Seminar Retrospective - Friday, 19 May - Preservation & Emergency Planning

Friday was an eventful day at the seminar, with two scheduled presentations (one on preservation and one on emergency planning for libraries) and a tour of the botanic gardens. I also managed to get in on an unexpected tour... but I'm getting ahead of myself. How to Have Fun in Libraries Without Killing the Collections: The Role of Conservation at Oxford

The most amusingly named presentation of the seminar was given by David Howell, Head of Preventive Conservation and Research, Conservation and Collections Care, Oxford University Library Services (he may also have had about the longest job title, too).

The presentation was good, but unfortunately my notes are not (not having a particular interest in conservation myself, I was less careful about my note-taking than I might have been otherwise). So here's a brief, rough approximate version of what I remember.

A lot of the issues in preservation have to do with maintaining a stable climate with respects to temperature, humidity, light, air quality, and so on. This can be a bit tricky in Oxford, particularly in buildings that were not originally built with modern climate control systems in mind. The other major problem with preservation are all of the things that people can do to materials - either through intentional vandalism or unintentional mishandling (which in some cases can include previous attempts at conservation).

Developing an Emergency Plan for OULS Libraries

This presentation, given by Kristie Short-Traxker, Preventive Conservator / Emergency Planner, Conservation and Collections Care, Oxford University Library Services, was also quite good, and considering what happened to the libraries in New Orleans when Katrina hit last year, a very timely subject.

With luck, one thing all American libraries learned from Katrina was that having an emergency plan is a good idea. Not every library lies in hurricane territory, but every part of the world is prone to some disaster or other - natural or man-made.

What was interesting about the Oxford emergency plan was the library system's attempt to develop a general plan that was broad enough to cover all the libraries in the system, and could then be tailored to individual libraries needs without too much difficulty. Given the diversity of libraries in the Oxford system, that must have been a tall order, but from the sound of it, they are doing fairly well in meeting this goal (they're not entirely finished with this planning process).

The point was also made that just having a plan in place isn't enough - you've also got to make sure that people have followed up to the point of buying any necessary emergency equipment (and keeping said equipment operational) and making sure that personnel are trained in emergency procedures. (See, there is a point to all those fire drills, after all.)

Special Access

The day took an interesting turn for me and three other attendees when we ran into Kristie Short-Traxler in the lobby before we were due to have lunch and she invited us to take an informal tour of J-Floor (which is the highly-restricted access floor where they keep a lot of valuable and fragile material - although additionally, there's also a safe where they keep the really irreplaceable stuff, which we did not see). I think we all kind of stared at her in disbelief for a second (because, really, what kind of good luck was that?) and then unanimously answered, "yes, we'd love to." It meant skipping lunch, but no one cared, opportunities like that do not present themselves very often.

The tour was interesting too - one of the big projects the conservation department is working on at the moment is figuring out how to preserve all the wax seals adorning many of the charters and other legal documents in the collection. Many of these seals are little (and not so little - some of the bigger ones are the size of a dessert plate) works of art, and they're starting to disintegrate. We also got to see one of the conservation rooms (which reminded me rather strongly of visiting my Dad's anthropology lab when I was a kid - although with different sorts of objects under study) and talk briefly with the conservators (much of which, I must admit, I didn't understand, preservation/conservation not being my particular field).

The World of Plants

We did make it back in time to meet up with the rest of the group for the tour of the botanic gardens, conducted by Kate Pritchard, Assistant Curator, Greenhouse Collections. It was a nifty tour, however, because I am... botanically challenged (to put it mildly) and was slightly fuzzy from having missed lunch I did what I tend to do on tours like this - namely wander around thinking "ooo, pretty" while everything the guide said went in one ear and out the other.

Don't get me wrong, I really, really like botanic gardens (I'm am death to houseplants, so I stand in perpetual awe of folks who can look after plants without killing them). I'm just probably not the person you want to have recount tours for you, since about all I can usually manage is, "It was pretty, there were flowers - oh, and ducks."