Positionality statement: I identify as a white, cisgender woman who works as a book conservator in an academic research library.
The UCLA Library is in the process of building an anti-racism initiative(opens in a new tab). Our department has been working to create our own action plan (see this recent blog post(opens in a new tab) by department head Chela Metzger), and this post explores how to respond when racist materials enter the lab.
Like most university libraries, the UCLA Library’s collections include materials that contain racist content or originate from a racist context, and some of these items come to our lab for treatment. A few recent examples include Victorian children’s books that utilize overtly racist stereotypes, audio recordings of American right-wing extremist groups, historical maps of Asia and Africa created by white European colonizers and university homecoming footage with images of racist depictions and stereotypes.
We don’t always know how the materials that we treat in the lab will be used, or in what context they will be presented to students, researchers, and library visitors. As conservators, we must identify racist content when we see it and ask questions.
Why does this item need to be treated right now?
How will it be used?
What context will be provided when it is shown to students in the classroom or exhibited to the public?
We should be satisfied with the answers to these questions before moving forward with treatment, and our findings should be recorded in our documentation. Our workflows and documentation forms could be re-designed to incorporate this information (see below). To be clear, I am not suggesting that a conservator should seek to prevent a researcher from accessing an item because its content is racist. I am proposing that the presence and nature of racist content in library materials be considered when conservators and librarians/curators are determining priorities for treatment.
Conservators often spend more time with and look more closely at objects than anyone else. We might be the first ones to notice the illustrations of blackface in that pop-up book, or to witness that film footage of white students dressed as Native Americans during a university parade. And when we do see these things, we shouldn’t feel excused from (or afraid of) speaking up just because we’re supposed to be repairing the books and not reading them. We may discover that the item in question was not actually a high priority for treatment, or the curator’s priorities for treatment may change after learning of our observations.
The need to “preserve evidence” of oppression is sometimes brought up as justification for the continued care of racist materials, with the reasoning being that you wouldn’t destroy evidence at a crime scene.1 This can be a compelling argument, but it should be applied carefully. Many of us work in what scholar Mary Senyonga calls Traditionally Oppressive Institutions (TOI) with long histories of excluding and marginalizing people of color.2 Many American universities had close ties with slavery, and some were enslavers themselves.3 4 The University of California today “owns” hundreds of thousands of Native American human remains and cultural objects, and it was found in a June 2020 state audit(opens in a new tab) to be out of compliance with CalNAGPRA (the California counterpart of the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act).5 6 Traditionally Oppressive Institutions provide a very different context for engaging with racist materials than institutions that are dedicated to preserving evidence of oppression (such as the Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia, or the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum). No library or museum is neutral. We should not assume that every conservation treatment of racist material is an automatic move toward justice without considering how that material will be used and presented.
Our work is very slow, and our institutions’ budgets are finite (and shrinking). What we work on matters. We do have a say in the projects we take on—we regularly determine how much time to spend on a given treatment (sometimes even advising curators against treatment entirely) and in what order objects will be treated. We also can and should push back against inequitable and/or unclear preservation prioritization by our institutions when it occurs. We have a responsibility to think critically about the work that we do—and the work that we aren’t doing. What materials are not being treated? Whose stories are not being told?7
“Conservators help shape what our society values by making decisions on what to preserve, whom to include in our work, and therefore whose stories we remember.”
-July 13, 2020 statement by Black Art Conservators(opens in a new tab)
Our field is majority white, and racial minority groups are underrepresented compared to the general population; a 2018 survey of library preservation and conservation professionals in the United States found the field to be 82.1% white,8 while the US Census estimates for 2019 list the non-Hispanic white population as 60.1%.9 This discrepancy in staffing has historically been reproduced and magnified in the selection of items that conservators treat, study, and write about.10 Preserving evidence of oppression and struggle is indeed essential, and we must take care not to employ this argument to advocate for the cultural heritage of the oppressor only.
