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Subject: MLA statement on significance of original materials

MLA statement on significance of original materials

From: Peter Graham <psgraham>
Date: Monday, November 7, 1994
Thanks to Alice Schreyer for distributing this to us.  I hope it has
also gone to the appropriate preservation DistLists.   This is an
important statement by an important scholarly group and I believe needs
to be responded to by the research library community.  I am discussing
it here on this list before sending comments to the Committee Chair, as
requested, so that I can benefit from others' comments (and, quite
possibly, corrections).

The Statement's clear emphasis on the importance of artifactual evidence
is valuable and needs to be more broadly understood within the library
community, which admittedly occasionally conflates "information" with
"text" and insufficiently recognizes the physical context.   The
Statement is also valuable in that it engages a major scholarly
association with a major library issue, bringing issues of importance to
both communities and beginning a necessary and desirable dialogue.

However I do not believe the Statement is as helpful to the scholarly
community as it wishes to be or thinks it is, and it is certainly not
entirely helpful to the library community which is trying to do what it
can to preserve scholarly materials in the face of widespread
administrative indifference and lack of serious funding.

The committee is chaired by Tom Tanselle and I think reflects many of
his views, which are well known and well articulated:  all print objects
must be saved, the preservation copy (whether film or digitized) cannot
be as useful as the original, and costs are simply not part of the
equation.  I have very great respect for Tanselle, and have been glad
that he has been representing this view (e.g. in his Malkin lecture a
few years ago, but certainly elsewhere); without it (and him) too facile
assumptions might too often be made.  However I think it is incorrect
and unfortunate for his no-concession view to be taken as policy by a
major scholarly organization.  I would much rather his views were to be
noted and validated, but within a context that recognizes that in this
area, as in every other scholarly area, compromises must be made.

There are a number of faulty assumptions and even incorrect statements
in the present draft.  I hope the preservation community (and the
research library community, using their preservation people) will also
respond to them.  Let me mention a couple and then note the Statement's
most important lack:

1.  The statement takes no account of the difference between the
    hand-press and the machine-press period.  One can theoretically
    agree that "every copy is a potential source for new physical
    evidence," but in practice it is easy to see that very little is to
    be gained from multiple copies of an Avon (or even a Tauchnitz)
    paperback when compared with an Elizabethan quarto.  This has
    consequences for what we in libraries should do.

2.  The statement conflates several ideas of "original" in confusing
    ways.  In recommendation 1b, the means for retaining originals of
    two kinds are noted:  first, those that have been filmed or
    digitized (the statement apparently infers destructive modes, which
    are not always the case), and second, "printed reference books that
    have been replaced by electronic revisions."  The latter case is
    typically dealt with by present collection policies and I suspect is
    not a problem--BIP or ChemAbstracts will be kept by libraries, as
    will STC after the ESTC project is completed.  In any case it is
    quite a different problem from that of preservation techniques, and
    is not clearly described.

3.  Recommendation 2c calls for both page-image and text transcription
    of electronic texts.  Even leaving aside issues of cost (see below)
    the statement does not mention any of the markup languages for
    transcribed texts, such as the Text Encoding Initiative, which have
    been maturing for several years and are supported by a broad base of
    textual scholars in the humanities.  Such scholars view with dismay
    the attempts to provide texts in unmarked, unre-useable forms (e.g.
    Project Gutenberg).  The absence of comment on markup in the
    Statement damages its credibility and its sense of realism.

4.  That the "democracy of access to texts on paper will not soon (if
    ever) be equaled by the availability of electronic texts" is I think
    arguable even from what we know today.  I have no disagreement with
    the care taken by special collections repositories to insure that
    First Folios are not handled daily by undergraduates, but neither do
    I make any claim for democracy of access, except perhaps among the
    larger freemasonry of qualified scholars.  However (as the Statement
    helpfully notes) a digitized Folio could be easily available to
    millions even today.

    The paragraph on this topic is marked by cant where instead a more
    careful discussion of a very complex set of issues is warranted. For
    example, the paragraph seems to say that the reading experience in
    libraries is under threat and "may disappear with the
    decentralization of electronic access to texts."  Without noting
    that new forms of reading experience are now bound to occur (cf.
    among many others Richard A. Lanham, *The Electronic Word*), the
    Statement seems to advocate a very static conception of the history
    of reading that it elsewhere promotes as important.

5.  The generalized statement that reproductions are inferior to
    originals does not take into account the growing number of occasions
    where the digitized (and network-accessible) version of texts is
    superior to what can be seen by the naked eye (e.g. Dead Sea
    Scrolls, Peirce manuscripts and Edison papers; I believe there are
    print cases as well).

_Cost_ (the most important issue of all those I note):  the Statement
nowhere addresses the cost, whether financial or social, of what it
recommends.  It would be unreasonable to ask such a statement to be
specific in dollar terms.  What it should do is recognize that libraries
and other scholarly agencies, including the MLA and its members in their
home institutions, are underfunded in every respect that matters to
scholarship, and that choices have to be made every day.  We cannot do
all that we desire.

Perhaps the most important cost that the Statement should address is
opportunity cost.  If libraries (the only preservation agencies
presently at work on this issue) are to do what the Statement
recommends, where are the funds to come from or, alternatively, what
should the libraries _not_ do in order to fund what the Statement

I can understand the committee taking the broad view that funding of
libraries is not their problem.  I think it would be an incorrect

*(Libraries try to be partners in scholarship with the scholars
represented by this committee, and by and large go out of their way to
find the right services to provide.  In fact at research institutions
the libraries that are most successful have made alliances with faculty
to assure that they are moving in the right direction and to get help in
gaining funding from the administration.  On such campuses (i.e. where
the libraries are most successful) the scholars are often most
successful as well, because of the quality of the library.)

Libraries have been more seriously underfunded every year for the past
decade or so.  In spite of that, they (we) have been undertaking
significant preservation programs to retrieve some portion of the
decaying materials we hold.  The Commission on Preservation and Access
has been helpful in gaining federal funding.  NEH has been helpful.  The
fact remains that with current funding only a small portion of the
acid-paper-period books will be preserved using available and
foreseeable techniques.

The blunt fact is:  for every book we spend more money on to preserve,
the fewer other books we will preserve.  This fact needs to be stared in
the face at the same time that the fact is noted that every artifact is
important.  Given that we can't do it all, _what_is_more_important_?  I
hope the Committee addresses this problem in its revised version so that
it can give even more helpful advice to those who are trying to preserve
their scholarship.

Peter Graham
Rutgers University Libraries
169 College Ave.,
New Brunswick, NJ 08903
Fax: 908-445-5888

                  Conservation DistList Instance 8:34
                 Distributed: Monday, November 7, 1994
                        Message Id: cdl-8-34-006
Received on Monday, 7 November, 1994

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