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Career Strategies for Librarians
Careers in Preservation Librarianship
by Beth Doyle

When I teach Preservation of Library and Archive materials the first thing I ask my students is, “What
does preservation mean to you?” Their answers typically involve fixing broken books and torn
documents. By the end of the semester, I hope their eyes have been opened to the wide variety of issues
that preservation librarians face and that they are more aware of the knowledge and skills they need to
plan and carry out their institution’s preservation mandate.

Carolyn Clark Morrow writes, “Every library seeks to keep the materials that comprise its collection in
useable condition after they are selected and acquired, and for as long as they are needed as defined by
the library’s mission.”1 Preservation in the largest sense includes both the direct and indirect actions
used to ensure access to collection materials. The term “collection” in this case means traditional paper-
based books and manuscripts as well as film, audio, video and electronic resources.  

As with other kinds of librarianship, preservation has become more and more specialized. The following
are four of the most common job descriptions you will find within this field.

Preservation Librarian or Administrator

The preservation librarian is the person in charge of planning and implementing the institution’s
preservation program. This usually means managing several units including conservation, library
binding and reformatting. In many institutions shelf preparation and mass deacidification also fall within
the preservation mandate. The preservation librarian’s role is to be familiar with all of these workflows
and to ensure the work is carried out following strict quality standards.

Indirect preservation actions are those policies and procedures that target the collection as a whole and
improve the manner in which we keep our collections. It is the preservation librarian’s job to define and
implement these actions. Many of these are familiar to everyone and may include developing food and
drink policies, guidelines for the general care and handling of library material, and disaster plans. The
preservation librarian must also be concerned with budgeting, education and outreach, environmental
control, integrated pest management, collection security, selection criteria, building design, heating and
cooling systems, stacks management, exhibition policies, disaster mitigation and recovery, collection
surveys … the list is long.  

Perhaps most importantly it is the preservation librarian’s job to emphasize the importance of preserving
the collections and to find funding for the preservation program. Funding comes from a variety of sources
including library budgets and academic departments as well as federal, state and local granting
agencies. Money may also come from private foundations and individual donors including alumni.  

The preservation librarian proposes projects or works with colleagues to develop projects that benefit
the collection as a whole and advocates for their financial support. Successful resource management
involves predicting future needs and trends and requires excellent grant-writing and interpersonal skills.  

Preservation Reformatting Librarian

All collection material deteriorates over time due in part to heavy use, poor housing and environmental
conditions, or in some cases because of how it is made. Paper becomes brittle, the layers that make up
audio- and videotape delaminate and shed their magnetic particles, and the software used to read
information on compact discs becomes obsolete and cannot be accessed.

Many institutions use reformatting as one tool in their efforts to provide continued access to collections.
Microfilming is the best-known reformatting technique, but there are other options available including
creating facsimiles (photocopies) of brittle books, digitizing paper-based collections, and migrating
analog or digital objects to newer formats. The preservation reformatting librarian is the person
responsible for understanding the technology behind each reformatting option and managing the
workflows efficiently. Some reformatting librarians specialize in a particular process such as digitization
and imaging or a particular format such as audio or video reformatting.

Reformatting librarians very often do not perform the physical reformatting but manage and train
technicians to carry out the work and make sure the products produced conform to written quality
standards. They also develop policies to determine how collection material is selected for reformatting
and to ensure it is handled carefully throughout the workflow. They may also create systems that
recognize when digital data may be on the verge of obsolescence so that it can be migrated before being
completely lost.  

Reformatting librarians need to keep current with new technologies as they are introduced into the
collection and develop preservation strategies for their long-term access. Because technology changes
so fast, recognizing new technological trends and new uses for technology becomes one of the most
important aspects of the job. A person in this position also needs to have excellent grant writing and
fundraising skills and will need to be able to manage those grants wisely.  

Reformatting is one of the fastest-evolving preservation fields, especially with the advent of digitization as
an access and preservation tool.  

Conservation Librarian or Conservator

Conservation is the direct treatment and/or housing of objects in the collection including books,
manuscripts, videotape or other formats. “The goal of a collections conservation program is to improve
and stabilize the physical condition of library collections,” writes Jan Merrill Oldham.2 This holds true
whether the conservator specializes in the repair and housing of general (circulating) collections or of
special collections.  

