Of Instruments and Priorities…

This week, I met with Jan to go over my research and clarify my understanding of the project. Here is a brief synopsis of our discussion:

First we have established the means of data capture, organization, and backup for the survey. Libby Chenault at the Rare Book Collection (RBC) is in the process of assembling a list of volumes with their basic bibliographic information in a Microsoft Excel document. When the list is complete, we will add in our survey fields as additional columns. This system offers several advantages: first, the software is installed on all machines in the building. Excel offers easy-to-use sorting features, allowing the items to be sorted by repair/treatment when the survey is complete. Additionally, the spreadsheet will be stored on a department network drive that is accessible by all parties and is backed up regularly. Finally, this solution doesn’t require the intervention or assistance of the systems department – thus allowing us to begin sooner.

Next we discussed the details of the survey instrument. Here, Jan stressed the importance of a lean survey. The fields on the form that we design must capture only the most necessary information to fulfill the goals of the survey. Superfluous categories will make the survey take longer and may even obscure the data analysis at the end. As Jan succinctly put it, “There are only so many conservator hours in the world.” With so many other items in the library’s collection, it is important to critically engage the survey at the beginning to avoid wasted time and effort. Good questions to ask in the development phase of the assessment process are: What is the survey for? The goal of our survey is to develop a strategy to best care for the items in this collection given the available resources. For all intents and purposes “resources” equals time and money.

In order to meet our goal, there are certain things we must know. First, we need to know the condition of each item. Our instrument should be able to give us an idea of an item’s problems that is not too granular, but is useful for eventual batching of treatments and may provide a relative time estimate for the project. Related to this, the instrument must be able to give us a clear view of the range of conservation needs for the items in this group. This feature could conceivably alert the conservators if new lab work flows are needed.  Finally, I must become comfortable with assessing the condition of an item. For our instrument, we decided that it may be better to use fields that describe an item’s specific conditions, as opposed to “levels” or time commitment. Because this is my first experience with assessments, I may not be able to accurately estimate the time an item will require.

Another important topic that our meeting clarified for me was the difference between the priority of the item and the priority of the repair. In the article on the Tsar’s Collection at LoC (see last post) ample money and staffing allowed for every item in the collection to receive top priority. The author’s concern was which types of treatment should be performed first. For this project, the needs of the collection being surveyed must be weighed against the needs of the RBC as a whole. Therefore, our concern is the condition of the item in the context of its importance to the collection. In this case, the conservation lab will be working with the curator to establish item priority based on the needs of the patrons.

I should note a thought that occurred to me as I was doing my research. Should the library have plans to digitize items in this collection, how would that affect the survey? When I brought this up at the meeting, I learned that digitization would likely have no bearing on the treatment of the item, so it was outside the scope of the instrument. It would, however affect the item’s priority.

A few words on grants and surveys: I am learning that it is important, in this stage, to ask oneself if a grant can be written from the information gathered with the survey.  Over the next week, I will be reading through the proposal requirements for two grants and comparing them with what we have already discussed.


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