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Subject: Book conservation and ethics

Book conservation and ethics

From: Pete Jermann <pjermann>
Date: Friday, April 15, 1994
Robert Milevski writes:

>2.  One of the posters from July's DistList suggested that book repair
>and collection maintenance have nothing to do with "conservation."
>Primarily because book repair and collection maintenance don't consider
>conservation of the object but rather the extended usability of the
>format in which the text or information is conveyed--the book/codex form
>in this case.  Following this point of view, artifactual value and
>physical evidence have lower importance than the mandate to place the
>book back in service as soon as possible.  This goes contrary to the
>treatment of other collections of materials in other cultural
>institutions as well as against any real or implied AIC code of ethics
>or standards of practice.  Any comments here?

Cultural institutions cannot be considered as a single group when
considering collection treatments.  The term cultural institutions is
quite diverse, ranging from museums to theaters to archives to academic
institutions to libraries.   Each perpetuates culture in its own way
with its own means used to achieve its own goals.  Frequently, the
conservation profession seems to have fused into one the goals and means
of libraries and museums. A library collection, however, is not a museum
collection.  Library collections and museum collections are formed for
different reasons, serve different purposes, and require different
maintenance skills.  Museums store and display artifacts primarily for
display. Libraries are repositories of primarily textual information.
This information is embodied in books, films, or whatever. These objects
will be intimately handled by a library's patrons.

Libraries are usually formed to serve a particular public in a
particular way.  In most cases, libraries acquire books for the
information imparted by an author through the text and illustrations
within.  Acquisitions decisions are generally made without regard to a
book's binding (except for the paperback or hardbound decision), its
typography or the craftmanship of its layout.  The review tools for
selecting books for a library's collection seldom consider a book's
physical characteristics.

The purpose of a library preservation program should be to support that
library's collection development goals and priorities rather then
idealistically (and unrealistically) claim the higher authority of
cultural preservation.  Frequently, this means asserting the primacy of
text over artifact whether it be through, repair, recasing, photocopying,
microfilming or digitization.  This, however, does not mean the demise of
culture nor even the demise of the book arts.  Libraries preserve the
culture of the text (not the typography) and the printed image not the
artifact of the book.  Museum's preserve a society's artifacts and there
is no reason that books should not be included in their domain.

Confusing the goals and means of a library with that of museum can
create inefficiencies that are potentially dangerous to both the
perpetuation of an author's text and the book arts.  Preserving a book as
artifact frequently requires more time and resources than preserving the
information contained within.  Assuming that resources will always be less
than adequate (I think this is a fair assumption), our quest to preserve
artifacts will ultimately come at the cost of other books, complete with
text, not saved.  On a short term basis, the extra time and resources
required for preserving the book as artifact may even deprive a patron of
its use, a patron who will be just as pleased (if not more so) with a new
cover as a torn and tattered original cover.

Viewing a library as a collection of artifacts is also a poor and
inefficient way to store an artifactual history of the book.  Just as no
museum will save every last toaster ever produced, nor even a single model
of every unique toaster, there is little reason to save every book as an
artifact.  Most books, particularly since the advent of mass production in
the nineteenth century, are generic in nature.  The history of the book
arts can be saved with a sampling of books representing bindings,
typography and general design.  This sampling can be thorough and yet only
a miniscule percentage of the books that exist on a library's shelves.
Said sampling can be supported with a library collection (as museums are
wont to have) of books whose texts lend understanding to the artifacts.
A museum approach to preserving the book arts will also greatly increase
the research efficiency of future bibliophiles (who represent an
an extremely small part of the academic world but do seem to have a
particularly high concentration in the conservation profession).

That said, libraries, particularly research libraries with special
collections, can and do serve dual roles as both museum and library.
Before mass production, all books are unique and cry out for artifactual
care which they should receive.  These books are relatively few and are
usually segregated into special collections where the museum function
assumes primacy over the library function.  This is not meant to relegate
the general collections to items devoid of artifactual value but to assert
the primacy of the textual content in these collections.  Where the
original trappings of the artifact can be maintained with efficiency
comparable to other repairs this should be done.  We should also recognize
that with some books, particularly children's books, cover and text are
integral and their preservation justifies greater effort than other more
generic books.

I would certainly be interested in other peoples thoughts on this issue
and would encourage them to submit them to the distlist.

Pete Jermann
Preservation Officer
Friedsam Memorial Library
St. Bonaventure University
St. Bonaventure, NY 14778

                  Conservation DistList Instance 7:74
                  Distributed: Friday, April 15, 1994
                        Message Id: cdl-7-74-003
Received on Friday, 15 April, 1994

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