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Subject: MLA statement on significance of original materials

MLA statement on significance of original materials

From: Randy Silverman <rsilverm>
Date: Tuesday, November 8, 1994
The "Statement on the Significance of Original Materials" by the Modern
Language Association's Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of the Print
Record is a strong message to the library community that material
required for research is being lost.  In his comment on the "Statement,"
Peter Graham acknowledges that, "the importance of artifactual evidence
is valuable and needs to be more broadly understood within the library
community."  I do not think, however, that the bulk of Peter's message
gives sufficient credence to the complaint voiced by the Committee
chaired by Thomas Tanselle, inferring that the costs and practical
realities involved in solving this dilemma outweigh the problem.  If you
will bear with my long-winded response for a moment, I would like to
suggest that the MLA's "Statement" is not without precedence.

In 1988, the Commission on Preservation and Access "convened a seminar
on the preservation of scholarly resources for art history" that
attempted to answer the problem of preserving historical art texts given
"three unanimously accepted assumptions: 1) scholarship in art history
is dependent upon images; 2) the current preservation process of
high-contrast black-and-white microfilm is not satisfactory for the
reproduction of half-tone and continuous tone images; and 3) the
preservation process must result in enhanced access to the scholarly

The short-term strategies arising from this seminar included:
concentrating on microfilming only materials illustrated with line
drawings, while delaying any preservation action on color, half-tone and
continuous tone images until more research could be done on color
microfilming and digital reformatting technologies (Scholarly Resources
in Art History: Issues in Preservation. Washington, DC: Commission on
Preservation and Access, 1989).

For those who have never seen it, this report included a wonderful piece
by Deirdre Stam entitled "Art Historians and Their Use of Illustrated
Texts" that provided great detail about the methodology of art
historians and demonstrated how, within that discipline, the physical
book is in fact viewed as evidence.  Ms Stam concluded, preservation of
intellectual content alone is simply inadequate. In other words, the
preservation community cannot successfully achieve its goals if we
insist on producing surrogates of deteriorated texts for scholars who
*need* the original to carry out their work.

Book repair (or collections conservation, if you must), coupled with
mass deacidification when appropriate, though not addressed in the MLA's
"Statement," may provide an alternative and viable option for achieving
the requirements of some of our constituents.  Peter certainly speaks
for many of us when he says preservation operates in the "face of
widespread administrative indifference and [with a] lack of serious
funding," but I wonder if he sees the opportunity Mr. Tanselle has
offered us with his Committee's "Statement?" Politically, the clout of
the scholarly community--including the MLA, art historians,
bibliographical scholars and others--can help redefine our direction if
it needs adjusting, and substantiate our claims for larger book repair
staff, adequate training opportunities for para-professionals, and
adequate tools and materials to appropriately repair our library's
holdings.  I think that advocates for the appropriate retention of
original bibliographical format should be embraced as the allies of book

Of course, the question about what to retain looms large, and guidelines
are needed.  But in the meantime, let's not be discouraged by taking on
impossible tasks (the field's raison d'etat), nor define our work within
the limits of reality as it relatively exists.  We must reassess our
goals in the light of this external feedback if we are to save what
actually needs to be saved of our material culture, and in its most
appropriate form.  I support Peter in his efforts to engender discussion
on this important topic, and sincerely hope the process will serve to
strengthen the MLA's "Statement."

Randy Silverman
University of Utah

                  Conservation DistList Instance 8:36
                Distributed: Thursday, November 10, 1994
                        Message Id: cdl-8-36-003
Received on Tuesday, 8 November, 1994

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