Thursday, December 31, 2020

A Brief Reflection on the Crucible of 2020

At nearly the last possible minute of this year, I am reflecting on what has been said many times: 2020 has been a year like no other. We will remember this challenging year for many reasons, both personal and professional. At the center of our challenges has been, of course, the dual pandemics of COVID-19 and a long overdue awakening regarding racism in our country and in our local communities. Both have challenged me to consider my responsibilities both personally and professionally to act. I will note that this is a reflection of my own and not necessarily a reflection of the opinions of the organization for which I am employed.

Regarding COVID-19, many preservation and conservation professionals have had to conduct a great deal of research to understand how to best handle materials, how to effectively sanitize materials to make them safe without damaging the objects we are attempting to protect, and how to protect ourselves and our spaces as we continue our work. In our library, that has meant everything from researching the pros and cons of how an ultraviolet book sanitizer works to setting up new processes and protocols for transferring materials between our departments within the library. And, for some, it has meant redefining our roles as we have been working at home at least part of the time rather than in our labs. For others, COVID-19 has impacted the very existence of our jobs or, even more tragically, our own health or the lives and health of family members, colleagues, and friends.

I have spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about what I am accomplishing or not accomplishing regarding work productivity during this chaotic year. With all of the environmental factors along with the internal processing, how does one manage to maintain the same level of productivity? We record statistics each month to track what sort of treatment we conduct and how many items we handle or repair. My "stat sheet" has looked very different each month of this year, some better than others. My short answer about maintaining the same level of productivity: we can't. And, I am both fortunate and grateful to work for an organization that recognizes that we need a different measuring stick for success in 2020. We are all figuring out new definitions of best practice, productivity, and work.

With respect to our reckoning with systemic and institutional racism, there have been innumerable resources for learning and for inspiring action. A simple Internet search resulted in 17,500,000 results. This would not be a "brief reflection" if I were to begin listing them here and I am sure that many of you reading this have been immersed in your own research and learning. Regardless of where you are on your journey of understanding and perhaps changing, most of us recognize that the status quo is untenable and all of us have a responsibility to both learn and act. One of the most thought-provoking articles related to our work as preservation and conservation professionals I read this year was from a conservator at UCLA, Consuela Metzger. Click HERE for a link to that article as well as the associated resources.

Metzger wrote, "Conservators can be called in with their technical skills to either remove spray paint that spells out Black Lives Matter, or they can be called to preserve that same spray paint as history. With that one example, it should be clear that preservation and conservation can be political acts. We preserve what is valued." In the same vein, I had a conversation with a colleague at a previous employer several years ago in which she described treating a Ku Klux Klan robe and hood that was in the collection of the academic library for which we worked. She confessed the internal battle she had of both wanting to burn or destroy the robe and hood, but also knowing that it is our ethical responsibility to preserve even the darkest parts of our history. She of course provided fully professional treatment of the robe, but the conversation came to mind again this year as I read Metzger's article and reflected on our responsibility as caretakers of cultural heritage. 

For those of us employed in museums and libraries, we must consider how our collections either reflect or fail to reflect our communities. And, we must consider our biases in how we collect, describe, protect, and provide access to our collections as it reflects our values both as individuals and institutions.

This year, 2020, has been a crucible for all of us, but it is my hope that the severe trials of this year have forged something new in us as we all consider more deeply our roles in our communities and in our professions. As Metzger so aptly related in her article, we are not neutral. 

I plan to be asleep as 2020 quietly exits and 2021 tiptoes in. However, cheers to 2021 and to all being awake for possibilities and change.

- Suzanne Sawyer, Preservation Specialist


Metzger, C. (2020, July 31). Preservation Blog Inner Meditations and Outer Resources for Understanding Library Conservation and Preservation as Racist or Anti-Racist [Web log post]. Retrieved December 31, 2020, from