Conservators must have not only knowledge of basic preservation theory and practice but also advanced
training in repair techniques, organic chemistry, history of printing, and an in-depth knowledge of various
media and supports including inks, pigments, graphite, paper, leather, vellum, plastics, etc. Many
academic and research libraries now require an MLIS in addition to a certificate of study or on-the-job
conservation training. Conservators are also required to maintain treatment records and uphold
professional ethics such as the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC)
Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Practice.

Being a conservator within an institutional setting does not mean spending all of your time at the bench
working on beautiful objects. Often conservators are required to manage and train technicians, ensure
all work upholds quality standards, manage supplies and budgets, provide education and outreach for
library staff and the public, conduct collection condition surveys, serve on committees, collect and report
statistics, and serve on the disaster recovery team.

Preservation Field Services / Consultant

A growing specialization in preservation librarianship is the field service officer or consultant. Many
regional centers have developed across the country to provide preservation and conservation services
that would normally be out of the reach of small and mid-sized institutions. Field service librarians
specialize in education and outreach, conducting collection surveys, disaster recovery, grant writing, and
advocacy. They use these skills to help libraries with no formal preservation programs develop
strategies for the long-term care of their collections. They may work directly with the library or act solely
as advisors. Librarians in field service positions need excellent written and communication skills since
they deal directly with the public and are often required to write reports or other supporting documents
such as technical papers, how-to manuals, etc.

Consultants are generally preservation librarians or conservators in private practice. A consultant may
have one specialty, such as environmental control and equipment, or have multiple specialties. Many
federal and state granting agencies require professional preservation consultation prior to funding
preservation initiatives. Again, a consultant needs excellent oral and written communication skills on top
of any knowledge their specialty requires.

Professional Qualifications

Other than a master’s degree in library science and, if appropriate, a certificate of advanced study in
preservation, there are other desirable qualities that successful preservation librarians share. These
include an ability to see the library as a whole and understand how preservation activities relate to its
core mission. Part of this understanding includes a demonstrated concern for the physical collections
as well as the information they contain. Problem-solving skills are important, especially when combined
with a curiosity to evaluate materials, workflows and processes. Attention to details and excellent people
skills are needed, as is the ability to be flexible and adapt to rapid change.

In Conclusion

Preservation is often thought of only in terms of large academic or research libraries, but it also extends
to local historical collections, archives, and public libraries of all sizes. Nancy Carlson Schrock writes, “In
the public libraries, preservation education spans a range of areas. It includes the attitudes and
commitment of library staff and a preservation program that extends to all levels of library service.”3  

In fact, a well-run preservation program at any public or private institution will involve the entire library
staff in its mission to preserve the collections and make them accessible well into the future.  As a
preservation librarian you have the opportunity to work with almost every department in the library.
Because of this cross-disciplinary aspect, preservation is one of the most rewarding specializations
within librarianship.

Resources

ALA Association for Library Collections and Technical Services Educational Policy and Statement
(1995—soon to be revised, see Preservation section)
http://www.ala.org/ala/alcts/alctsmanual/conted/cepolicy.htm

American Institute of Conservation for Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) http://aic.stanford.edu/

Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) http://www.nedcc.org

University of Texas at Austin, Graduate School of Information Science, Kilgarlin Center http://www.gslis.
utexas.edu/kilgarlin/about.php

Southeastern Library Network Preservation Services (SOLINET) http://www.solinet.net/preservation

Notes

1. Morrow, Carolyn Clark, “Defining the Library Preservation Program: Policies and Organization,”
Preservation Issues and Planning (Chicago: American Library Association, 2000), p. 1.

2. Oldham, Jan Merrill, and Nancy Carlson Schrock, “The Conservation of General Collections,”
Preservation Issues and Planning (Chicago: American Library Association, 2000), p. 229.

3. Schrock, Nancy Carlson, “On Target: Reaching the Public Through Preservation,” Promoting
Preservation Awareness in Libraries (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997) pp. 174-175.

About the Author:

Beth Doyle is the Collections Conservator for the Duke University Libraries. She earned her B.A. in
Photography from the University of Dayton, Ohio, and her MLIS and Certificate of Advanced Study in
Library and Archives Preservation from the University of Texas at Austin Graduate School of Library and
Information Science. She teaches Preservation of Library and Archive Materials at the University of North
Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Information and Library Science.

Article published February 2005

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