Gongol.com Archives: June 2023

Brian Gongol


June 28, 2023

News Custodians needed

Few things are as painful to watch as a community reconciling itself with the consequences of long-accrued neglect. It's usually an involuntary event, and it's almost never undertaken by anyone directly responsible for the chain of events leading up to the reckoning. And yet it is an experience not only widespread now, but also likely to be much more frequently encountered in the future. ■ Virtually everything, both in the material world and in the world of human relationships, requires some kind of ongoing periodic maintenance and upkeep. Even pieces of art on display in a museum must generally undergo periodic cleaning and restoration. Virtually anything that isn't encased in amber needs some kind of intervention from time to time to retain its value. ■ Unfortunately, we too rarely treat maintenance and custodianship as real, distinct, and teachable skills. We make lots of room to applaud people for all kinds of things that are new: Sales performance, entrepreneurship, creative design, and even fundraising. These skills garner either respect, compensation, or both. Everyone seems to want to be a founder. ■ But altogether too little applause, funding, and recognition are supplied to those who supply the effort that is necessary to keep things in good working order, whether in the physical world or the institutional one. And it shows, every time a piece of infrastructure fails catastrophically or an institution closes for lack of support. ■ Part of the problem is that there aren't very good milestones to recognize along the way. Who knows how often to celebrate a bridge that continues standing, or whom to credit? It's fun to break out a giant pair of ceremonial scissors to cut a red ribbon. But it's hardly as fun to celebrate the act of dutifully plugging along. ■ But part of the problem is a chronic lack of respect for the discipline of custodianship. In American English, "custodian" is often a euphemistic alternative for "janitor". And yet custodians of all types -- including building janitors, to be sure -- deserve to be acknowledged for the value they bring to their work, which is fundamentally about extracting the maximum life-cycle value from what has been entrusted to their care. That's the case whether we're talking about infrastructure built with public funds, the charter of a club, the goodwill of a church community, or the money in a pension fund. ■ One of the great things about American culture is that we are often far readier than our friends elsewhere to dispose of the old and replace it with the new. Some things exhaust their utility, and getting rid of abandoned buildings or converting old railroads into bicycle trails can be highly meritorious. But we shouldn't permit ourselves to be so enamored with what is new that we forget to invest prudently in keeping up what still has value.


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