Management of the collection environment: shift towards proactive risk-based approach
Senior Conservator – Preventive Conservation, Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of NZ
Vesna graduated archaeology at the University of Belgrade, Faculty of Philosophy, Department of Archaeology (2000) and obtained a master’s degree in preventive conservation at University Paris 1, Pantheon Sorbonne (2006). At present Vesna is working in the National Library of New Zealand as Senior Conservator – Preventive Conservation. She acts as a subject matter expert on preventive systems and processes used to preserve or protect collections and provides advice on the development of preservation policy and strategy for Alexander Turnbull Library collections.
Before joining Alexander Turnbull Library Vesna worked at the National Museum, Belgrade, as curator for preventive conservation and has been instrumental in developing preventive conservation services and activities in Serbia. She was also responsible for the Centre for the Preventive Conservation in the Central Institute for Conservation in Belgrade, providing advice for the museum community on efficient collections preservation, based on an understanding of risks to collections.
Embracing proactive pragmatic and rational approach to determine “optimal” environmental conditions for collections remains challenging for many national heritage institutions. Concepts of maintaining, sustaining and enduring are inherent to preservation philosophy, manifested through the activities of preventive conservation. It is not only a technical strategy for enabling the long-term preservation of historic resources, but also an effective approach to sustainable environmental management. In practice, however, “optimal” conditions are often synonymous with universal standards defining a “safe zone”, primarily established to facilitate loans, and respond to environmental system designers in capital building projects.
Current environmental management approach in the Alexander Turnbull Library has its foundation in outdated standards-based preservation and conservation management policy. It is an institution which achieved the perceived “optimum” of absolutely constant relative humidity and temperature and minimising the levels of air pollutants due to its well maintained and well-operated air-conditioning system and high-level chemical and particle filtration. Unlike other institutions which might lack the funding, the ATL didn’t have to take into consideration an option of allowing larger fluctuations or seasonal drift in the stores or question benefits and risk of natural ventilation.
However, research into object vulnerability, considering damage from the perspective of object’s significance and introduction of risk management principles in collection preservation prompted the question of whether this tight environmental control is necessary and highlighted the need to revisit how an appropriate environment is determined. Urging consideration of sustainability, the Library is deliberating introducing new guidelines with broadened environmental parameters, using the present body of knowledge. This includes how and why objects deteriorate and how to maximize their lifespan and chance of survival through preventive measures; all while avoiding approaches which may be wasteful of money and energy. This paper will examine the history of the library environment compared to the conditions of spaces without stringent environmental specification which have seen little to no noticeable damage to its items. This paper will also discuss the establishment and maintenance of environmental conditions from the point of view of pragmatic risk management. This requires the use of correct and complete information on the intensity of hazards, the damage possibly caused, and the consequent loss of value in comparison to the cost of controlling the hazard (financially, environmentally, and socially). Finally, the paper will raise the question of how the concept of perpetuity relates to the consideration of low energy storage.