The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 14, Number 5
Aug 1990

Statement on Conservation

by Marcus A. McCorison
President and Librarian, American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts.

Made to the Commission on Preservation and Access in October 1989.

It has been argued by some scholars that all printed matter is worthy of physical preservation. That is not our purpose here. However, it is our conviction that in devising a National Preservation Policy, under which Federal and private funding agencies are persuaded to grant funds for the preservation of our intellectual heritage in printed form, it must be recognized (and funding recommended) that selected printed objects be preserved in their original state.

The joint statement to the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) on preservation from the American Antiquarian Society and the Bibliographical Society of America, both constituent members, noted that "one must be grateful for the attention that has been given to the preservation of texts. But in many discussions of 'information preservation' little, if any, attention is given to the importance of physical evidence for the understanding of our written heritage... [because of the] misconception that the physical form and the intellectual content of artifacts containing verbal works are easily separable.' In fact the physical artifact, which is clearly important for those studying printing and publishing history or the history of the dissemination of texts, often must be preserved because it cannot be predicted when the presence of physical evidence will be required to determine of what the text actually consists. Furthermore, in many cases a reproduction may mask the actual text and the facsimile can never reveal the physical evidence inherent in the original object.

Large national projects to replicate texts have enhanced access to texts of rare materials, but it is indisputable that important evidence pertaining -to the copied object is destroyed in the process. It can be argued that printed matter is common, thus we need not worry about the mass destruction of entire generations of documents. But the object itself consists of cultural evidence, exhibiting as much about the traditions of the period and place in which it was produced, and, in some instances, the object is of greater moment than its contents. ACLS President Stanley N. Katz, in his recent "Summary Report an Preservation Initiatives among ACLS Societies," wrote, "The preservation issue this lies at the heart of professional scholarly endeavor. 'Access to our past is indispensable to our future...' Only if words and artifacts of our predecessors can be preserved, will we have that access." So, the preservation of the original format as well as the contents of research collections goes far beyond the mere preference by readers for hard copy over microforms.

To cite an example from the experience at the American Antiquarian Society: Cathy Davidson, Professor of English at Duke University, spent the summer of 1984 at the Society working on her book Revolution and the Word: The Rise of the Novel in America (Oxford, 1986). In a lecture delivered in 1986 she began with the following reminiscence:

One summer day in 1984, while a Peterson Fellow at the American Antiquarian Society, I called for all copies of all editions of Arnica's first best-selling novel, Susanna Haswell Rawson's Charlotte, a Tale of Truth (1791), more commonly known as Charlotte Temple. Although this is not the kind of request that endears one to all librarians, the AAS staff kindly obliged me and brought down the volumes arranged in impeccable chronological order on two book carts. Immediately, some of the other fellows of that summer joined me around the carts, and together we surveyed literally dozens and dozens of Charlotte Temples, each one different, each one embodying/reflecting/creating its own history of the book in American culture. For even a quick glance at the assembled volumes affirmed that Charlotte looked different, was different, depending upon the dress--the covers and bindings she wore. The calf bound duodecimo destined for the circulating library, the child's size 'toy book' bound for the nursery, the gilt-edged 'gift book' designed for ostentatious display in the middle-class sitting room, the ten cent 'story paper' marketed for the factory girl, and the contemporary paperback with the scholarly apparatus that signified a university text: each version of Charlotte's story contained its own story about authorship, readership, and publishing in America.

Moreover, the longer I studied the books before me-large and small, ornate and plain, the more I became convinced that what I saw was not just a history of a novel but a history of the novel as a genre. Concretized by the volumes on the book carts was a new kind of literary history, one that acknowledges that novels are not just texts (as a semiotician might say), not just variant forms of a text (as a bibliographer would use the term), not just plots, characters, metaphors, and images (as the New Critic could point out), not just the changing book morphology (as would interest the bibliophile), and not just the evolving publishing practices (which should intrigue the historian). On the contrary, the history of the book--and, in this case, the history of the novel--entails a combination of all of these diverse elements and requires dialogue disciplines that do not always speak the same language.

