Learning from Mistakes

I came across this blog post by Kevin Driedger thanks to another blog called PCAN. Kevin’s post discusses the emphasis on standards in conservation. He suggests that a set of standards can not cover all the unknowns in conservation and while they are a good set of ground rules we can not control all the unknowns in conservation work. The following is an excerpt from his post:

I’m not against standards, or at least I’m not against promoting the best possible work we can do, but I resist efforts to control others (especially passive aggressive ones) and I resist thinking that through codified standards I can compensate for all uncertainties and unknowns. You can‘t. Deal with it.

I am going to boldly suggest that we don’t need better standards, we need better stories. We need to hear more honest stories of conservators doing their work – what they did, how they made decisions, what worked, what didn’t. Telling good stories means telling honest stories which involves being vulnerable and telling stories of things you did for which you might be ashamed to tell your professional colleagues. (We all have those stories.) We really need to hear and tell stories of failure. Nothing will help us remember to test the ink before washing the paper like a really good story of someone ignoring that step to devastating effect.

Of course, we also need to hear good stories of success. We need to hear the stories of seasoned pros, and of enthusiastic novices. I remember at a small preservation conference that I helped coordinate – our after dinner speaker was James Craven, head of conservation at the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan and the godfather of library conservation in Michigan. With his dry wit, curmudgeonly charm, and many, many slides he told a couple stories of items he had worked on. Nobody left the room without having a better idea of how a good conservator goes about the business of conserving.
I like his idea of sharing the good and the bad in conservation. As a relatively new conservator I have both good and bad stories just like everyone else. I have heard many conservation horror stories; signatures washing away in a bath, parchment turned into gelatine, and various other un-fixable mistakes. Like Kevin says, these stories have stuck  with me and although I have not experienced these particular problems myself, I do think about them when I am performing my own work. Hopefully they will stick with me in the future and I will be able to continue learning from my own and others mistakes.

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