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Review of Recording, Documentation, Information Management for the Conservation of Heritage Places [Book]

Reviewed by Caroline Hardie (January 2012)

Historic Environment Consultant, Archaeo-Environment Ltd. Email: caroline@aenvironment.co.uk

Cite this as: C. Hardie 2012 'Review of Recording, Documentation, Information Management for the Conservation of Heritage Places [Book]', Internet Archaeology 31. https://doi.org/10.11141/ia.31.7

Robin Letellier 2011 Recording, Documentation, Information Management for the Conservation of Heritage Places, Vol. 1 Guiding Principles with contributions from Werner Schmid and Francois Leblanc
Rand Eppich 2011 Recording, Documentation, Information Management for the Conservation of Heritage Places, Vol. 2 Illustrated Examples, Donhead Publishing (ISBN 978 1 873394 94 6) £38.00. Available: http://www.donhead.com/Recording_Documentation.htm

When one considers the enormous variety and diversity of heritage assets across the world ranging from buried remains to extant buildings, historic landscapes to submerged wrecks, tackling the thorny issues of recording, documentation and information management in a single publication is always going to be a challenge. Add into the mix the breadth of documentation likely to arise from or be required by conservation projects such as research-driven laser scanning and computer modelling of a world heritage site, a conservation management plan archive, or the more modest output from the construction of an extension to a listed building, then trying to set out principles to ensure consistent high quality and accessible data that can be applied across the world, is no mean objective. As the eminently sensible Kate Clark points out in the opening paper in volume 2 of this publication, "Understanding the physical fabric of a site is an important first step in finding the right conservation strategy, and documentation is the first step in understanding". This book offers case studies, arguments and a framework for integrating documentation into the conservation process and claims to offer new concepts and ideas to advance the field. It puts forward a clear set of twelve principles and guidelines which it suggests will help heritage managers and decision makers in ensuring that they succeed in understanding their roles and responsibilities. In doing so, the authors believe this will help them to choose the correct documentation strategy for their project.

Book cover

The book is printed in two volumes. The first covers the principles and guidance while the second covers case studies and examples. The first volume is based on the late Robin Letellier's experiences since the 1980s, which resulted in the ICOMOS Principles for Recording of Monuments and Groups of Buildings and Sites (an updated and improved version of which appears in the book as Appendix A). Here we see a well-recognised problem of hard copy in this digital age. In the time it has taken to read both volumes, the options for digital recording and archiving have already altered and so the new concepts outlined in the first volume, do not seem quite so new any more. The second volume cites illustrated examples from across the world of differing kinds of survey and documentation, ranging from the rapid information gathering of earthquake damage to historic buildings in Los Angeles, to identifying and defining cultural landscapes in Zimbabwe, or the documentation of Incan settlements before total loss caused by wind, rain, vandalism, cattle ranching, looting and road works. This is a useful selection of scenarios that can find parallels in most heritage places and offer solutions to information gathering with variable available resources.

The book is presented as a hard back in a high-quality but infuriatingly annoying A4 landscape format. This neither fits on the book shelf, the knee nor the busy office desk already encumbered with computer monitors, phones, mouse pads and assorted paperwork. Its format seems to fly in the face of the publication's own view that most people have or will shortly have internet access and in a rapidly changing field, surely an internet-based publication would have made more sense?

At the core of this publication are the twelve guiding principles, with case studies in volume 2 to illustrate them. In addition to each succinct principle (for example, "Guiding Principle 1 – Heritage information is required to acquire knowledge, understand meaning and values, promote interest and involvement, permit informed management, and ensure long-term maintenance and conservation of heritage places. It can also be considered a kind of insurance policy against loss and a posterity record for future generations"), there is a longer chapter justifying and explaining it. Points are laboured, if well made.

The book deals at length with where heritage information activities fit into the conservation process. Although there is no internationally accepted standard of conservation processes, it suggests that consensus has been reached on six stages of conservation each of which requires or produces documentation or information, with a strong emphasis on acquiring information at an early stage so that we can understand the asset and assess its physical condition. The book makes it clear that the success of a project requires good communication between each phase with involvement throughout of stakeholders, clearly defined time lines, sufficient resources and the recording of decisions.

However, this is a book primarily focused on principles rather than methods, and one of its best and most achievable suggestions is that the documentation resulting from a conservation project should be organised in the simplest way. Here is a hoorah for common sense. So many archival projects have floundered on the rocks of over-specification, escalating costs and ever-increasing skills requirements that make maintenance of information technology the prerogative of the geeky elite. Now, with the capacity to produce the most simple internet or intranet pages linked to PDFs with hyperlinks, every conservation project has the capacity to share data with the project team or the world with the help of some well-known search engines.

