The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 13, Number 7
Nov 1989

1988-89 was a Big Year for the Commission

When anybody in library preservation says "The Commission" nowadays, you know they mean the Commission on Preservation and Access, which began life in 1986 under the wing of the Council on Library Resources and became a nonprofit corporation in July 1988. Its 12 or so directors work with four advisory councils and two committees composed largely of constituents (historians, art historians, philosophers and representatives of college and research libraries). Another committee advises on matters of technology assessment. There is a six-member staff.

In the early days of its formation, some observers, including the editor of this Newsletter, were made nervous by the nascent Commission's apparent fixation on microfilm as the one and only solution to the brittle book problem, and by its initial lack of both experience and guidance in preservation matters. Although microfilm still plays a major role in its plans and activities (and must always do so), the Commission now takes a broader and better-balanced view, as indicated by its statement of objectives:

The Commission's scope has become international, as it originally intended. It is now working with the European Community and other pan-European libraries as well as the national libraries in both hemispheres, to build a common bibliographic database and find ways to coordinate international preservation efforts. It has also begun to pay attention to the needs of archives, as well as libraries.

It has even become concerned with education, an essential component in a preservation effort of any size. In October 1988 it began by convening a day-long session on "Educational Requirements for a National Preservation Program," to consider an education agenda in response to the implications of the NEH 20-year grant program. In a related set of actions, it has worked to enhance communication among persons involved in preservation, and between them and the public. It does this through publications, a mailing list on ALANET and the film "Slow Fires." Technological progress has been made, too. It is finding better, cheaper ways not only to microfilm brittle books, but to convert microfilm to more user-friendly formats; after all, access is the Commission's other middle name.

It is heartening that the Commission has rejected the unthinking assumptions that have guided the selection of materials for microfilming too often in the past, and is working with groups of scholars to identify the materials most likely to be needed in the future. It has also endorsed the principle of preserving some materials in original formats. But it has not yet learned (to judge by an August 1989 report, "Selection for Preservation of Research Library Materials") that scientific publications are worth saving:

Active investigators and teachers of science generally believe that most essential knowledge from the past is, for their purposes, adequately represented in text books, handbooks, and reference works. The earlier (and usually inaccurate or mistaken) theories, observations or inferences are discarded to the historian of science, not cherished for their current usefulness.

Could these investigators and teachers be the same ones who came to the October 1987 conference on Preservation of Scientific and Technical Literature, which the Commission cosponsored? If so, could they have been really aware of the crucial role played by the older literature in the advance of their fields? The report of this conference that appeared in the Commission's February 1988 Newsletter gave no hint that they had come to this conclusion.

Lot us hope that the Commission is making exceptions at least for the sciences of geography, paleontology, anthropology, botany, zoology, physiology and medicine, because earlier publications in those fields obviously never go out of date. (For an eloquent defense of the older biomedical literature, see Lois and Selma DeBakey's article, "Our Silent Enemy: Ashes in our Libraries," in the Bulletin of the Medical Library Association 77(3), July 1989, p. 258-268. Dr. Lois DeBakey is a Professor of Scientific Communication.)

Another disturbing statement in this same report, which presumably reflects the Commission's policy, concerns the supposed necessity of "sacrificing" a volume (cutting the back off so the pages will lie flat) in order to microfilm it:

There may be resistance, especially on the part of faculty, to a collaboration that involves sacrifice of a volume or its non-return to the shelves of the university library. While librarians nay be ready to recognize that, in order to retain scholarly content, it is reasonable to "destroy" a physical object before it self-destructs, faculty sometimes mourn or even rage. Such postures could have a distinct bearing upon selection for preservation.

The assumption that destruction is a necessary step in preservation is a peculiarly American one. The rest of the library world was aghast to hear, at the 1987 IFLA symposium on newspaper preservation, that we did this. Since then, Columbia University and at least one other library have revised their policies, and now disbind only in special cases. It does take more time to film a book if it has not been disbound, but improved cradles are available now, and apparently these libraries feel it is worth the time. (After all, the book is better than any copy that can be made from a microfilm, and more authentic as well, even if it is brittle.) If these libraries could explain to the rest of the library community why they adopted this policy, it would help to give the issue a fair hearing--and it is an issue, not a foregone conclusion. Perhaps the Commission has made an unnecessary compromise here, in view of the fact that a minimum of three million books need filming, at a cost of about $100 each. The product of those two figures is awesome.

Despite these objections regarding scientific and technical literature and the disbinding issue, the Commission is to be congratulated for offering this country the broad leadership in preservation that people have expected from the Library of Congress, but which the Library of Congress was never funded or staffed to give. In fact, no other agency or organization in the country has been free to give to the preservation effort the commitment called for by the size of the problem. Only an independent, high-level organization like this one could have done it.

The annual report and the separate reports issued since July are a pleasure to read, and give good descriptions of how large-scale preservation is being carried out in a thoughtful and innovative way by this group. They will be sent on request by Pamela Block, Commission on Preservation and Access, 1785 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Suite 313, Washington, DC 20036 (202/483-7474). The annual report is printed on permanent paper, though its cover is acidic, and the reports are on acidic paper.

1. Annual Report July 1, 1988 - June 30, 1989. 29 [7]pp.

2. Report: Selection for Preservation of Research Library Materials. Aug. 1989. 4 pp.

3. Progress Report: The International Project, by Hans Rütimann. Aug. 1989. 7 pp.

4. Report: Mass Deacidification Procedures for Libraries and Archives: State of Development and Perspectives for Implementation in the Federal Republic of Germany, by Peter Schwerdt. [Translated from the German] Sept. 1989. 10 pp. "Leimung" (sizing) has been mistakenly translated as "gluing"; "netting" should be "cross-linking"; and "Frigen" should be "freon." Contains some new information and a refreshingly different way of looking at this field.

5. Report: On the Preservation of Books and Documents in Original Form, by Barclay Ogden. Oct. 1989. 5 pp. Covers all the main points to be considered when choosing to keep, rather than to microfilm or copy, a book or other artifact.

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