The future of book conservation training, or thoughts from the education panel at LCCDG 2011

June 7, 2011

There has already been great coverage of the proceedings at this year’s Library and Collections Conservation Discussion Group in Philadelphia by Jeff Peachey on the newly revamped AIC Blog, Beth Doyle at PCAN, and Suzy at Digital Cellulose.  So might I ask you to click through for the background and notes on the meeting while I dive right in on my thoughts and concerns.

First the good news:

  1. I am not concerned that there will not be enough book conservation graduates from the three pilot programs. Despite the fact that graduate students at the three American art conservation programs are not locked into maintaining their interest in book conservation, I suspect that there are substantial financial and enough prestige incentives to “encourage” the programs to find ways to graduate book specialists.
  2. I am not worried about the quality of the conservators that will be trained: they will be excellent. The programs have long proven that they can produce students of outstanding quality. No training regime is perfect. And the curriculum will evolve as the programs see how their students are progressing.
  3. I am not bothered that they will not receive MLS degrees as part of their formal training. Some jobs will require MLS degrees, but I suspect that number will shrink with time and the new graduates will have the opportunity (and yes added time and financial burden) to earn additional qualifications if they find that they need them.
  4. I strongly suspect that the students will have superior technical and analytical research training than many of my fellow Kilgarlin graduates.  It was a strategic short-coming of our program, but I have high hopes for the papers that the new graduates will be presenting at AIC in 5-7 years times.

Now for the…concerns. (Worries might be too critical a word.) My hope is that perhaps there is just a linguistic obstacle that perhaps the programs haven’t been able to hurdle yet in explaining their curriculum in the various forums in which I have heard them, but if not then:

  1. First and foremost, I question whether the curricula will focus too much on preparing the students for the “super” special collections’ work of illuminated manuscripts and incunables.  The Morgan and the Huntington may find themselves flush with qualified applicants (for entry level positions?), but far more collections are more…modest in scope and even more modest in the range of materials that will be treated.  It is not just that we need conservators with the ability to tackle these projects, but we need to graduate conservators who want to go and work at these more modest institutions.
  2. Judy Walsh said that the graduate coursework was like getting a “learner’s permit.” Now I am not always one for metaphors, but to follow this one, I would say that new graduates need to be closer to their trucker’s licenses than learner’s permits. There simply aren’t enough post-graduate fellowships to build up skills that should be learned while in school. Graduates need to be ready to be the only conservation (and maybe preservation presence) at a small institution with big problems.
  3. Will admissions criteria be broadened to include more coursework and pre-program experiences that would be relevant to library conservators?
  4. How will the programs integrate the essential emphasis on treatment speed and efficiency necessary for most library work without compromising the training approaches of the other specialties?

All this said, I am very excited to see these pilot programs in action.  Or in graduates.  I don’t doubt that there will be weakness in the curricula (as there are everywhere), and they will evolve to better provide the skills that the programs and the field believe are needed.

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