Before making these specific suggestions for simplicity and accessibility, the publication goes back to basics. It outlines the background to the publication via ICOMOS, ICCROM and UNESCO and the international expertise of Lettelier. Indeed, Appendix H expands on this with more international, regional and national charters and guidelines on recording, documentation and information management-related activities than you can shake a stick at, all in chronological order and with the URL so that they can be downloaded direct from the internet. It outlines who the intended audience is for the publication (heritage managers and decision makers and anyone with an interest in heritage places), why the heritage information is required (so that future generations know what was done to a heritage place, why it was done, when, and by whom), when recording is indispensable (to help make critical decisions about a heritage place before starting physical intervention, when there is a risk of loss of significance to that heritage place, when evidence is revealed and when creating a heritage information system). It also looks at who is producing such information and who is using it (everyone involved in cultural heritage research, management or conservation). This background information, combined with the executive summary and very useful overview (for those who don't have time to read the entire book), means that the actual guidance is some 36 pages into the book. The result is that some points are laboured and repetition is rife. Volume 1 could have been produced at a fraction of its size and remained a valuable contribution to the conservation world.

That is not to say that the book is badly written; on the contrary, it is simply written in persuasive language. It is, however, aimed at an international audience across which there will be significant differences in standards, resources and the varying degrees to which the political and intellectual need for conservation has been achieved. This means that while it may be stating the obvious or preaching to the converted on one page, it can also be setting out challenges still to be met on the next.

For example, here in the UK we have gone some way to creating national standards for heritage data and databases through the work of English Heritage, the Royal Commissions on the Ancient and Historic Monuments of Scotland and Wales, and the Archaeology Data Service to name but a few. Local authority archaeologists have required the recording of archaeological work within the planning and development system since 1990 at the latest, and the notification of grey literature publications via OASIS (Online AccesS to the Index of archaeological investigationS http://oasis.ac.uk/) for a decade. Much of this information is digitally available through the web and so it is possible to collate basic information about a heritage place and what has happened to it. So can this book help to improve standards or make information more accessible in a country like the UK?

Well, perhaps it can certainly reinforce good practice that has not been enforced thus far in every corner of conservation. One of those dark corners is the local authority conservation officer. Despite being encouraged in planning policy since the 1990s, there are still a few conservation officers who do not require alterations to listed buildings to be recorded. There is also a worrying trend in a time of cut-backs, for local authorities to cut funding to their archaeologists, who make the recording and documentation of change a requirement of planning consents.

We have some excellent and improving national records but, in my recent experience, monument type searches on national and local archaeological records are erratic, to say the least. Clearly national standards and thesaurus terms are not being applied rigorously.

Finally (and here I fear we are dealing with a lost cause), is it realistic to raise standards of architects' understanding of historic buildings and their plans so that their drawings are accurate representations of what exists, or will we forever have to bring in archaeological surveyors to resurvey buildings as a record of what was there before works commenced?

Traditional recording skills are somewhat short-changed in volume 1 and, given the advances in technology that allow superior searching, accessibility and manipulation of data, it is no surprise. They are promoted in the book as sometimes cheaper options than digital alternatives and with an inbuilt self-sufficiency that excludes the need to bring in new digital expertise. It recognises the difficulty of curating digital archives to ensure their long-term accessibility, and offers the sensible suggestion that simple and open software such as HTML, XML and PDFs be used for archiving as they have the greatest longevity and can be transferred with greatest ease to new technologies. However, it has no view on the UK local authority archaeologists who refuse to allow digital recording and storage of data as part of the planning process. It is notable that when discussing rectified photography in volume 2 (Dallas, p.7), it refers only to digital imagery and software manipulation of data. This may be for the UK planning appeal process to sort out, as a requirement to carry out recording using old technology alone is difficult to enforce and falls foul of the 'reasonableness test'.

