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  • The Boundaries of Preservation and Conservation Research
  • Michele V. Cloonan (bio)

A 2007 article in College & Research Libraries called "Analysis of a Decade in Library Literature: 1994-2004" led me to examine the publication patterns of preservation and conservation research. The authors randomly selected ten journals to study from a list of twenty-eight. The list was culled from the fifty-five that were included in Thomson's Journal Citation Reports (JCR) Social Science Edition under the category "library and information science." JCR was consulted because the authors wanted to identify the "journals of high repute within library and information science."1

Over the eleven-year period, the ten journals published 2,220 articles. I was curious to find out what percentage of the articles were about preservation. This was an opportunity to enhance my knowledge of the field by seeing what had appeared in high-impact journals. Imagine my surprise, then, when I looked under the authors' listing of the five major categories and found that preservation was not included. The areas examined were library operations, research in library and information science/users, library/information science profession, technology, and publishing/publishing studies.2

Maybe preservation does not rise to that general level, I reasoned. After all, cataloging, reference, and collection development were not included either. So I checked Appendix A for the authors' list of forty-three general subject areas. The category library/information science profession included the subtopic archives/preservation.3 Even as a subcategory, preservation was combined with the field of archives.

Has preservation been marginalized as a field of research? Or is there a robust preservation literature in publications that were not included in the list of ten, twenty-eight, or fifty-five library and information science (LIS) journals? The archival literature? Other fields, such as historic preservation? [End Page 220]

First, it is important to define what preservation is, explain how it relates to conservation, and discuss what has constituted research in these fields. In earlier publications I have defined conservation and preservation as "terms that apply to the care of all heritage—movable, immovable, natural, man-made, and socially constructed."4 Preservation usually refers to the overall management and care of collections, while conservation is the treatment of individual items or collections of items. In the United States the professions of conservation and preservation administration were established only after World War II. However, the care of records and objects goes back thousands of years—as does writing about the necessity for such care. As I have suggested elsewhere, references to preservation go back at least as far as the book of Jeremiah, which briefly described the necessity of keeping records safe.5

The earliest known "conservation writings," by Pliny the Elder and other classical writers, described painting methods as well as causes of deterioration of or damage to works of art (e.g., moving collections, soot, etc.).6 During the Renaissance historian and artist Giorgio Vasari chronicled contemporary artists' techniques. In order to conserve works of art, one had to understand the techniques used to create the objects as well as the causes of their deterioration (e.g., what kinds of paints were used and how they were manufactured). These two themes continue to be important in conservation research. Establishing methods of treatment for objects is complex.

Thus, although preservation and conservation have considerable overlap, if we were to distinguish between them, preservation deals with ambient causes of deterioration and strategies for improvement. Preservation is global; conservation is individual. Thus if smoke and soot are known to damage paintings, then a preservation administrator would assure that the paintings are hung in a place with better ambient conditions. Though conservators also are interested in environmental conditions, their research might also evaluate the effects of soot on the paint and how that damage could be treated on particular objects.

Causes of deterioration and treatment are important components of conservation, but there are many others as well. These include aesthetics, history, ethics, and so on. Ideally, a conservator should be able to review the history of an object and understand its original appearance and use as well as all subsequent modifications of it. In other words, when...


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