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Symposium: Education Key to Preserving National Heritage

The task ahead for the preservation and conservation communities is monumental: provide care for billions of at-risk holdings in archives, libraries, museums, historical societies and other repositories in the United States. More staff, more training and more resources will be needed to meet the challenge.

The Library of Congress Preservation Directorate convened a symposium May 15 and 16 to address preservation education in the 21st century. Approximately 70 invited preservation and conservation leaders across the country gathered to identify priorities.

Deanna Marcum, Associate Librarian for Library Services at the Library of Congress, welcomed the audience. “How we approach education for preservation in the 21st century is a very important topic,” she said. Many decisions need to be made, and those decisions should be community-based, with input from experts across the country.

She reminded the audience, “What distinguishes libraries and archives in our society is that we have an obligation on behalf of society to preserve what our fellow citizens have learned, thought, written and experienced. No other organizations have this responsibility.”

Diane Vogt-O’Connor, head of the Library’s Conservation Division, said the country’s 30,000 libraries, archives, museums and other repositories hold more than 4.8 billion items. Of these, according to the 2005 Heritage Health Index, the following artifacts are at risk: 270 million rare and unique books, periodicals and scrapbooks; 189 natural science specimens; 153 million photographs; 13.5 million historic objects, from flags and quilts to presidential china and Pueblo pottery; and 4.7 million works of art.

Heritage Preservation, a nonprofit organization, along with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, an independent federal agency, published the Heritage Health Index in December 2005.

How can the nation provide a safe environment and proper care for collections? The first step is coordinated educational planning, which was addressed in the four working sessions of the symposium. Each working session identified the training needs, educational gaps and potential educational solutions for a particular topic.

Each of the four groups looked at one of the following topics: How training should be conducted; what should be taught; who should be trained, especially in the context of geographical, economic and professional demographic distribution and effectiveness; and funding and resources for educational training.

The experts arrived at the following potential solutions. They suggested more, and better-supported, post-graduate fellowships; senior scholar initiatives to preserve expert knowledge; and the development and dissemination of standards and best practices.

In addition, participants suggested the development of new and hybrid specializations; a structuring of graduate conservation education to permit wider course choices; and increasing the use of new and evolving technologies for education and training.

They also cited the need to articulate compelling arguments for more funding; to develop data-driven models of return on investment; and to conduct further research to quantify risk and develop risk-assessment tools.

The symposium was funded in part by a $60,000 grant from the Getty Foundation. In addition to the Library of Congress Preservation Directorate, sponsors included Heritage Preservation; the Institute of Museum and Library Services; and the International Federation of Library Associations’ Preservation and Conservation North American Network members, including the libraries at Yale and Pepperdine universities, the Kilgarlin Center for the Preservation of the Cultural Record at the University of Texas in Austin and the Preservation Programs of the National Archives and Records Administration.

According to Director of Preservation Dianne van der Reyden, “The Library of Congress has a long history of fostering national preservation strategies in education, emergency preparation and research. But as collections expand to unprecedented sizes and formats, new partners and emerging technologies are required to solve the distinctly new challenges of the 21st century.”

In summation, van der Reyden said, “With this symposium, we've begun to articulate the challenges as well as explore a wide diversity of ideas and resources, as a prelude to determining -- and developing -- new skills and knowledge needed for collections care in the future."

(This is a reprint of an article by Donna Urschel, Office of Communications, that first appeared in The Gazette, an internal publication of the Library of Congress, June 6, 2008.)

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