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CULTURAL HERITAGE AT RISK
Today's Stewardship Challenge

2. Learning to BlushLibrarians and the Embarrassment of Experience
Werner Gundersheimer

My premise is simple. It is that although the species Homo sapiens may have evolved well beyond the ancestor or ancestors it once shared with the anthropoid apes, modern technology has succeeded at last in making monkeys of us all.

I do not come to you as a Luddite. Far from it. Personally. I find my two computers seductive, my personal organizer and voice mail indispensable, and my cell phone addictive. My friendships, business transactions, and innermost thoughts are all communicated in ones and zeroes too much of the time. A man of the new millennium, at least a bit of it, I look upon such obsolescent twentieth-century technologies as micro-photography with condescending bemusement, even while the library where I work grows increasingly dependent upon them.

Perhaps my attitudes are shared here and there in the library community. But as we all know, that community is a big tent. Whereas librarians face many common problems and embrace some similar strategies, we also have our full measure of complex and contested issues. No one—least of all someone like me, who works in a small and relatively privileged niche of our community—has a corner on wisdom when it comes to the vexing difficulties surrounding the preservation of collections. By the same token, our tent is not—nor should it allow itself to become a closed one. Good ideas may come from many quarters, even though such ideas may find expression in terms and through venues that we might not necessarily have chosen. That is why this paper begins with, and will return to, one such source—a source that many of us might not have wished to choose.

I have a hunch that nowadays there is a name calculated to strike rage, if not terror, in the hearts of senior library administrators. That name is Nicholson Baker. Pity the poor secretary who has to tell the boss that Old Nick is on the line and has just a few questions.

That thought had occurred to me in passing after reading Baker's earlier pieces in The New Yorker, those dealing with the destruction of card catalogs and the diminished emphasis on books in the new San Francisco Public Library. It came to mind again in July 2000, when I finished reading his article, "Deadline: The Author's Desperate Bid to Save America's Past." [1]

For those who may have missed this lively and engaging essay—part memoir, part polemic—the deadline of its title was imposed by the British Library, which had decided to dispose of its long runs of American newspapers as of September 30, 1999, through a public sale based on sealed bids. Among these runs were complete, well-preserved bound copies of major newspapers like the Chicago Tribune and the New York Sun no longer available in any library in the United States. Some had been specially printed on archival paper.

The article describes Baker's quest for funding to buy and store these documents to keep them out of the hands of dealers who might cut them up to sell individual issues as birthday gifts. Baker also devotes much attention to a discussion of the practice adopted by many American libraries of discarding their original runs of newspapers once microfilm copies had been acquired.

It is impossible to do justice here to the vigor and intensity of Baker's essay, driven, as it is, by an intense personal commitment to the preservation of the original artifact. But it became clear to me upon reading the piece, and then even more so in the course of several conversations with the author, that he is not a man who has some weird messianic need to serve as the conscience of the library profession. That, on balance, is a good thing, because the likelihood that he could or would serve as that conscience declines in inverse proportion to his vivid and often exaggerated criticisms of it. What Baker does tell us, though—and this is a message worth taking very seriously—is that librarians and scholars are not alone in caring deeply about the issues of preservation, security, and access.

A writer like Nicholson Baker reaches a vast and influential audience, far larger and more diverse than will ever encounter the careful, thoughtful, sober analyses of our colleagues within the field. Yet many of these very colleagues, like G. Thomas Tanselle, have been saying many of the same things for years. [2]

One may or may not like Baker's style, his self-proclaimed mission, or his acerbic and not always just assessment of the work of preservation librarians, but one must admit that he is making some points—points that we ignore at our peril. I know many scholars who are grateful to be able to consult microfilm and other surrogates for original artifacts. I, however, do not know any who could tranquilly accept the notion that it is all right to get rid of all surviving copies of the originals once an adequate surrogate has been created. Everyone understands that some books and serials, once disbound or cut up for microfilming or digitization, cannot easily be reconstituted. Few agree that those particular copies have no better use than to be discarded. Most scholars would have little difficulty accepting the notion that individual copies of embrittled works need not be retained by every institution that holds one. But it would be a rare scholar indeed who would be willing to justify the wholesale elimination of all surviving copies of an embrittled work where some of those copies remained intact.