As the publication deals with principles rather than methods, it neatly avoids the other tricky issue of ink stability of printed digital images and so takes us no further in this ongoing debate. We are simply told that data has to be stable and so the debate will continue, with some printer-ink manufacturers claiming ink stability of eighty years, which is not accepted by all planning archaeologists. Perhaps the curators would be better to focus on outcomes rather than the method of recording or archiving so that they do not enforce outmoded technologies? Levels of recording are of course varied dependent on the significance of the heritage place, the objectives of the recording exercise and resources and skills available. The publication notes this and offers three different levels of recording ranging from reconnaissance recording at the most basic level to detailed recording consisting of accurate graphic records for detailed studies and design requirements. This is expanded in volume 2 by Ross Dallas, who outlines the various options for survey techniques, ranging from hand survey and sketch diagram to laser scanning. In England, the English Heritage (formerly RCHME) levels of building recording (English Heritage 2006a), landscape recording (English Heritage 2007) and the MoRPHE Project Managers' Guide (English Heritage 2006b) already provide a menu of recording options and these are more likely to be used within England and Scotland. Despite this wealth of advice on levels of recording, I venture to suggest that curators in England will still tend to opt for English Heritage 'levels 2/3'. It doesn't matter how many levels you create, people go for something between the two in the middle as a compromise between what they would like and what they can afford!

To help establish which level of recording is most appropriate, the book provides a template in Appendix C in the form of a Heritage Recording Planning Form (or contract between user and provider) as used at Fort Henry in Kingston, Ontario. This sets out the client's requirements, translated into levels of accuracy and consequently person-days and fees. While such a template aids transparency when exploring why a particular level of recording was chosen, the form resembles one that would be filled out after a decision was made rather than an aid to choose the form of recording required.

In the UK there is an archival crisis which will not be resolved by this publication. Where should our paper/artefactual archives go? Digital archives do not require a great deal of space, but, as already noted, they require considerable maintenance, and if principle 12 is to be complied with, they should also exist in hard copy as a backup. However, hard-copy archives and artefactual material have to be deposited where they can be conserved and curated and, most importantly of all, made accessible long after the project has been completed. However, throughout the heritage world, there are problems locating space and resources to house this ever-increasing archive. Those regions with museums willing to hold excavation archives in the past may now be turning them away through lack of space and resources. Other regions may have no archive facility for excavated material at all. As a result archives are held in less than satisfactory conditions, spread over wide geographical areas with no adequate cataloguing or conservation. The UK has national paper-based collections relating to archaeology in Edinburgh, Cardiff and Swindon, but whoever had the bright idea of placing England's resource centre in Swindon had clearly never tried to get there from the north of England, so it can hardly be called accessible. Hopefully, one day the entire collection will be scanned and made available on line, but until then access will be limited. Our professional institutes may require us to archive materials in certain conditions, but the system fails where there is nowhere for the archive to be deposited and adequately curated. It is not clear how any country will meet all of the guiding principles on the creation and curation of project archives without considerable investment in resources – an unlikely outcome for many countries in the current economic climate. In the future, if subscribing to these principles helps to achieve improved archive collections, so much the better.

The book at an early stage outlined its target audience as heritage managers, decision makers and anyone interested in heritage places, but it is hard to imagine many of them purchasing these two volumes despite its relatively low cost. Instead, its contribution will lie in how it is translated and cascaded down from a few senior heritage managers in the academic, government, professional institute or charitable organisations that fund heritage projects or set standards of professionalism. If the guiding principles and suggested templates for specifying recording work are incorporated into their objectives and guidance, then the book will have hit its mark. However, local authorities and government agencies see the heritage as an easy target for cut-backs and it is not clear how the increasing importance of a Project Information Specialist within any team, as outlined in the preamble to guiding principle 4, is to be funded in the current climate. However, if you do need to consider what skills staff require in order to help your heritage organisation keep abreast of the changing options and requirements of digital recording tools, computer applications and project information, then a useful job description/person specification is provided on page 39 which I commend to you.

Overall, the publication is to be welcomed as much for providing a point-in-time review of heritage management and recording, as for identifying standards to which all those working or interested in heritage in all its diverse forms should aspire to. While the high-quality glossy format is initially attractive to the eye and hand, one is left feeling that its shelf life is limited, and perhaps resources would have been better spent creating an on-line living document and best practice guide which could be available to a much wider audience and be relevant well into the future.

Bibliography

English Heritage 2006a Understanding Historic Buildings. A Guide to Good Recording Practice. Available: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/understanding-historic-buildings/

English Heritage 2006b Management of Research Projects in the Historic Environment. The MoRPHE Project Managers' Guide. Available: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/morphe-project-managers-guide/

English Heritage, 2007 Understanding the Archaeology of Landscapes. A Guide to Good Practice. Available: http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/understanding-archaeology-of-landscapes/

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