Written by Conseula (Chela) Metzger, Head of Preservation & Conservation for the UCLA Library
I want to start this somewhat personal blog post by linking to the previous post highlighting recommended anti-racist actions published by a group of Black Conservators. UCLA Preservation & Conservation supports the calls for action shared by our Black colleagues.
I work as head of the UCLA Library Preservation & Conservation department. I am a rare book conservator. Both librarianship and conservation are fields dominated at this point in time by white people who identify as female. I will claim my own whiteness, and my lesbian female identity. The following blog post is my own, and does not reflect the views of my employer. Our library is undertaking an anti-racist initiative, and this blog post is part of my own efforts in that direction.
So, for some reason, work seen as technical is generally seen as neutral, though it is hard to know why that is so.
Conservators and preservation professionals do not live outside the greater world. For example, today, enormous anti-racist protests are organizing globally, and in some cases statues that represent racist systems of oppression are pulled or taken down. Conservators can be called in with their technical skills to either remove spray paint that spells out Black Lives Matter, or they can be called to preserve that same spray paint as history. With that one example, it should be clear that preservation and conservation can be political acts. We preserve what is valued.
Many in conservation may feel they have been called to the field. They see a unique combination of science and humanistic study, a combination of craft and care that involves hands, heart, and head. They may feel a profound sense of awe about the work they feel called to do, as described here by the former Librarian of Congress James Billington in 1987 at an American Research Library Conference on Preservation:
I have always liked this quote, and more than once I have ended a conservation talk with these words from Billington, trusting in his ringing endorsement of our work in the field of preservation and conservation. Today, the moral imperative is to think about conservation more critically.
There is a useful term for this feeling of awe about one’s profession:
“Vocational awe describes the set of ideas, values, and assumptions librarians have about themselves and the profession that result in notions that libraries as institutions are inherently good, sacred notions, and therefore beyond critique.”
-Fobazi Ettarh “Vocational Awe and Librarianship: The Lies We Tell Ourselves” in The Library with a Lead Pipe.
What applies to librarians can also apply to conservators. I am very guilty of vocational awe in my life, both about librarianship and conservation. I really love the work I do. But if we love our work, we should be especially called to take responsibility for its history and future. I am increasingly aware of who helped me get to where I am—aware of financial support and emotional support that not everyone has. My father was a librarian, so the field felt safe. I discovered conservation when I was getting my masters in librarianship, and I was able to secure the loans to get me through the study of hand bookbinding and an apprenticeship at the Library of Congress that set me on my conservation path. With no dependents, and the security to move from job to job, my progress in the conservation profession has had fewer barriers than many described to me by colleagues.
The last 15 years have been hard on my vocational awe.
I have had, at a rather late date, to grow up and lose my vocational innocence—an innocence that was nurtured by suppressing brutal ongoing realities around me. I have learned far more about the American Library Association and its support of segregation in the US over the years. I have learned awful things about the famous librarian Melville Dewey. I have witnessed painful and shameful moments when the issue of racial diversity was raised by a colleague and me years ago at an American Institute for Conservation (AIC) business meeting, and a white member stood up and said “we tried that before and they don’t want to be conservators.”
The casual racism and unearned white privilege behind that statement made years ago was staggering. The silence in the room, before a few people spoke out, was even more staggering. This incident felt scary and embarrassing then. Today it feels inexcusable. Current electronic discussions in American Institute for Conservation today clearly show our profession has much more work to do.
Today when I discuss my profession and mentor colleagues, I let my love for my work shine through, but I refuse to minimize the very real problems within the field. When I collaborate each year with the Andrew W. Mellon Opportunity for Diversity in Conservation program, I tell participants my salaries over the years, how many times I moved, , the toll those moves have taken as well as the opportunities they gave me. I tell participants what year I paid off my educational loans. I discuss the class divide I have witnessed as those financially able to take multiple unpaid conservation internships moved quickly to assemble a portfolio that would allow them to apply to conservation graduate school. I share how I was told by a major institution where I was completing an unpaid third-year conservation internship that: “it is so much paperwork to get paid, you wouldn’t want to go through all that paperwork”. Thankfully, I can now point to Equity, Diversity and Inclusion work, and anti-racism work being done within the fields of conservation, librarianship and archives. Thankfully unpaid internships everywhere are being re-examined.
At that same 1987 conference quoted earlier in this blog post, “diversity” was listed as a topic. Here is what was reported on the topic of “diversity” for American Research Libraries that year:
Were they even referring to racism, sexism, or classism at this conference on Library Preservation? It is hard to tell. Here is what can be gleaned from this historic document: organizations must recognize, foster, and welcome new directions and hard changes or they are at least ineffective, and at worst immoral. We must build radical hospitality, but we cannot be welcoming for everyone. We cannot welcome racist behaviors and ideologies at any level.
I heard a Black art conservation student say at a meeting the other day: “anti-racism to me means building a place where racists do not feel comfortable”. That statement makes so much sense.
Here at UCLA Library, we are in the process of building an anti-racism initiative. This initiative must become a program, and the program must not have an end date. Within the Conservation & Preservation Department our first actions are:
1. We support a union environment with union action to ensure a living wage and benefits for pre-program, post graduate, and other preservation and conservation colleagues. We cannot accept unpaid-interns.
2. We assess all new job descriptions in the department to be as inclusive as possible, with the goal of removing unneeded barriers to applicants.
3. Within the department, on-boarding and orientations include safe, responsive reporting options for racist incidents and aggressions.
4. We will not ask job candidates to complete Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Statements unless we first do the work of completing our own statements.
More actions inside the Conservation & Preservation department, the UCLA Library, and UCLA will be forthcoming. We will be sharing some of our thoughts and actions over the next year.
Selected reading/viewing on social justice and Preservation and Conservation
Conservation is not neutral (and neither are we) Fletcher Durant
Ashleigh Brown “Being Black in the Arts and Heritage Sector” 2020 ICON news
Sanchita Balachandran “Race, Diversity and Politics in Conservation” 2016 AIC website
Miriam Clavir, Preserving What is Valued Vancouver, UBC Press, 2002
Jan Paris “Conservation and the Politics of Use and Value in Research Libraries” 2000
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