That, I take it, was Baker's main point. He found that the British Library owned long runs of important American newspapers and that those newspapers, protected in bound volumes, were, for the most part, in very good condition. The British Library had determined, through processes of its own, that it had no ongoing need for this documentation. Further, the British Library had decreed that it was really the responsibility of American libraries to maintain this aspect of the national patrimony and that it would therefore put American newspapers on the market and sell them to the highest bidder. For my part, I have no quarrel with that position, although the manner by which the British Library implemented its policy raises serious questions for the international library community.

Although the September 1999 sale certainly was not the most collegial approach in the world to disposing of an important archive—let alone preserving it—it surely reflected the British Library's conviction that no American library was likely to come forward to acquire these imprints at anything like a fair market value. Obviously, the British Library's managers knew that for decades many of our own great research libraries had been more than willing to deaccession similar runs of newspapers, thereby gaining valuable shelf space and also, at least in theory, making the materials available to readers in more compact, easily accessible forms.

In the event, the British Library's analysis was proved correct. None of our libraries did want to acquire what may well have been the last surviving nineteenth- and early twentieth-century American newspapers in something like mint condition. Even the special editions printed on durable paper apparently held little appeal for our institutional collections. The British Library assumed that the major bidders would be dealers, and, until Nicholson Baker appeared on the scene with his and his wife's retirement funds, that was indeed the case.

Now, helped by a few relatively modest foundation grants, Baker has managed to acquire at least a portion of these endangered materials. He has re-deployed his retirement fund to rent a warehouse, install shelving, and preserve the materials in New England. Some may view this as a quixotic mission, and I do not wish to appear before you as Sancho Panza to Baker's Don Quixote. However, I am pleased both that he did what he did and that he told the world about it, because in the process he has explained what makes it worth preserving, to the extent possible, the original copies of newspapers.

The decades of newspaper production between, say, 1880 and 1915 represent a period of extraordinary creativity in typography and color lithography as well as in the development of advertising and illustration in general. For all its convenience, microfilm cannot adequately preserve that aspect of the record. Baker also discovered that in the vast commercial microfilming processes, beginning in the 1930s, there were important and damaging omissions. In some cases, entire years of major newspapers were overlooked, leaving aside completely the fact that individual editions of the same newspaper embodied interesting and perhaps significant variants that are preserved on film only in very few cases.

Baker does not dispute the argument, used by many librarians in ridding their shelves of newspapers, that these artifacts are heavy and cumbersome and difficult to use. But he finds himself in much good scholarly company in pleading that despite those difficulties, a coordinated national preservation program ought to make sure that if one or two good copies of the original can be found, they should be preserved as long as possible under the best available conditions. We all know that acidic paper deteriorates at a furious rate. But we also know that under proper conditions of temperature and humidity in closed bound volumes, and subjected to only occasional use, the life of such materials can be extended for a long time.

The difficult, expensive game of preservation is, first and foremost, a game about time. As far as I can tell, there are no absolutes in preservation. The great danger in this entire area, as I believe we have or should have learned, is to place excessive faith or trust in any technology or technique that has been developed so far. That, I would suggest, was a fundamentally erroneous, if understandably optimistic assumption of many of our predecessors in this field. A similarly misplaced confidence in digital technologies could make techno-monkeys of us all.

Microfilm, coming along as it did in the 1930s, soon took its central place as the penicillin of the library world. Suddenly, diseased materials could be photographed and renewed in sterile, compact, and pristine form, while the sick old husks were discarded. Here was a permanent cure, which, while not inexpensive, could be manufactured in great quantity and made available all over the country. It also addressed a broad spectrum of maladies common to many libraries. It extended the life of their holdings and enabled human resources to be deployed more effectively and productively.

But, as with penicillin, the wonder cure was not always properly administered, some people were allergic to it, and over time it was found to be in some ways less potent than had at first been assumed. There are no panaceas in the preserving of the body and its health. Likewise, there are none for preserving the bibliographic artifact and extending its longevity.

