As a follow-up to Preservation Week—an effort among libraries each spring to inspire actions to preserve personal, family, and community collections of all kinds as well as library, museum, and archive collections—we asked WU Libraries’ own Anthony De Marinis, librarian supervisor for the Preservation unit, to share his thoughts on the topic.
Why do you think the topic of preservation is of such broad interest—and also perhaps an overwhelming subject for the average person?
It seems everyone would have an interest in preserving what is valuable to them, and this is also the case for institutions and libraries. And of course with near-ubiquitous digital content entering into so many aspects of our lives, there is a real and widespread interest in how it will be preserved over time, as well as the more analog-based collections that we value. But there is also perhaps a reaction to the sense of scale involved, such as how to navigate all the information available or manage all the content one has accumulated. You may suddenly realize you have several thousand digital photos and are unsure what to save and how, or where to find the time. At the same time, there are opportunities to make informed choices and take practical steps to preserve something.
And while it may seem an overwhelming subject, especially for research libraries, there is also an overwhelming need. In the case of an institution like ours, we have to have a plan in place addressing general and specific needs, identify the kind of objects to be preserved, and target our efforts accordingly. For instance, one type of preservation may be needed for an item in a special or distinctive collection, another type for a damaged item identified after circulating, and another approach for a book or journal when a digital copy will do, or when a whole collection could be managed as part of a wider network. And the sense of urgency can be different for different items or collections.
The guide you and your team created in commemoration of Preservation Week notes that the most important aspect of a preservation effort is taking the first step. In what ways is that first step so crucial?
Well, maybe it’s a question of knowing where to begin, and not beginning on step two—which could involve trying to do something without really knowing what or why. Sometimes it is a matter of first deciding what one wants to preserve and then becoming more informed, and then the answer may not be as difficult as imagined. For a small collection of books, for instance, learning about the importance of the right environmental conditions can lead to moving them out of a warm attic or damp basement. This is a very practical first step that may lead to further phases. The guide we have put together is a good starting point.
I noticed several staggering figures from the American Library Association, about the millions and even billions of library materials at risk—either because they require immediate care or because there is no plan in place to protect or salvage them in the case of an emergency. As supervisor of the preservation unit here at WU Libraries, does the vast need for more preservation and care of materials throughout the world weigh heavily on your mind? How does that larger picture impact your approach here?
I deal mostly with book preservation. There are other kinds of preservation going on in the Libraries—audio-visual, film, digital libraries, for example. But I think everyone is facing similar issues, and these figures you mention, if nothing else, are a real wake-up call. As you indicate, collecting institutions need ongoing collections care and good emergency plans, and in many cases these do not exist. There is a growing need for more trained staff, for more worked-out, intelligent, usable disaster plans, and more conservation treatments and proper storage conditions.
But maybe where there is great risk there are also new possibilities. The brittle-book crisis led to more preservation awareness in libraries and more of an infrastructure to deal with the problem. HathiTrust, for instance, is a partnership of major research institutions which in essence makes some material turning brittle in the stacks available on computers that can be delivered to many places simultaneously. And as Jacob Nadal, executive director of ReCAP, recently pointed out, digital preservation efforts for general collections have had a long collaborative tradition. There are also cooperative print preservation programs in place.
When confronted by such statistics, it’s important to both start where we are and act as responsibly and strategically as possible. Keeping in mind the great sense of urgency, we also need to take advantage, for instance, of changes in technology. In addition, we need to think in new ways about what a collection is and how it is managed—as well as be a place where cost-effective, in-house treatments are performed to preserve individual items at-risk. Most importantly, starting where we are includes preserving items that are unique to our institution, especially in special collections. Many such analog items will only become more precious over time.
What do you find most engaging about the work you do?
Maybe it is the experience of being in between the old—the more traditional—and the new. We can be open to changes going on in the libraries, I think, without losing a sense of what is traditionally valuable or respect for older ways of doing and preserving. The various conservation techniques—the art and the craft of them—and having a place where a new item going to the shelf can be processed if needed, remain important. I have worked with hand book-binding, and so I love that aspect. I don’t get to practice that much these days as a kind of middle-manager, but I’m around such hands-on techniques in the unit and find them engaging. At the same time, I love the whole intellectual aspect of the larger picture—how to manage a preservation program, how to make if effective. And time is important too: to learn what is important to preserve now and what can be planned for over time.
An exhibit commemorating Preservation Week is on display in Olin Library through Friday, May 16. WU Libraries have also put together several short animations about various aspects of collections care. For more information on this topic, contact the Preservation unit at 314-935-4287.