In fact, many of the books she looked at are available on the American Antiquarian Society/Readex Microprint Corporation series of "Early American Imprints" -- the major microform series that AAS directed for over twenty-five years. Because of the Society's commitment this series has made it possible for scholars all over the world to specialize in early American history, but microcard or microfiche have serious limitations, as exemplified by Professor Davidson's experience.

Another example from the experience of the Society is that of a researcher working on manuscripts of the eighteenth-century black poet Phillis Wheatley. He found that two of the poems had, years ago, been so badly mended that the handwriting was not clearly legible. The curator sent the manuscripts to the conservation department where they were re-mended. Upon studying the newly-conserved poem, the researcher realized that one of the words in the manuscript version was different from all the published transcriptions, a difference that materially affected the meaning of the poem. (See footnote 4 in William H. Robinson, Phillis Wheatley and Her Writings, 1984.)

Serious problem also occur for scholars using microform copies of early books. All evidence of binding and stitching is destroyed, and so may be the original order of the book. Many 17th-century books are not paginated and some may not be signed, making it difficult to know with certainty if an unusual ordering of the preface, introduction, address to the reader, etc., is inherent in the original, or if the arrangement in the facsimile was due to mistakes that occurred during the copying process. Also, it may be difficult or impossible to know the size of the original from the film or fiche. Again, as an example from 17th-century English books, size often denotes intended use or readership. A small book was intended for private or devotional use while a large format of the same text was intended for more public or scholarly use. Other problems with microform include the inability to determine if portions of the text in hand-printed books have been canceled during printing, a not uncommon practice, and replaced by leaves (cancellans) tipped to the stubs of the original leaves. Such substitutions cannot be detected from microforms and they are essential in determining the development of the text as well as the process of the printing and publication of the book.

In microform (or in other facsimiles), difficulties often exist with illegible impressions due to poor inking, damaged paper, and the like. Even today, not all books and newspapers are uniformly printed in clear type. What a scholar can barely discern in the original is often totally obscured in microform. Furthermore, the quality of illustrations in microform frequently is unsatisfactory for scholarly purposes.

To state the obvious, some books, or other form of printing, as well as books appearing in exceptional bindings, are works of art. Those bibliographical works of art merit preservation just as does a painting or sculpture.

It is undeniable that reproduction of texts by photographic or other means is a vital element in a national preservation program. However, it is equally undeniable that selected books and other printed matter must be preserved in the original for scholarly and/or esthetic reasons. Reproductions cannot retain all evidence of the original text or of the form in which the text originally appeared. Further, the original form of the presentation of print is itself a cultural object and has scholarly merit " value in its own right. Thus, any National Preservation Policy must take such value into consideration and funding agencies must be aware of the limitations of the mere reproduction of texts. When program are designed under auspices of national preservation projects and grants are requested to fund those program , the retention and preservation of selected copies of the original objects that carried those texts must be made part of the program. Furthermore, some libraries within the national infrastructure that supports scholarship and learning must take the responsibility, be recognized, and be rewarded as being "libraries of record," part of whose essential function is to preserve both the texts and the objects that make up an indivisible portion of our culture and intellectual heritage.

Post Scriptum, July 1990

Through the efforts of a number of museums affiliated with The National Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Property (3229 K Street, NW, Suite 403, Washington, DC 20007), Lawrence L. Reger, President, the Office of Preservation of the National Endowment for the Humanities has established a program to facilitate the preservation of cultural objects. The program officer is Vanessa Piala. Unfortunately, literary objects do not yet fall within the purview of this program; thus, presentations of the points of view described above and sent to Lynne V. Cheney and George F. Farr of NEH may prove useful in convincing NEH administrators of the necessity of preserving books and manuscripts as crucial elements of the nation's cultural heritage.

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