One case in point can perhaps stand for many others. In the Folger Shakespeare Library, as in most research libraries, we have a rather sizable collection of microfilm. In institutions like the Folger, dedicated to conserving printed books and manuscripts, essentially two categories of microfilm exist: (1) master microfilms of material owned by the Folger, and (2) microfilm accessioned from other collections over the years. The first category consists of 151,350 feet of film. Of this, 76,778 feet are acetate-based film and 74,572 feet are the newer polyester film. In 1994 we suspected that there might be problems with the older acetate film, and so we obtained test strips from the Image Permanence Institute and placed them throughout the collection. Some parts of the acetate collection were clearly affected by what has come to be known as "vinegar syndrome."

At first, Folger librarians felt an unpleasant sense of panic, but later we were pleasantly surprised to discover that the collection was not as far gone as we had feared. Vinegar syndrome, however, is exponential and infectious. Some films were severely warped, and many could not be retained as regular parts of the collection.

The acetate microfilms of Folger material, however, were not true preservation copies in the sense that we had of course retained, in good condition, the original materials that we had filmed. Although it would be nice (and perhaps most cost-effective) to preserve our original acetate films, we always have the option of making a new film, and in some instances we have done just that.

Acetate films that were in reasonably good shape have now been moved to a greatly expanded cold storage facility, which represents, however, an unanticipated cost of maintaining a microfilm collection. We are next planning to splice all acetate films of Folger materials currently stored at room temperature onto 100-foot reels. We will then make a duplicate polyester copy for public usage, discarding or replacing any films that show significant deterioration. This involves us in cost estimates, work-flow issues, and other components of a comprehensive project. Therefore, we have had to create the new position of "microfilm technician" within our Department of Photography to address some of these issues more fully.

Meanwhile, the clock is ticking. Many boxes of film in our collection emit a pungent chemical odor, signaling that slow but inevitable and irreversible process of deterioration.

Looking at the film collection as a whole—the Folger master films and the purchased films—we believe that about one-fifth of our microfilm collection may be contaminated. That means more than 100,000 feet of film. Merely identifying the scope of the problem and isolating the worst cases is a seriously labor-intensive assignment for the small staff of an independent research library.

The problem is with us like acidic paper, no better, no worse, except that our acid-paper-based holdings seem to deteriorate at a much slower rate. Now we are encouraged to believe that the newer polyester film will be our salvation, but who knows how long that will last, or what unanticipated maintenance it may in time require? Perhaps polyester will be the amoxicillin or erythromycin of the library world, losing its own potency in turn, while risking unanticipated complications.

We now stand on the cusp of an entirely new set of preservation technologies that may well bring with them an unimaginable range of unintended consequences. [3] Things, as Edward Tenner has brilliantly shown, do in fact bite back. If our great research libraries are to act responsibly with regard to preservation, they will have to assume a much more cautious stance toward the wholesale adoption of technology than they have shown in recent decades. Librarians can be justly proud of their role as perhaps the leading innovators in technology in the humanities and social sciences. For this very reason, we may also be among the first to experience the risks and perils implicit in those technologies.

The central point of Tenner's book is that we all are the victims of the unintended consequences of technological improvements. His examples range from medicine to computers and to all sorts of natural and man-made disasters, from acid rain to wood stove pollution, from the proliferation of agricultural pests to ozone depletion. It would be remarkable if libraries had been exempt from what seems to be an almost universal consequence of technological modernization. But they are not, and the issues of preservation are not limited to direct interventions such as microfilm, digitization, and deacidification.

Consider, for example, the shoddy construction practices that have come to replace far less efficient but more durable building techniques of previous generations. Nowadays, the foundation of a new library building is likely to be surrounded by an impermeable polyurethane membrane designed to keep out underground water. This replaces the much thicker and heavier construction of past eras. Strangely enough, however, the polyurethane itself deteriorates after a decade or two, thus rendering collections housed underground far more vulnerable than they would have been in another time. Similarly. fashionable architects often believe that the most elegant way to create light in a reading room is through the use of skylights. Yet the flashings and protective coatings now placed around skylights rarely last as long as the roofing materials used during periods when construction tended to be sturdier. Leaks may, and often do, ensue.

