Collection Care blog

Behind the scenes with our conservators and scientists

24 October 2013

Collection Care Conference 2013: Evolution or Revolution: the Changing Face of Collection Care

Last week Collection Care hosted an international conference at the British Library. Over 120 delegates from 17 countries convened in London from 14 – 15 October. The conference was divided into six sessions covering the health of collections and the provision of care; an evolving profession; teaching & training; collection care business models; perspectives and practitioners; and digitisation and collection care. A high calibre of papers was given leading to some lively debates where it was concluded that more communication and collaboration between collection care disciplines is required.

A picture of the British Library as seen from the main entrance outdoors. In front of us sits the Newton sculpture by Eduardo Paolozzi, which depicts Isaac Newton leaning over and measuring with a compass. Behind the sculpture is the main entrance to the Library.

CC Zero The British Library

Reading a book can change your life. Engaging online can change the world - Bill Thompson

The need for heritage professionals to come together to exchange ideas and challenge mind-sets was a key theme throughout the sessions. Head of Partnership Development at the BBC Archive Bill Thompson gave the keynote speech and discussed how technology is giving the Enlightenment another 500 years. He stressed how we are not in a Digital World, but an Age of Electronics that is shaping our existence. One of the major challenges faced by professionals is to keep up and meet changing user expectations for delivery.  

Change in collection care mustn’t be disruptive, but adaption to outputs of technology is essential. It was speculated that we might be reaching a point where simulacra of objects in collections may be more useful than the originals. Thompson encouraged us to embrace the potential of new technologies, but to be aware that older ones will not go away.   

Give us screens, but give us bookshelves too – Bill Thompson  

Dr Cath Dillon, post-doctoral research associate at UCL in the Centre for Sustainable Heritage discussed the Collections Demography project and shared the stakeholder’s views on value, change and lifetime. The project defines health and end of life of collections. Dillon asked how long books should last for and reported that most said 100 or 1,000 years. She found that when considering historic documents the public are very reluctant to rate collections as ‘unfit’.  

If conservators are not flexible they won’t be brought to the table for budget planning – Caroline Checkley-Scott  

Conservation is considered a small profession in the UK with about 3,000 active conservators. It was a common theme in the conference that there is a need for teams to respond flexibly to rapidly changing requirements. Kenneth Aitchison, Skills Strategy Manager at the Institute of Conservation (ICON) discussed shaping the future of conservation. Conservation labour market intelligence indicates that 65% of conservators are women, 35% are men, the average age is 42.9 years old, and the median salary is £26,000.   

Flavio Marzo, Conservation Studio Manager for the British Library Qatar Foundation Partnership Programme addressed the audience on Tuesday and stressed that conservators need to sell themselves to sustain their value. For digitisation projects Marzo has realised that conservator knowledge is part of the value where the ultimate aim is the image. The physical location of the conservation studio of the Qatar Foundation Project supports integration with the rest of the team allowing conversations to happen which ordinarily might not. Marzo was joined onstage by Qatar Project Conservator Anna Hoffman who outlined her ‘Conservator’s Charter’: learn from experience, communicate and share expertise; and be visible and creative.  

Jocelyn Cuming, Course Leader for the MA Conservation at Camberwell College of the Arts talked about conservation education. Cuming emphasised that although knowledge of materials is fundamental, knowledge was not in itself sufficient for conservation students. A need for skills in communication and advocacy was identified, as well as a constant re-evaluation of requirements for conservation education and training; such as including care of digital materials. Annie Petersen, Preservation Librarian for Howard-Tilton Memorial Library at Tulane University noted that those working with analogue and digital collections don’t communicate very well. She noted that many new graduates wanted digital to be covered more thoroughly in their preservation education.  

Prue McKay, Supervising Conservator for Projects and Exhibitions at the National Archives of Australia thought students should learn a framework of procedures and rationale at university, and develop skills on the job.   

My reality - save all the things! - Megan De Silva  

Megan De Silva, Object Conservator at Monmouthshire Museums Service pitched that while big organisations work to a strategy, small organisations tend to work to a ‘to-do list’. De Silva stressed that strategic thinking is important for smaller organisations, as well as for larger ones.  

It’s not heritage and digital collections; it is the Collection – Dr Cordelia Rogerson  

Head of Conservation at the British Library, Dr Cordelia Rogerson, asserted that change is the new normal. We need to explore how concepts of authenticity and integrity in digital preservation relate to conservation more generally. At the British Library, Digital Preservation recently became part of Collection Care and is headed up by Maureen Pennock. Pennock stressed that digital collection care has to be managed from the beginning in the same way as traditional collection care.  

We don’t need a digital strategy – we need a strategy – Bill Thompson  

It was raised that there are far fewer people working in digital preservation than traditional conservation and the digital skill set of the 3,000 active conservators in the UK was queried. It is unknown whether any of those 3,000 conservators work on digital content. Juergen Vervoorst, Head of Conservation at The National Archives shared with delegates that 120 million records were delivered online last year from The National Archives; 200 times that delivered in reading rooms. 

Dr Rogerson also highlighted that we need more evidence on usage patterns following digitisation, and is keen for a project on the subject to be supported.  

The conference was a great success and we thank all of those involved in the organisation and participation of the event. We invite comments and contributions from any of our delegates to the Collection Care blog, and hope to continue the debate by sharing our knowledge and ideas.  

Christina Duffy (@DuffyChristina)
Imaging Scientist

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