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What's your job? Ember Lundgren, preservation specialist

Ember Lundgren is pictured in a handout photo. (Handout)

Ember Lundgren didn't know it, but volunteering to collect bugs along the window sills at the Royal BC Museum during school paved the way for her career as a preservationist. Sure, it was grunt work. But for Lundgren, who was studying anthropology at the University of Victoria at the time, it was the best place to be on earth.

Of course, bug collecting wasn't the only thing she did. She dusted the tops of totem poles, cleaned and inspected artifacts, from China dolls to plates to horse tackle. More importantly, Lundgren began to meet people and learn about the role of conservation and archives at the museum, which eventually led to her specializing in the area of film preservation at the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York.

Now, as a preservation manager at the Royal BC Museum she's the master of keeping old, precious records like letters, journals, film and audio recordings safe to ensure we all can access those links to the past.

But times are changing. Most of us don't write hand-written letters anymore. If we do, we probably don't think to keep them. It's all e-mail or text. When we take photos, they're usually kept on a smartphone and maybe uploaded later to Instagram or Flickr; or they're stored on a soon-to-be obsolete hard drive. What will these letters and pictures look like hundreds of years from now? It's Lundgren's job to start trying to figure that out.

Are we the last generation that will ever read an actual letter? If so, what does it mean for you?

I'd like to think we are not the last generation to read and write letters in the traditional way. Right now most archives are in transition. Traditionally, we have physical items we're caring for. Now, we're faced with a time when we're not getting those physical, tangible things anymore. They are born digital. If you want to find something in a hundred years, what I do today is important.

Born digital?

Say it's a digital photograph. They would be in TIFF format or JPEG. Basically it's a bunch of 0s and 1s. What you need to do is you maintain that, but you also create a new copy that is open source, that's readable as your archival copy. From that archival copy you can make other copies for people.

What are you doing with current archives?

Where migration is most important is with magnetic media, or video and audio formats. Unlike paper, they're not as stable. Moving to digital format from magnetic media is the only thing that can save those items.

Save them?

We've got our magnetic media, which suffers from - -and this is a favorite phrase among archivist -- inherent vice. That means it is made of chemicals and they degrade, which means they become unplayable. Also, they become obsolete because there's no machines to play them. To extend magnetic media's roughly 30-year life span, we put it in a drier, colder climate.

Give me an example of moving something to digital?

We've started with a pilot project: A video tape of the Jack Webster talk show on the topic of pipelines. It was filmed in the 1980s. So we have to take it out of the cool facility and let it acclimatize over eight days. Then we package it very carefully and we ship it off to a specialized lab. They will then transfer it to a digital file format. A big, fat file. From the big fat file, they create a second preservation file, and we use that to make copies anyone wants.

How do you access or update digital items when the platforms keep changing?

People might want to do it from home or they can come in our reference room and use our computers. You would have access copies, read-only privileges, those kinds of things. We can't predict 100 years from now, but we have to plan five years ahead, then the next five years ahead. We keep moving forward and it will change over time.It could be an endless and expensive process of updating.

So then are archives at risk if it's too pricey?

The content of archives is at risk. It's a constant struggle and worry for people in the profession. We want these things to be available. To supply the content within any museum, anywhere in the world, often historians are telling that story using archives. We are the pieces of a greater puzzle.

 What was your first job at the museum?

My first job was to go to every floor of the museum and go along the window sills and collect any bugs I found and add them to the bug count spreadsheet. That would help the conservation people understand if there was any infestation in the building. Bugs are worst things for collections because they like to eat organic things. It's actually a very important thing and most museums do that.

How did you get into preservation work?
I've always been fascinated by old family photos. I had a family album of my great grandmother's. When I was 18, I asked if we could go to Spokane, Washington to visit her so she could identify everyone in the picture. She was in her 80s and she could identify every child from the 1917 photo of the one-room schoolhouse. And she had a story for every single one. To be able to capture that was fascinating to me.

What kind of knowledge do you need for this job?

You need to understand the issues around preserving collections so all those chemical reactions and how to care for things. You would need a degree in history or humanities or social sciences. One of the best things I ever did was volunteer in a museum. There aren't a lot of jobs in the cultural sector in museums, but volunteering is a great way to get your foot in the door.

What's the range of pay?

It's probably $40,000 to $60,000.

Is there a downside?

One of the biggest downsides is I work on all of these collections to maintain them for people in the future. When I get home I don't feel like organizing my family papers. My family records, our letters, our photo albums, parts of these things, are a mess.

Why do you love the job?

I really enjoy the photographs. I like that link to the past. If it's an oral history I like to hear the passion in people's voice. It's one thing to read a transcript, but when you can tell they are emotional it's always fascinating.

Is there anything you especially like to do?

One of the things I love to do is if I come across a diary I always look at my birthday to find out what happened on that day, whatever year. My favourite was one from 1832. It was a ship's log and they usually give the latitude and the longitude. It described the weather and it read, "Joseph Swain a native of the Sandwich Islands departed this life after a long fit of sickness." It described the bay where they rowed in to bury this man. It was fascinating to me.

*Interview has been edited and condensed
 

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