CULTURAL HERITAGE AT RISK
Today's Stewardship Challenge
2. Learning to Blush • Librarians and the Embarrassment of Experience
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
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 oneleast of all someone like me, who works in a small
and relatively privileged niche of our communityhas a corner on wisdom
when it comes to the vexing difficulties surrounding the preservation of
collections. By the same token, our tent is notnor 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 sourcea 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." 
For those who may have missed this lively and
engaging essaypart memoir, part polemicthe 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
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
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, thoughand this is a message worth taking very
seriouslyis 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
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 pointspoints 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
archivelet alone preserving itit 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 wholethe
Folger master films and the purchased filmswe 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
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.  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
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
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
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.  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
resourcesand there seems to be no likelihood that this crisis will
end any time soonthere 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 embarrassmentwe may, like many
other professional cultures, have to learn to blushprint 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
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.