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Promoting Your Program and Meeting Funding Demands for Preservation and Security

12. Funding for PreservationThe Strengths of Our Past
Nancy E. Gwinn

Cultural institutions of all kinds—whether libraries, archives, museums, or organizations interested in preserving historic houses—take seriously their roles as preservers and protectors of our cultural heritage. Those of us who work professionally in these organizations find ourselves coping with an innate conflict: the desire to protect at odds with the desire to share with others what we are protecting.

This was brought home to me recently when I read a wonderful novel by a young writer, Elizabeth McCracken, whose narrator and protagonist Peggy Cort is a public librarian. What Peggy Cort muses about rings true, at least to this librarian, especially when she says, "There is nothing I can't make into a library in my brain, no objects I don't imagine borrowing or lending out. Not out of generosity—I am a librarian, and protective—but out of a sense of strange, careful justice. Part of me believes that all material things belong to all people." [1]

Although my own experience is definitely library based, since 1984 I have practiced my profession in the middle of the largest museum complex in the world: the Smithsonian Institution. My discussion is based on this experience.

First, let us take a brief look at the past. In the early nineteenth century about fifty years after Independence Day and after we had repelled the several attempts of the British and French to reverse our course, intellectual leaders in the United States began to promote and build our own American cultural institutions, mirroring those of Europe. First, Benjamin Franklin worked toward establishing scientific and learned societies like Philadelphia's American Philosophical Society and the Academy of Natural Sciences. Then, libraries grew to useful size at places like Harvard and Yale, the Smithsonian Institution, the Library of Congress, the New York State Library, and the public libraries of New York and Boston. Along with these, developed museums of natural history and art.

An assumption about all of these institutions was that they would be places of intellectual ferment stimulated by their making available works or collections of the past, which they had a mission to protect and keep secure for the purpose of continuing enlightenment. Notice that I do not say "preserve" or "conserve," because these are words that have come to the fore mainly in the twentieth century after scientific investigation began to expose the fact that simply securing these collections was insufficient to ensure their longevity. Indeed, collections were vulnerable to many problems, either inherent or caused by the actions of the past.

In the 1960s, William Barrow published results of tests of aging and strength of paper that indisputably revealed the problems of high acid content in nineteenth-century books. Similarly early naturalists, who wanted to preserve animal skins collected by the U.S. Exploring Expedition of the 1840s, ordered for the purpose "whiskey a corrosive sublimate, and arsenic." [2] Early filmmakers used highly flammable nitrate films. Builders proudly poured asbestos into buildings to protect them from fire. What used to be a matter of storage and security has become a preservation problem, and an expensive one, for us today not only because of the techniques required but because collections have a way of growing, and growing, and growing, even as they age, and age, and age.

What is a library or museum to do these days, particularly as we are not in an era that values preservation in and of itself, but only when connected with use? Libraries and museums are facing incredible pressures to make their collections—or perhaps I should say "content"—easily available. They must find a way to remain important, credible institutions in a digital world. They must compete successfully with the many new distractions of our modern age. All of this requires money. All of this strains budgets that may not be receiving the same level of support from traditional government sources or fund-raising mechanisms. If costs are going up and budgets are flat, it is difficult to argue the need for preservation support or to prevent budget cuts. Collections may be grouped, along with buildings, as targets for deferred maintenance. Can we wait one more year before getting the roof fixed? Can we wait one more year before deacidifying those manuscripts? As a manager faced with difficult choices, I might well look at things this way. But as someone dedicated to preservation, in I look for opportunities. And in today's environment, I think there are many.

In 2000, the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) surveyed its members to study their perceptions regarding the status of preservation programs. The eighty-seven members who responded pointed to a relatively upbeat picture, indicating some real achievements over the preceding five years. Sixty of the members reported significant or moderate change, and much of it was quite positive. For example:

  • Nine libraries reported establishment of new preservation departments or programs, having created eight new jobs for preservation librarians. Only one program had been eliminated.

  • Twenty-nine libraries reported either that their preservation budgets had grown or that funding had stabilized, and four libraries reported that they had received preservation endowments.

  • Twenty-four institutions had added a digitizing capacity to their preservation programs.

  • Twenty-two had built new or expanded facilities, usually conservation laboratories, and another fourteen had improved their environments with air-conditioning or new storage facilities.

  • Twenty institutions had increased microfilming production or quality.

Did their preservation programs meet their needs, the ARL members were asked? "Yes," said thirty respondents. "No" said another thirty, and twenty-two said, "Yes, but only in some areas." Nearly half the ARL members think they have a way to go before they feel that the appropriate balance of preservation and other programs will be met.

Where did they see their challenges? It is not surprising that lack of funding came at the top of the list, followed by the issue of how to preserve and archive digital materials—something that would not have even occurred as an issue a decade ago. And lest we feel we have taken care of the traditional problems, twenty-six members reported that the number of brittle books in their collections was growing. Others reported poor environmental controls because of aging facilities and problems with heating, venting, and air-conditioning (HVAC) systems; the difficulty of hiring and retaining quality staff, and obstacles to preserving non-book formats such as videos and sound recordings.

What will be the greatest influence on the future of preservation programs? Again, the members pointed to funding as most important, along with the growth of digital technologies, followed closely by management vision and staffing levels.