We also have a responsibility to protect the health and well-being of ourselves and our colleagues. Just as we are protected from physical and chemical hazards in the workplace, we should not be required to do work that harms our mental and spiritual well-being. If we choose to work on materials that are racist, disturbing, or otherwise harmful, we should be provided with resources and support to process the experience and recover afterwards. Such harmful materials may also include content dealing with violence, abuse, war, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and other sensitive subjects. Repeated exposure to graphic footage during the audio/visual preservation process is of particular concern, bringing to mind the multi-million-dollar lawsuits recently settled between online content moderators with PTSD and their employers.11 We especially have a responsibility to our colleagues who are members of marginalized communities to create and maintain a supportive environment where no one is expected to put themselves in harm’s way at work. As conservators, library professionals, and memory workers, our duty is to people first and objects second.
At the UCLA Library, our treatment reports for Special Collections book and paper materials currently include a “Social Context” section in which the object’s meaning and significance in history is discussed. We also record the purpose of treatment (such as classroom use, researcher request, or exhibition loan) for each item that enters our lab. For materials with racist content, the questions I propose above (Why treat it now? How will it be used? Will context be provided to users?) could be addressed in a general section like “Social Context” or in a separate dedicated section of the treatment report.
All of this raises the question, “What is racist content?” Sometimes problematic content will be obvious to all, and other times not. I don’t have a rubric prepared for identifying racist materials, but I would propose that preservation staff have regular conversations as a department about identifying and responding to racist or otherwise harmful content in their collections, and establish clear avenues for raising concerns. Once the conversation has started, it will be easier for an individual to speak up when something concerning comes across their bench. This is especially important for interns, fellows, and junior staff who may feel pressured to keep quiet rather than rock the boat.
Preservation departments should establish a protocol for response once racist or harmful content has been identified, and this protocol should be shared and discussed with other relevant departments within the institution. University EDI/DEI (equity, diversity, and inclusion) offices may also provide guidance and support. A draft “standard operating procedure” proposed by Chela Metzger for racist materials entering the preservation work flow at the UCLA Library is included below. This procedure could also be applied for the other types of potentially harmful materials mentioned previously. We expect this document to evolve as we continue to engage in this conversation within our department and with the UCLA Library as a whole.
Standard operating procedure for racist materials entering our work flow or encountered during our examination/documentation (draft by department head Chela Metzger)
The UCLA Preservation & Conservation Department, along with the UCLA Library as a whole, is invested in an anti-racist framework. Along with our standard operating procedures for safe handling of chemicals and biological materials that can harm our health, we are invested in standard operating procedures that allow preservation and conservation staff to negotiate options to hurtful and/or unneeded consuming exposures to racist materials.
Our JIRA ticketing system will ask units sending items to the preservation department to indicate if there is obvious racist content, along with mold, insects, or offensive odors. If racist content is indicated, the user will be asked to indicate why the material is a priority over other materials.
Our written documentation form will include a space to record racist subject matter encountered during the examination process that was not noted in the JIRA form.
As part of the treatment proposal, the curator will be informed of racist content if they were not aware of it, and asked if the material is a priority for classroom use, research, or exhibit. The curator will be reminded that conservators have a limited amount of time, and unless the racist material is a priority, the department would prefer not to focus on it.
Any conservator who would prefer not to work on racist materials that are needed for research, exhibit, or digitization will be given the option to pass the treatment on to a colleague. If nobody feels comfortable working on an item, we will look into hiring an outside party to do the work or other negotiated solutions.
I also want to discuss repatriation and reparations. Most conservators are familiar with NAGPRA, and earlier in this post I mentioned the University of California’s current failure to comply with CalNAGPRA; as of June 2020, UC Berkeley and the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology have returned only about 20% of the 500,000 Native American artifacts and human remains in their possession.12 This is a devastating reality for our communities. When I first learned about NAGPRA as a graduate student in art conservation, I did not expect repatriation to come up in my work as a book conservator. My understanding of these issues has since expanded and the relevance of repatriation to my work is now quite plain to me, although my role in the process as a conservator is not yet clear.
In 2019, a woman filed a lawsuit against Harvard University requesting that daguerreotypes of her direct ancestors, who were enslaved, be removed from the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and turned over to her family.13 The daguerreotypes were commissioned in 1850 by a Harvard professor and zoologist who argued that Black people were an inferior race. In our lab, we have encountered materials that we believed should be repatriated to their community of origin—not in order to comply with a federal or state mandate, but to comply with human decency. We have made our views known, but again, our role here (beyond advocacy) is not yet clear. I hope that we can work together to define it.