Some new technologies come with unintended consequences far beyond preservation of library materials. In the 1970s and 1980s, many libraries installed fire-protection systems using halon gas. Only later was it recognized that halon was one of the principal culprits in the destruction of the planet's ozone layer. The use of halon has since been banned, and its production has stopped, thus involving many libraries in expensive retrofitting of new fire-protection systems.

It is pointless to lament these changes, and few, if any, of us would wish to go back to an era of dusty, poorly ventilated fire traps and thumb-darkened catalog cards in creaky steel boxes. But not everything from the past is passe. First and foremost among the survivors that retain a certain currency are the original artifacts whose lives librarians have a special responsibility to prolong.

I shall never forget my first conversations with the leadership of the newly established Office of Preservation at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). A relative newcomer to the library world, I was delighted to learn that the Endowment had decided to devote resources to preserving endangered materials. I proposed a grant for treating a number of fragile and irreplaceable objects in the Folger's collection, but the reply was instantaneous. "It's not our mission," I was told, "to engage in conservation of individual artifacts. We're only interested in photographing large series of embrittled materials." Although I do not know where the NEH stands on this issue at the moment, I am happy to see that the pendulum seems to be swinging just a bit toward a more balanced approach in the rest of the library community.

In Jutta Reed-Scott's excellent report, Preserving Research Collections: A Collaboration between Librarians and Scholars, there is a keen awareness of the need for a much more balanced approach to the treatment of books and manuscripts. [4] Reed-Scott's analysis reveals the implications of what most of us have suspected, that society is providing fewer and fewer resources to deal with a bigger and bigger problem. External funding and support of preservation have been declining steadily, while the capital costs of ramping up to new technologies continue to escalate within library budgets. Even if this were to change fairly dramatically, the agenda for most libraries would remain daunting. As Deanna Marcum wrote in the New York Times in 1998, "We can't save everything." But how is the triage to be effected, and who is to do it?

Too often, decisions about what is to be kept, preserved, or discarded are made at a questionable level in terms of where the expertise lies within library staffs, often without advice from other interested parties. The recent decision by the British Library to create more shelf space by eliminating 80,000 book titles seems to be a classic example, for these titles were culled by a few very junior librarians. It requires no great stretch of the imagination to suspect that useful or even important things may have gone out the doors forever in that process.

As long as we have a critical problem of resources—and there seems to be no likelihood that this crisis will end any time soon—there remains a need for a very cautious approach to the disposition of print materials subject to deterioration. The beginning of wisdom is the recognition that all materials, not just print materials, will deteriorate eventually or could be endangered in some other way. To our collective embarrassment—we may, like many other professional cultures, have to learn to blush—print may well turn out to be the most stable of the technologies available to us. In any case, even though microfilm and digital preservation are critical to the future of the scholarly community, we need to find a way of recognizing and coming to terms with our past mistakes.

Among the benefits of modern technology is the possibility of creating an interactive database that would enable us to identify and store at least a few copies of every available printed work in the original, somewhere or other. Such a move would only begin, of course, to satisfy a critic like Thomas Tanselle, who insists that virtually every copy has something unique about it, and that nothing should be destroyed. But it would at least enable us to go to an original for additional surrogates if and when they were needed. Such a collaborative enterprise would be a fail-safe approach to what has been perhaps too headlong a leap into innovation.

To advocate this level of artifactual preservation is not necessarily to agree with Baker's assertion that the failure to do this in the case of some American newspapers has been a catastrophic mistake. But it does seem clear that our predecessors did not get it quite right. Our generation, too, and those to follow, will continue to make mistakes, for librarians are human. As such, we should be ready to blush, acknowledge error when it occurs, and move on. If we can retain a healthy skepticism about the efficacy of any given technology despite the great bandwagon effect of its commercial and institutional advocates, we stand a better chance of transmitting to those who will wish to claim it in the future the rich heritage entrusted to us.



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   September 15, 2008
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