Although historic preservation is still largely defining itself as a field of study and as a profession, the debate that has ranged over several key issues has defined what historic preservation is today. All three of the subsequent debates are critical to understanding historic preservation theory and practice in the United States, and how the decisions are made that affect historic preservation work.
The first debate is how to do historic preservation, namely the idea of Restoration versus Preservation – should Historic Preservation restore old buildings, actively improving them with newer technology and better construction methods, while still invoking the past history of the building as argued by Eugène-Emmanuel Viollet-le-Duc? Or, should historic preservation preserve buildings by retaining the status quo, as favored by John Ruskin, maintaining the structure as it was found? And then where does David Lowenthal fit in, who injects the idea of collective memory and how that influences our conception of the past and history?
The second debate is why do historic preservation? Do people engage in it for purely economic reasons – as a part of urban planning and revitalization, as Nathan Weinberg and the National Trust for Historic Preservation champion? Some historians argue though that there is a greater, more loftier goal and that there is a moral prerogative in historic preservation. Historic preservation has goals other than just monetary ones namely in creating cultural identity and promoting cultural diversity as Diana Barthel points out in Historic Preservation: Collective Memory and Historical Identity. It is a way of people using history in their everyday lives, a way of democratizing history. How is collective memory and national identity affected by historic preservation?
The third debate is who does historic preservation and who should do historic preservation. Is it a solely a government function, a job for the government to preserve and protect significant historical and cultural sites important to the history of the county? Or, should it be grass-roots, by letting the people decide what they want to save or destroy. Who wins when the two forces of the government and the people collide, how do you work out the problems of actually doing historic preservation within the laws and regulations of the United States? Just because something is not eligible to be protected within the government’s regulations of historic preservation, should it still not be preserved if there are communities or groups that deem it important to save? What happens when the government doesn’t wish to save something and the people do. What are the roles of government and the people in historic preservation?