"Mooring a Field"

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Ellen Cunningham-Kruppa. Mooring a Field: Paul N. Banks and the Education of Library and Archives Conservators. Ann Arbor, MI: The Legacy Press, 2019. Cloth, 287p. $65.00 (ISBN: 9781940965154).

In Mooring a Field, author Ellen Cunningham-Kruppa traces and illuminates the parallel paths of library conservation specialist Paul N. Banks, and of library and archival preservation and conservation, as two different branches of the same field of study. As the title implies, academic anchorage for the fields was tenuous and ultimately depended on the work of a select group of people in key positions, Banks often acting as a conduit. Specifically, the author discusses two closely related professions that developed into academic fields over the last half of the twentieth century: library and archival conservation, and library preservation administration. If this seems muddy, that is precisely one of the author’s key points; there were two voids to be filled within the library curriculum of the time, and Banks strongly believed that formal academic training needed to be grounded within the librarian curriculum. Cunningham-Kruppa discusses the precursor to the field of conservation, as it is known today, as originating in the practice of book conservation study through artisanal apprenticeships.

Prior to the 1940s, the skills acquired and used to maintain, repair, and conserve books and printed content were mainly held by craftspeople who, if academically trained, stemmed from the art conservation discipline. As Banks’s career evolved in the 1960s, he called to have conservators academically trained as professionals specific to libraries and archives. The second profession formulated by Banks was that of library preservation administrator: a professional who held the ability to systematically manage the maintenance and conservation needs of full collections of significant size, including content that is not classified as rare or valuable. Preservation administration meshes closely with conservation in that it is based on science concerning itself with storage conditions, chemical exposures, material composition and field standards. Together, both specialties address threats such as fire, floods, thefts, and format life expectancy.

Cunningham-Kruppa outlines how Banks, who did not hold a formal degree, adopted an aggregate collection approach to conservation through his early work with the Guild of Book Workers and employment with conservator Carolyn Horton in New York. When the Arno river flooded the city of Florence in 1966, his mind turned to the pressing need to develop formal training for conservationists and preservationists specific to libraries and archives; conservators uniformly trained, dedicated to books and paper housed in libraries, and supported by professionals to manage the maintenance needs of core collections upon which academia and special collections depended. Banks felt that core non-valuable materials directed researchers to special and rare collections and thus were the foundation of scholarship. 

Few would be more well-placed to write on this topic than Cunningham-Kruppa. She received her M.L.I.S from the University of Texas at Austin in 1985, a mere four years after the Conservation Education Program (CEP) was launched within the School of Library Service at Columbia University through Banks’s extended efforts. She gained three years of experience serving as a project archivist at the Peabody Institute of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and then went to Columbia in 1988 to fulfill thirty credit hours of study to earn an Endorsement of Specialization in Administration of Preservation Programs in Libraries and Archives from the School of Library Service at Columbia, the very program envisioned by Banks.

For Cunningham-Kruppa and Banks, one of the barriers to full academic standing for the library conservation field was the lack of a path to generate tenured faculty through PhD programs. The concern was that without such standing in the academic community, preservation administrators would not have equal footing in policy creation and curriculum development. The author found her way by securing a PhD in American Studies at the University of Texas, where the Conservation Education Program had moved upon the elimination of the School of Library Services at Columbia in 1990. She first served as the assistant director, then director, of the Austin-based program from 2002–2009, until the School of Information eliminated the program from its suite of classes. She then assumed the role of Project Coordinator, Instructor, and Academic Advisor to the University of Delaware Department of Art Conservation, one of three institutions to develop programs in library-oriented conservation after the program was dropped in Austin. She now serves as the Associate Director and Head of Preservation and Conservation for the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center located at the University of Texas at Austin. In 2016 she was awarded the American Library Association’s Paul Banks and Carolyn Harris Award in Preservation. 

One of the great strengths of this work is the author’s unflinching willingness to put the development of the field, and Banks’s career, within the American historical context. When Banks, as a homosexual, first moved to New York in 1956, the American Psychiatric Association labeled homosexuality as a mental illness, and Verner Clapp, Acting Librarian of Congress from July of 1953 until September of 1956, was charged to investigate Library of Congress employees and resulted in the termination of LC employees identified as homosexuals. Cunningham-Kruppa also notes that Clapp, hailed as a library visionary, was a consultant for the CIA from around 1949 until sometime in the 1950s. That in fact, the strong development of academic libraries in the postwar era was a Cold War defense embodied in the aim of “scholarship, good government, good citizenship and the good life,” (96) or building up an educated electorate. Her assessment of the role of profits and economics on the neglected academic programs is unfiltered and astute. Surprisingly, while it was foreseen in the late 1960s that computers would alter the nature of librarianship, there was limited understanding of the exponential increase of digital content that would define the late twentieth and early twenty-first century.

While Cunningham-Kruppa is articulate in fleshing out the role of Cold War philosophy and politics on the librarian profession at the highest levels of government and academia, she bypasses a confusing element surrounding the efforts to develop an American-British initiated international conservation training center in Italy after the flooding of Florence. The author is frank regarding Banks’s character flaws, notably his inflexibility coupled with indecisiveness and hubris. Banks’s lack of regard exhibited towards the Italians and the insertions of presumed authority verged on intellectual imperialism. Not surprisingly, such a training center did not come to pass, yet a small-scale mechanized binding unit, much along the lines wished for by Banks, was successfully established by a team from Munich. The question remains if this was a resistance to partner with former Axis entities nearly a quarter-century after the war, or an issue of language barriers.

Perhaps another failure of language, Banks often conveyed mixed messages regarding his outlook and objectives. He spoke of his desire for high quality formal training for care of core collections, in contrast to bespoke conservation of high value items and apprenticeship training, yet he balked when the University of Chicago’s program would require matriculating students to meet the same admission requirements of other entering students. Moreover, during discussions for a training center at Banks’s home institution, the Newberry Library, Banks’s proposal was to train four students over a three-year time span. When asked by the funding agency if two more students could be included for $8,000 more per year in funding, Banks refused. His plan rendered the eventual cost to be a projected $40,000 per student. The ending impression is one of conflicting desires and messaging leaving the reader sympathetic to Banks’s would-be collaborators.

Cunningham-Kruppa’s narrative reaches into 2019 when addressing the fiscal motivations for departmental decisions to eliminate preservation training. The lingering effects of the recession created mandates for academic units to be self-sustaining, or better yet, profitable. She could not have anticipated the COVID-19 pandemic, the diversion of grant funds and the substantial drop in institutional funding sources on top of a legacy of soft money dependency. The author starts her work noting the fragile financial origins of the profession and ends by emphasizing the justification for its continued support in echoing the theme “cultural rights are human rights” and that library conservators preserve the cultural record. Her work is an astute articulation of the sociopolitical realities of a profession which touches upon all specialties within librarianship, museums and cultural organizations. All professionals in related fields would be drawn to this work as a case study of change and evolution in linked professions in a continuously transforming world culture that requires dexterity to adapt quickly for the benefit of cultural organizations. Cunningham-Kruppa makes clear that while world affairs may seem to dictate ability and opportunities, key individuals in fundamental roles can and do alter the trajectory of professions and professionals. — Edwina A. Murphy