We would love to hear from our colleagues at other institutions about their efforts to develop an anti-racist framework for preservation and conservation in libraries. To contact us, please email our department head Chela Metzger: cmetzger at library.ucla.edu.
1 The “crime scene” parallel is drawn by art critic Holland Cotter in the article “We Need to Move, Not Destroy, Confederate Monuments(opens in a new tab),” published in the New York Times on August 20, 2017, eight days after Heather Heyer was killed by a white supremacist in Charlottesville, Virginia.
2 See Mary Senyonga’s recent blog post, “Naming and Honoring the Black Women Hidden in the Archives(opens in a new tab).” UCLA Library Special Collections Blog. August 25, 2020.
3 Leslie M. Harris. “The Long, Ugly History of Racism at American Universities(opens in a new tab).” The New Republic. March 26, 2015.
4 Rachel L. Swarns. “272 Slaves Were Sold to Save Georgetown. What Does it Owe Their Descendants?(opens in a new tab)” New York Times. April 16, 2016.
5 Auditor of the State of California. “The University of California Is Not Adequately Overseeing Its Return of Native American Remains and Artifacts(opens in a new tab).” June 2020. Full audit PDF.(opens in a new tab)
6 Sam Lefebvre. “UC Berkeley Has Only Returned 20% of Its Native American Artifacts and Remains(opens in a new tab).” Hyperallergic. July 17, 2020.
8 Jennifer Hain Teper, Miriam Centno, and Poojita Rani (University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign). “Counting Diversity in Preservation(opens in a new tab).” Poster. 2018.
9 United States Census Bureau. “QuickFacts Population estimates, July 1, 2019 (V2019)(opens in a new tab).”
10 See Fletcher Durant’s analysis of articles by conservators in AIC publications, slides 14-18 of “Conservation is Not Neutral (and neither are we)(opens in a new tab)”, a presentation given at the 47th AIC Annual Meeting in May 2019. In the AIC Book and Paper Group Annual from 1982-2015, 89.3% of articles were about Anglo-European materials.
11 Bobby Allyn. “In Settlement, Facebook To Pay $52 Million To Content Moderators With PTSD(opens in a new tab).” NPR. May 12, 2020. See also the 2019 book by UCLA professor Sarah T. Roberts, Behind the Screen, Content Moderation in the Shadows of Social Media(opens in a new tab) (Yale University Press), and its review(opens in a new tab) in Ampersand, the UCLA ED&IS magazine.
12 Lefebvre 2020.
13 Anemona Hartocollis. “Who Should Own Photos of Slaves? The Descendants, not Harvard, a Lawsuit Says(opens in a new tab).” New York Times. March 20, 2019.
American Institute for Conservation (AIC) Equity & Inclusion Committee. “Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, & Accessibility(opens in a new tab).” AIC Wiki. August 2020.
Balachandran, Sanchita. “Race, Diversity and Politics in Conservation: Our 21st Century Crisis(opens in a new tab).” Talk given in the General Session “Confronting the Unexpected” at the 44th AIC Annual Meeting on May 16, 2016. Published May 25, 2016.
Black Art Conservators. “Join Black Conservators and Demand Racial Justice in Art Conservation(opens in a new tab).” July 13, 2020.
Durant, Fletcher. “Conservation is Not Neutral (and neither are we).”
Slides(opens in a new tab) from talk given at the 47th AIC Annual Meeting in May 2019
Webinar on June 16, 2020. ICON Book & Paper Group. Conservation: Together at Home series(opens in a new tab).
Paris, Jan. “Conservation and the Politics of Use and Value in Research Libraries(opens in a new tab).” 2000. Book and Paper Group Annual 19.
Strand, Karla J. "Disrupting Whiteness in Libraries and Librarianship: A Reading List(opens in a new tab)." 2019 (ongoing). Bibliographies in Gender and Women's Studies 89. University of Wisconsin System Office of the Gender and Women's Studies Librarian.
Ziegler, S. L. "Digitization Selection Criteria as Anti-Racist Action(opens in a new tab)." 2019. Code4Lib 45.
Michelle C. Smith is the 2019-2021 Kress Assistant Conservator at the UCLA Library, where she treats materials from Library Special Collections. She received her MA and Certificate of Advanced Study in art conservation in 2018 from SUNY Buffalo State College, where she was an Andrew W. Mellon Fellow in Library and Archives Conservation.