Wednesday 14 October 2015

Professional Perspectives: Ethics in Conservation and Archives

In August 2015 three members of Borthwick staff travelled across land and sea to present papers at the annual Archives and Records Association conference in Dublin. The theme of the conference was 'Challenges, Obligations, or Imperatives? The moral and legal role of the Record Keeper today'. The three sessions that our staff presented demonstrate a range of ethical concerns that exist within the worlds of archives and conservation, but also offer a glimpse into the inner workings of these two relatively little-known professions.

Screen shot from Tracy’s presentation ‘Why do you do what you do to me? 
Conservation Prioritisation and Collaboration in the Digitisation of the Retreat Archive’.
For more information on the project visit:
Tracy Wilcockson was the opening speaker for the conservation strand on the second day of the conference with her presentation ‘Why do you do what you do to me? Conservation Prioritisation and Collaboration in the Digitisation of the Retreat Archive’. Tracy’s talk addressed her role in preparing material for the digitisation of the Retreat archive, which is a part of the wider ‘The Asylum and Beyond’ project funded by the Wellcome Trust. The depth and breadth of Tracy’s knowledge of conservation theory and practice enabled her to discuss the nature of digitisation as ethically problematic, while still clearly explaining the practical implications and processes that have affected the digitisation of the Retreat Archive. I was particularly struck by the application of digitisation to the ‘balance triangle’ that she described from Chris Caple’s book ‘Conservation Skills’, which demonstrates how every conservation process can be expressed by a balance between preservation, investigation and revelation. The talk also highlighted several examples of collaborative responses to digitisation problems between the Conservation and Digitisation teams, such as the use of light boxes for the image capture of receipts, so that they do not need to undergo the time-consuming process of removal from the documents that they are attached to.

Tracy’s talk was very well received, and generated a number of enthusiastic and complimentary tweets from listeners. The presentation has also resulted in some excellent contacts with a number of other organisations running digitisation projects, and the potential for further collaboration. Colleagues are interested in further information regarding how the Borthwick project has been managed, equipment and techniques that have been used, problems that have arisen and how they have been overcome. It will be exciting to see where this goes next.

My presentation ‘The Archbishops’ Registers of York: A case study of ethical dilemmas in conservation and digitisation’ was directly after Tracy’s, and also used a digitisation project as a case study, this time to study the role of the conservator as an arbitrator of ethical problem-solving and decision-making. One of the points I addressed was the tension that can exist between the available research into materials (which may recommend against certain treatments) and the need to access or digitise an archive (which may need treatment to enable access).

As an example I talked about the ethics of removing creases from parchment using solvents. Although I only had time to briefly outline the technique I finally used in the project, I had set up a demonstration volume for the delegates in the adjoining room, along with a selection of magnets and magnetic material to try. In the coffee-break after the first session I chatted with a stream of
Working with magnets on the ‘York’s Archbishops’ Registers Revealed’ project. 
For more information visit:
colleagues, discussing the materials and the technique, as well as other applications. The magnets generated a flurry of discussion comparing the many different ways that they are currently being used in conservation workshops around the country: in exhibitions and displays; for restraint of parchment during treatment; wrapped in blotters for restraint and drying of local repairs; for construction of boxes and book rests; and one enterprising department are using them as very effective darts… I was pleased that a presentation that had aimed to highlight the importance of communication and collaboration had generated so much productive discussion.

After lunch the conservation, digital preservation and archive strands merged into a hot-pot of workshops, panels and break-out sessions. Gary Brannan, our Access Archivist, was running a workshop entitled ‘From Filth to the Future: Reviewing the ARA training offer’. The session was based heavily upon the ARA Northern Region’s 2013 Filth conference, and was designed to get delegates thinking about the role that ARA could - and perhaps, maybe even should - have in supporting members dealing with difficult, disturbing and legally dubious collections.

Flying home after a productive and inspiring day.
The exercises were based on real experiences sent in by ARA members and featured issues including I still sometimes find myself picturing the photograph from a Coroner’s notebook showing the image of a man who had been murdered by having his head nailed to a tree and Male reader requesting (repeatedly) access to 1950s photographs of schoolgirls in gym clothes. Delegates were asked to sort the issues provided into those which they felt they needed emotional support to deal with, and those which may be helped by practical advice and training. Some of the results were surprising - for instance, much unease at processing and making available content that may upset third parties, and a desire for training in dealing with requests from customers for embarrassing (but not legally exempt) data. However, the greatest need came in the desire for both training and support in dealing with content and imagery related to death and inquests.

Gary’s session received considerable interest and encouragement from delegates, and provided a supportive outlet for frank discussions in a profession whose members often work in small teams or in isolation. The subject matter and style of delivery really embodied the theme and aims of the conference as a whole: addressing relevant issues amongst our peers, sharing experiences and exploring practical solutions. Talking to Tracy and Gary on our journey home I was struck by how much we had taken away from the conference – new ideas and perspectives, new contacts – and for myself a renewed motivation for the job that I do and respect for the colleagues that I work alongside, both within the Borthwick and without. The overlapping worlds of archives and conservation might not be very well known – but they are passionately appreciated by those that know them well.

Catherine Dand, Conservator.

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