this.

So, shall we revisit the ever-evolving conversation about what is that we should be called? What search terms, keywords and tags should we be promoting? How can we make sure that we get found?

My question to you: how do you describe your profession to a stranger, when you have about 5 seconds to get it across? Do you say “I’m a conservator”? The response to that, it seems, is “…like you save the environment?” I tend to say “I fix art and historic documents”, and leave the word “conservator for later in the conversation. That don’t seem right, PR-wise, but it communicates the essentials quickly. It does leave something to be desired in expressing the intricacy, extensive training and education, the professionalism required.

Ideas, anyone?



10 responses

27 12 2007
kevin driedger

I feel your pain. The terms conservation and preservation, and add to that restoration, are overflowing with meanings. And I’ve encountered the phrase “preventive conservation” in museum communities. Even within the limited library/book/paper world conservation and preservation are somewhat amorphous terms. I think this is demonstrated by the fact that my blog gets regular hits from people searching “conservation vs. preservation”.

My interests focus on preservation and conservation within a library context so I usually add ‘library’ to my searches to filter out most of the environmental, architectural, and unrelated sites.

When describing what I do to non-professionals, I usually say I repair old books and maps. People seem to understand that. I’m guessing, however, that the professional conservator community would view “book repair” as a belittling description their profession.

I think this is one of the benefits of blogs. Different people with similar interests all scouring the internet in different ways and posting what they find.

28 12 2007

I do try to correct people when they ask if I do restoration, or even when they ask what a “conservationist” does – I try to introduce myself as a conservator, or a book-and-paper conservator. If that gets a blank stare, I tend to ask said blankly-staring person if they have heard of art conservation. That usually elicits a better response, but it’s not the ideal situation I know.

These days, I’m just more thrilled when I can say “conservator” and people don’t immediately ask me about whales or forests or tigers. Then again, sometimes that’s preferable to the inevitable “isn’t Google and the internet going to put you out of a job?” query.

Also a good quip in casual company: “paper, not trees” if the environmentalist/conservationist confusion occurs.

30 12 2007

I forgot to mention my favorite quip about disclosing my profession – I get to say that I used to be an art therapist, as in psychotherapy, and now, I’m still an art therapist, only it the art itself that gets fixed.

Thanks for the comments, both of you. I’m looking for you to get back to blogging!

2 01 2008
Justin Johnson

Very good topic indeed! When asked, I get the most varied responses. Some people do seem understand the concept rather quickly, and others just give a blank stare and the “Oh, thats nice..” response. I do however often avoid using the term “conservation” when Ive only got 5 seconds, but I also find that “library conservator” can get the idea across fairly effectively.

I dont know about others, but I think the job title is one of the perks. Rarely are my exchanges with new people limited when they hear “book conservator,” most people I find are truly interested and will jump into a long series of questions, which inevitably lead to their Grandmothers old bible. One thing that does frustrate me though is the conception that conservators are able to place monetary value on objects. We can value our work, but it is not our place to appraise an objects value. Many people seem to think they may some day see me on the “Antiques Road Show,” and often invite me over to there home to review their private collections. This often leads to private work, which in my experience can be very good for the bottom line.

Anyhow, I like being in a profession that serves also as a nice conversation starter/ice breaker but agree that it can be somewhat frustrating that it does not always convey professionalism.

Happy New Year to all, and thanks Beth for the kind words and the inspiration to get back to my own blogging. It has been a rather lonely out here in the world wide web, and Im very glad to find others in our field who find the time to write a few words.

All the best!

3 01 2008
What’s in a name?:how to convey the idea that you preserve books and paper, not whales (though whales are nice too) « Kilgarlin Center Denizens

[…] and paper, not whales (though whales are nice too) If you haven’t already, go read Beth Heller’s latest blog entry.  A short snippet to get the gist: My question to you: how do you describe your profession to a […]

7 01 2008

I agree with Justin that I have better luck avoiding blank stares and mention of trees when I call myself a “library conservator” instead of a “book and paper conservator.” People seem happy to latch onto the familiarity of the word “library,” and that makes them more comfortable asking questions about the meaning of the second term.

As for the inevitable questions about Google and digitization making our profession obsolete, I have found that only the most stubborn technophiles really believe that. As soon as I ask them if they still listen to their old 8-tracks, *most* people immediately grasp that the digitization issue is far more complex than “let’s scan everything and throw the originals away.” I’m still grappling to formulate my own position on digitization and its relationship to collections care, so I really enjoy engaging in fresh dialogue on the subject with people outside (and, of course, within) the field. There is always the occasional provocateur who wants to push your buttons, but happily, I have found most people very willing to engage in a worthwhile discussion on the topic.

9 01 2008
10 01 2008
David West

An echo from down under. However, I think we have less of a challenge than North Americans, because the term ‘preservation’ is in much less common use here in Australia.

Part of that arises from the Australia ICOMOS Burra Charter, in which the following definitions are given:

Conservation means all the processes of looking after a place [or object] so as to retain its cultural significance. [This might encompass preservation, stabilisation, repair, reconstruction and interpretation, or a combination of these.]

Preservation means maintaining the fabric of a place [or object] in its existing state and retarding deterioration.

The result of this in Australia is that all of the areas referred to as historic preservation in North America use the terms conservation, heritage conservation.

Nonetheless, the confusion between ‘conservator’ and ‘restorer’ is almost ubiquitous. As is the differentiation between the conservation of natural and cultural heritage (just to make it really interesting for us, our business in Australia, focussing on conservation of cultural heritage, has the same name as a business in South Africa that focusses on the conservation of natural heritage!!!).

A challenge for our business is the crossover between the conservation of cultural material such as paintings, paper, textiles, objects through sculpture to architectural conservation. Working across this entire spectrum as we do, our client base applies different meanings and values to the same words … not to mention varying beliefs, philosophies and ethics relating to how one should conserve …

It is a fascinating conundrum, and one which is highlighted by the dependence of the internet on text searches … the skills I learnt at university searching card catalogues and abstract indices two decades ago are just as applicable to refining keyword searches via Google! Context is everything … and that is where the use of different words or terms in different settings is an important tool. I think we sometimes need to let go of our attachment to the ‘correct’ words or names, and use language that is appropriate to the audience we are talking to. And if that means that we become art ‘restorers’ to some people, so be it … far better to communicate something about our philosophy and approach than to get precious about the ‘right’ name or word if it means that we can actually connect with, and communicate a message to, those people.

11 01 2008

Thanks all, for creating such an interesting discussion – much food for thought. For instance, I agree with David about the need for flexibility in meaning of words, especially when talking with people outside of our own very specific subculture. And I do mean specific – I’ve even learned to check with the conservator I’m talking to, to see if we both mean the same thing, since it seems that conservation programs use our work words slightly differently too. Words are slippery fish – better not to squeeze too hard or they’ll get away completely. Whatever that means.

And Holly – what’s this about an interview? Where? When?

27 10 2008
Daniel Cull

This is an interesting topic, that I have no answers to!! I generally get the same response… “Huh, you what?” .. I usually go with the same response “I fix object for exhibition…”

It is one a group of us who have begun to edit the wikipedia article previously called: restoration, then, art conservation, and now conservation-restoration. We have decided to leave it with this definition, following the European convention – and to have further discussion about how it is we define our profession in the talk pages of wikipedia. Get involved, help shape our professions image to wikipedia – one of the biggest online resources for information.


PS. Nice blog… its great to see other conservators blogging.

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