A Response to “How to Turn Young Adults Into Preservationists”

On July 1, 2010, for the PreservationNation blog , Emily Koller wrote, “The kids are all right… but they’re not becoming preservationists” and that a goal of the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, under the new leadership of Wayne Donaldson (California SHPO), is to attract young people to preservation.

Immediately, I was insulted by this opening paragraph. Young people aren’t becoming preservationists? Seriously? In my recent years of experience, historic preservation in schools was growing and preservation was reaching many more people than ever before, especially as the definition and applications of historic preservation grow. Had anyone talked to the many undergraduates and graduate students studying historic preservation? Still, I continued to read to see if the statements would be justified. It did not get any better:

Koller stated, “Historic preservation at its core is about possessing the emotional capacity to care about a place. Young people, as a whole, are not interested in preservation because we are mostly numb to the places in which we live.”

I’d bet that most people I know would be appalled to be categorized as a young person who does not have the emotional capacity to care about a place. Maybe people aren’t permanently attached to their current location, but not caring about a place until we settle down in the suburbs? That’s quite the statement. I gather that Koller is referring to people who did not start as preservationists professionally or avocationally, but then find out later in life that they love their simple ranch house and all places relating to their childhood. However, the author is unclear. Is she talking about preservationists who are young people or the general population of young people? It’s much too generalized.

Perhaps this article is qualifying preservationists by the member age brackets in the National Trust and other organizations; in that case, sure, the 25-35 bracket is probably less than the others. But, we might also be the age group with the smallest income, the largest academic loans, and those trying to figure out which organizations we truly want to join. We cannot afford to join every society or non-profit group and we often cannot afford to attend the conferences due to time and financial restraints. While I love the National Trust, as a student I always found it focused on the more experienced professionals rather than the young professionals and students. My feelings have shifted a bit since the conferences I attended in 2004 and 2005, but of course, I am older now. College students, how do you feel?

Regardless of the obscured point of the article, I find it misinformed. Perhaps the recent graduates are not infiltrating the preservation job market right now, but the preservation job market isn’t exactly abundant in this current economy. The young people, the young preservationists I know, are some of the most passionate preservationists. We have yet to be jaded as some may be with decades of experience. We have a broadened definition of historic preservation and are working to integrate preservation with other fields. Young Preservation groups can be found in most large cities (Boston, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Charleston). Our networks may not be the older networks, but we have our own and we’re trying to mingle with everyone. But as the older age brackets probably know, it’s always more fun and easiest to work with people you already know (hence, the separation of generations).

So, “How to Turn Young Adults Into Preservationists?”  The young adults are already preservationists. Of course, the field will always welcome additional preservationists. But, turning them? That sounds forced and that’s not how it goes. The better approach is finding the preservationists and allowing people to realize how preservation is already relevant to their lives. I hope that the public opinion is not the same as Koller’s blog post. Yes, it is always important to reach every age group and to keep everyone involved, harnessing the inner preservationists of those who have it. And finding the right way to connect is a necessity, which may be through mid-century architecture. But, the overall negative implications of the blog post are insulting and misinformed.

I know that I do not speak alone when I say that I became a preservationist on purpose, not by accident. I was a preservationist before I knew I was a preservationist. Historic preservation is in my soul and my being. While not everyone who works in the field has the same feelings; I’ve never had the feeling that we are losing preservationists as time progresses. Historic preservation is growing in reach and in public interest; even if it’s sometimes disguised in new terms.  Preservation will always be an uphill battle, but there are many people who willingly sign up for the challenge.