There have been gains, but these results clearly show that we must not rest on our laurels. Much of our success has grown out of infusions of funding in the 1980s from external sources, notably the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Education. Funding is still available from those sources. Living in the midst of a museum community, however, without access to federal sources for grant funds such as these, and largely unable to tap into local community foundations given our federal status, I have begun to look much harder for other sources of funds—in particular to the individual donor. I suspect that the preservation endowments that are beginning to appear, and to which I referred earlier, are coming from private sources.

An example of how investment in preservation can pay off not only in the work on collections but as a fund-raising tool is found in my own experience. When I arrived at the Smithsonian in 1984, I was fresh from several years at the Research Libraries Group, focusing on helping institutions establish and fund microfilming programs. I discovered that the Smithsonian Libraries had two preservation units: a commercial binding section and a book conservation laboratory. Although the Smithsonian is a very large institution with more than six thousand employees, the Smithsonian Libraries is a smaller unit, with about 120 staff members, a budget today approaching just $8 million, about 80 percent of which goes into personnel, and a collection of just over 1.5 million volumes. Despite a substantial special collections department, it seemed quite a luxury for an institution our size to have a book conservation laboratory. In an environment surrounded by museums that put a premium on artifact conservation, and where there were a number of other conservation laboratories, having our own was questionable. I focused my attention first on the general collections and on its preservation problems, hoping to enlarge the preservation program.

I used a standard approach. With the help of ARL, the Smithsonian Libraries undertook a year-long preservation planning program, during which we gathered considerable data about our collections and in particular about the large percentage of books that were brittle. We were prepared to catch the wave of congressional interest in brittle books as a national problem. Unfortunately we were not eligible for the funds that Congress began to appropriate to NEH in the early 1980s to fund the initiative. We were ready however, when, in our congressional appropriations hearing, the committee chairman suddenly asked out of the blue if the Smithsonian had any brittle books. Within months, we had received appropriated funds to start a brittle-books program.

Even with those funds, the amount of material we could preserve was small, compared with the need. So we looked for other sources and focused on collections unique to the Smithsonian and on preservation proposals that could be packaged and marketed to have a broad appeal. One such was our world's fair collections, about twenty-five hundred items dating from the Crystal Palace Exhibition in London in 1851 through the Panama-Pacific Exhibition in San Francisco in 1915. This proved attractive to a commercial microfilming company which microfilmed the collection and marketed it as "The Books of the Fairs." The microfilm sold well, and we received royalties. This publication project stimulated a variety of other activities, including publication of two books, an exhibition, and a symposium.

This saved me from having to siphon funds from the book conservation laboratory for what at the time I perceived to be a much greater need. And thank goodness for that. The laboratory has always done superb work. It was not until I began to actively raise funds for it, however, that I truly understood its appeal in this regard.

In short, potential donors love the lab. When the book conservation laboratory is listed as one of the options on a Smithsonian Behind-the-Scenes tour, it is always oversubscribed. Most people have no understanding of how books are constructed or how you can preserve them by taking them apart, washing and cleaning the paper, filling in holes, sewing—think of that, sewing—them back together, and creating a new binding. I found it much easier to sell the concept of preservation as a whole when we returned to the idea of the book as artifact. Having a conservator on board to show these techniques made clear more than anything else the commitment and seriousness of purpose a library has toward preservation.

The laboratory as a wonderful tour and demonstration site is only one of its values. Remember that when an annual budget is being apportioned, the first thing to be covered is personnel. When I queried several of my museum colleagues as I prepared this paper about how they budgeted for preservation, they said they did not. First, they covered the staff payroll, then they looked at what was needed for upcoming exhibitions in the museum. They had conservators on staff, and what was conserved, or stabilized, was driven by the exhibition needs, including items to be lent for exhibition elsewhere. My colleagues did not look at it as budgeting for preservation. They looked at it as a normal part of their operation.

The Smithsonian Libraries began a serious exhibition program around 1990, using a small gallery in the National Museum of American History now known also as the Kenneth J. Behring Center. I found that exhibition needs became a driver for our program as well, at least for the book conservation laboratory. In fact, I doubt if we could maintain a gallery without our own conservators, not only to restore, stabilize, or safeguard the items to be displayed, but also to create mounts, monitor light levels, and reduce risk as much as possible. But that has its benefits, because the exhibition gallery gives us visibility, creates opportunities for entertaining prospective donors, and helps raise the awareness of senior administrators and other staff to what we have in our collections. To mount a good exhibition requires funding, and when you raise money for an exhibition, you can build in a budget for conservation.

What are the lessons to be drawn from this experience? It may not be what you think, because I understand that not all libraries have the collections that require the skills of professional book conservators. First, you need to have the facts about your collection, so an investment into learning those facts, as we did with our planning program, can prepare you for walking through the door of an opportunity that is unexpected. Second, whether you are trying to convince senior managers of the importance of allocating funds to preservation, whether as a manager you are trying to defend a preservation budget, or whether you are trying to convince a donor of the worthiness of a preservation endowment, there is a powerful emotional appeal attached to the artifact, to the traditional role of libraries in preserving books and in demonstrating to a public how that is done. Museums understand the power of the original; libraries can use it as well.

At least for a couple of generations, I think we will see more and more interest in books and book preservation. If you present and package the need to donors carefully they will understand the value of preservation endowments that can then be used to cover multiple preservation needs, including microfilming, digitizing, environmental monitoring, and book restoration. Maybe in our scramble toward a digital future, we should think about, capitalize on, and market for new audiences the strengths of our past.

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  The Library of Congress >> To Preserve and Protect
   September 15, 2008
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