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Session 1: Introduction to Preservation

 

ASSESSING COLLECTIONS


 1 The Preservation Assessment| 2 Conducting an Assessment

 

Convincing others of the importance of preservation can be a challenge. Deterioration happens slowly over a long period of time and is not immediately obvious.

Several strategies may be helpful in demonstrating the importance of preservation. Documenting deterioration and showing damaged materials to others can be very effective; highlighting positive evidence when preservation actions are carried out may also have an impact. If you are the person designated to take charge of preserving a collection, you must become informed about preservation issues and keep up with recent developments in the field. Participating in trainings, following the literature of the preservation field, and using resources like this text are important steps. You should try to share preservation information with your colleagues and demonstrate professional commitment to collections care.

It is clear that if historical collections are to survive in the best condition possible for the longest time possible, a systematic preservation program is necessary. An ongoing plan for carrying out preservation activities must be in place to ensure that scarce resources are used effectively and that important activities are not neglected.

The first step in preparing a preservation plan is to assess your institution's existing preservation needs: what preservation actions are needed, which of them are already under way, and which are not? Answering these questions is the purpose of a general preservation assessment. 

1 The Preservation assessment

Conservators and preservation professionals routinely undertake several different types of preservation assessments and surveys, and the terminology used to describe them can be confusing.

General Preservation Planning Assessment
A general preservation planning survey identifies overall preservation goals and priorities for a repository. It differs from a collection condition survey in that it does not normally provide an evaluation of the specific condition of particular items, with the possible exception of identifying items of value that are in need of "emergency" conservation treatment.

At the end of a general preservation planning assessment, you should be able to:

  • identify potential hazards to the collection;
  • prioritize areas of the collections for preservation action, distinguishing between artifacts and informational or limited-lifespan materials;
  • identify preservation actions required to keep collections in the best condition possible for the longest time possible (examples include expanding security, improving housekeeping, installing climate-control equipment, replacing poor enclosures, conservation treatment);
  • prioritize the needs of the collections and identify steps necessary to achieve the required preservation actions.

This course is primarily concerned with the general preservation planning assessment. A thorough assessment examines building conditions, institutional policies, collections, and storage and handling procedures. As you work through this course, you will be prompted to answer questions and fill out a number of forms. If you choose to do all of these activities, you will collect most of the information needed to summarize and analyze your institution's preservation needs by the end of this text.

Collection Condition Surveys
A collection condition survey might be required for a specific subset of the institution's collections after an assessment has been completed. The collection condition survey can take the form of an item-by-item survey conducted by a conservator with detailed knowledge of a particular type of collection (books, photographs), or it can take the form of a statistical survey that looks at a sampling of material (generally books from a circulating or research collection) and provides concrete data about the condition of that particular subset of the institution's collections.

Next Steps
A preservation planning assessment is not a preservation plan. Whether the work is done in-house or by an outside consultant, it is important to summarize the findings in a written report that sets forth time frames for short-term and long-term preservation priorities. The repository will then use these priorities, together with other relevant issues such as available institutional resources and political considerations, to create a preservation plan that lays out a specific schedule for accomplishing particular projects. Session 9: Building a Preservation Program looks at the process of preservation planning in detail.

2 Conducting aN assessment

As noted previously, you may choose to conduct a preservation assessment of your institution as you work through this course. Completing such a survey and summarizing your findings in detail will require a significant commitment of time; so alternatively, you may choose to work through this course as a learning exercise and to conduct a complete preservation survey as a separate project.

An outside consultant, who usually makes a one-day site visit and writes a summary report of his or her findings, or in-house staff, can conduct an assessment. If you choose to engage an outside consultant, several regional conservation and preservation centers, as well as many individual conservators, can provide this service. Various regional and national grant programs provide funding for such projects.

(See the Regional Alliance for Preservation for information on regional centers, and the American Institute for Conservation of Artistic and Historic Works for information on locating a conservator. See Session 9: Building a Preservation Program for information on grant funding.)

Using an Outside Consultant
Keep in mind your goals for the assessment when deciding whether to engage an outside consultant. A consultant can provide an objective viewpoint and is often seen by the administration as having special credibility, thus making it more likely that his or her recommendations will be acted upon. In addition, grant programs often require a general preservation planning assessment before an institution can apply for grants for activities such as reformatting, rehousing, or conservation treatment. If the institution is looking to apply for grants, an "outside" assessment can be performed more quickly than an in-house assessment, and the resulting recommendations may carry more weight with granting agencies.

Conducting an In-House Assessment
Staff members bring important knowledge of the institution's values, conditions, and functions to the assessment process. As long as you can suspend assumptions about an institution's capabilities and can look open-mindedly at issues that may have been ignored for years, an in-house assessment can be very effective. Such an assessment will require more staff time, but it can be very detailed and involve the whole staff actively.

If an assessment is undertaken in-house, it is important to divide the project into manageable pieces. If the repository is very small, one staff member may have to undertake the entire assessment. Putting together a brief written report after each section is completed may be helpful. If there are several staff members, it may be most helpful to put together a committee and assign each member a section of the assessment. Each member would then report findings back to the committee, and the committee would draft a final summary report with suggestions for preservation priorities.

 

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