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Subject: Book conservation and ethics

Book conservation and ethics

From: Robert L. DeCandido <bronxbob>
Date: Wednesday, April 13, 1994
In the hope that I'm not being suckered into an April Fool's joke I have
to admit that I found the question Bob Milevski raises about the ethics
of rebinding rare books an intriguing one, partly because he,
intentionally I think, overstates his case and because the AIC Code of
Ethics allows him to do so. Phrases in the draft Code such as "the
highest possible standards in all aspects of conservation," and "the
quality of conservation must not be compromised," encourage and
interpretation that is rigid and absolute.

I believe that any code of ethics for preservation must be expressed in
relative terms. Several of the respondents in the discussion on the
DistList in June and July of '93 (Inst. 7:4-11) also expressed this
opinion. Elizabeth Welsh (21 June) said, "Why don't we acknowledge that
decisions are constantly made on the basis of value--value of all
kinds--and try to sort out how to make participation in assessments of
value(s) fair, balanced, and as informed as possible?" Robert Espinosa,
referring specifically  to documentation but, I believe, speaking
generally, said "I think the point here is that there has to be more
emphasis, not less, on words such as 'where appropriate.' "

Philosophically I believe it is necessary frame the ethical precepts for
preservation in relative terms because despite all our hopes and desires
and in spite of all our efforts, nothing lasts forever. Simplistic
though that sounds, it is the context within which all preservation and
conservation is done. It means that all our work is compromise. There
are no absolute answers, only more or less appropriate ones.

There is also a practical reason why preservation practice cannot be
prescribed in absolute terms. An overly restrictive interpretation of
the phrase, "respect for the aesthetic, historic and physical integrity
of the object" such as the one Bob suggests, leads to complete
inactivity. There are no treatments that do not alter the original in
some respect. In a sense we cannot preserve the original absolutely
because we change it as we treat it and it is no longer the original.
That is true of all preservation. For books, and library and archival
material in general, there are other factors that must be considered.

Most books, even rare books, are not unique items. They are, to some
extent, replaceable. That degree of replaceability should, logically, be
a factor in determining the nature and extent of treatment. (See Lisa
Mibach's comments of 10 July.)

Don Etherington (2 July) makes the extremely important point that when
"dealing with books, a basic requirement is that, after treatment,
books must function satisfactorily, a requirement which may require
radical changes from the way it was originally bound." The preservation
of any other historical machine will have similar demands. You cannot
restore a car, a railroad engine or a sailing ship to functionality
without replacing parts.

Finally and most importantly, part of the cultural value of all library
and archival material is non-material--it resides not in the physical
manifestation of the object, but separately, in the meaning of the
words. Elizabeth Welsh referred to this when she remarked that at least
some aspect of the AIC Draft Code assumed "the (debatable) belief often
held by conservators that 'cultural property' is essentially the
physical matter." Even more to the point Welsh also said, "Don't we
practice conservation ultimately for bigger purposes than simply
physical preservation?" Those bigger purposes would be poorly served by
a slavish devotion to an abstract and unrealistic concept of purity.

Fortunately we do not live in the absolute, nor do we live forever. For
most of us, for most things, there is a good enough. Prelates,
preservationists and the people who write codes of ethics are not
comfortable with phrases like "good enough" and do not like to cast
their precepts in terms of "where appropriate." I suppose there is a
degree of distrust implicit in the perceived need for a code of ethics,
but certainly there is a point between unbridled license and paralyzed
inactivity where professionals exercise their judgement. Isn't that,
after all, what makes them professionals? And should not the code of
ethics for these professionals, and its interpretation, help them to
make good judgements rather than setting unachievable goals and
unattainable standards?

Robert DeCandido
Head, Shelf & Binding Prep. Office
The New York Public Library

                  Conservation DistList Instance 7:73
                 Distributed: Wednesday, April 13, 1994
                        Message Id: cdl-7-73-003
Received on Wednesday, 13 April, 1994

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