This is post is part of our series on career advice for the aspiring archives professional. Each edition features information and career advice from a different member of the Smithsonian Institution Archives team, regarding what they do, how they got here, and how you can too. Don’t be afraid to let us know who you might like to hear from next!
What is preservation? This is a complex question. The field of preservation is relatively new, and the activities encompassed within this field can be very different depending on the type of cultural institution and the collections found within its walls. For archives, preservation not only focuses on the conservation of the physical structure of books, documents, and photographs, but must also take into consideration the preservation of the intellectual content of archival collections.
What does a preservation manager do?
As the Preservation Coordinator for the Smithsonian Institution Archives, I am tasked with overseeing the long-term physical preservation of our collections. My responsibilites include assessment and prioritization; needs analysis; environmental standards; integrated pest management; media-specific concerns, such as audiovisual media; housing and enclosures; space management; disaster preparedness; and financial duties.
What do you enjoy most about your job?
One of the best parts of my job is the need to collaborate with both internal Archives staff and the wider Smithsonian community. Due to the inherent complexity of preservation, it is always neccessary for a preservation manager to work closely with archivists, digital archivists, digitization technicians, conservators, and reference staff. Preserving our collection is the thread that connects us all together; because without our collections, the Archives wouldn't exist.
What qualities are employers looking for in a preservation manager?
Many employers will look for applicants with an ability to work in collaboration with many different types of people and culivate excitement and awareness surrounding preservation issues. You should have a basic knowledge of conservation treatment methods, documentation techniques, emergency response procedures, health and safety issues, storage and handling best practices, and how different physical materials deteriorate.
Effective problem-solving is also a valuable and, I would argue, necessary skill in preservation managers. Even if you are not well-versed in all the aforementioned topics, you need the skills to be able to locate resources, synthesize readings, and provide recommendations for long-term preservation strategies. You don't need to know everything, but you need to know how to find the answer.
What degree do you need to have to work in preservation?
Preservation professionals can come from many different degree types, and they can identify themselves by a variety of job titles - preservation managers, collection managers, preventive conservators, collections care specialists, and preservation technicians. Degrees in conservation, museum studies, library and information science, materials science, or collections management can all lead to a career in preservation.
Before I came to the Archives, my background was primarily in conservation, having worked as a pre-program technician for several years. While I was gaining hands-on experience, I obtained my masters degree in Museum Studies from Johns Hopkins University. During my masters program, I focused my studies on collections care and management subjects, which greatly aided in bringing me to my current position.
What recommendations do you have for a future preservation manager?
A preservation professional can, at times, be seen as a generalist. To be successful, you must have a broad understanding of all preservation topics, from environments to housing materials to digital preservation best practices. You should be actively seeking training opportunities to develop all those required skills. Show mentors, employers, and supervisors that you are naturally curious and invested in the projects you work on. Demonstrate that you can problem-solve and critically think about the outcomes of a given situation.
I would also encourage a young career professional to get involved with professional organizations, such as the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC), the Society of American Archivists (SAA), the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC), and the Association of Registrars and Collections Specialists (ARCS). You should also look into smaller, local groups; in the DC/Baltimore region, we have the Washington Conservation Guild (WCG) and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Archives Conference (MARAC). Use conferences and meetings to get to know other preservation professionals in your region.