Save That Book!

Jonathan Spence, November 2004

After I had talked with an archivist, a curator, and a teacher of public history, I realized that I had not given any attention so far to the specialists in keeping library collections alive. When I began graduate history study back in 1959, "preservation" was a word that came up rarely: for example, when one handed in a little paper slip with one’s name and the book’s call number on it—information garnered from a simple card placed alphabetically in little wooden drawers with lots of other cards—the checkout person might look at one thoughtfully and murmur "in preservation." To the student, that was something of a tocsin of alarm, hinting at the possibility of not being able to see that particular source. "Preservation" was a dark room in the library basement, where the sun never entered, and tattered, spineless books, hemorrhaging shredded pages, waited in silent piles for the succor that seemed never to come. But the books, however parlous their condition, were carefully arranged in their ward by call number. Thus one could swiftly find the volume one was seeking—there were not so many being treated—and one was allowed to read it right there, at a little table. Duty done, one would climb thankfully upwards, back to the warm and bustling world of healthy volumes.

Now, I discovered, as I set off on my quest for information, the preservation scene had completely changed. In 1971, Yale had founded a new and greatly expanded Preservation Department, to manage the "repair, conservation, and reformatting of collections in all media; e.g., paper, leather, parchment, audio-visual, electronic and magnetic media." (They might well have added metal, silk, and clay, the media for many other kinds of historical information.) Though the department’s mission was described in its brochure in rather lugubrious tones as "to slow the inevitable decay of its collections and prevent damage due to handling and use" the detailed goals described in the smart, current web site were more upbeat: "To keep library resources in the hands of readers by conservation treatment where feasible, copying to other media and formats where necessary, and prevention of damage wherever possible."

Those three succinctly stated principles, I soon discovered, reflected the administrative structure of the three "programs" that were at the core of the new department: one for "Collections Care," one for "Reformatting and Media-Preservation," and one for "Conservation" (which had its own laboratory). Each of these programs had its own leader with the formal title of "librarian," supervising their own professional and technical staffs. It was, I learned from the head of the whole department, Roberta Pilette, the combined skills of these interlocking ranks of personnel that kept the books in working condition. Pilette herself was an art history major as an undergraduate at the University of Michigan with a concentration in medieval history. But after an experimental year as a conservation technician, she enrolled in the conservation education program at Columbia University’s School of Library Science. She later worked in the conservation department of the New York Public Library and taught conservation at the University of Texas at Austin. She explained that the department’s main home was in the Sterling Memorial Library (Yale’s largest), which houses slightly over 4 million volumes; a further 7 million or so volumes were spread throughout the university’s many other smaller libraries, or kept in the off-campus (and humidity- and temperature-controlled) library storage facility. (Somewhat parallel organizational structures existed elsewhere in the university in special collections such as the Peabody Museum of Natural History, the British Art Center, and the Yale Art Gallery.) Behind each of my forays into history, conducted across 40-plus years, stood these ranks of helpers I had never thought to thank. A sketch of the work they do thus seems to me to be in order.

The program for "Collections Care" focuses its attention on books (and other media) that are in constant or regular use. Thus their charge is especially geared to Yale’s many reference collections, to course books with high circulation, or to the 20,000 or so new paperbacks acquired each year that are sent to commercial binderies, where their covers are mounted on acid-free bindings. Not surprisingly, that brings the largest numerical flow of volumes into this program; but Collections Care also supervises the mundanely titled but important "Stacks Cleaning Program," started in 1999, which aims to clean the more than 50 miles of shelves and the books they contain, along with the ducts, I-beams, and pipes that frequently lie above the shelves. A decade has been allotted to this task, which has been contracted out to a charitable church organization that concentrates on finding work for those in difficult circumstances. The current head of collections care, Erika Heinen, initially studied German literature; she came to her present career, she told me, after taking a double master’s degree in education and library science at the University of Texas in Austin, which has one of the leading programs in the field (others are at the University of Delaware, New York University, and the State University of New York in Buffalo). Heinen spoke with especial enthusiasm of her work overseeing the repair and rebinding of the additional thousands of books that are in disrepair but have beautiful and decorative cloth bindings. She showed me how the stars in that design firmament would often insert their own initials within their decorations. The idea for these cloth bindings, she explained, came into vogue around 1810, aimed at a new middle class group of readers, as the book ceased to be an item purchased mainly by the wealthy, who normally had bound their personal libraries in leather at their own expense. In terms of the feel and function of the book, Heinen noted that the switch to cloth bindings was similar in importance to the changes recently brought to reading habits by the growth of the Internet. The decorative cloth stage of the book ended around 1920, as the idea of plain bindings with ornamental covers came to dominate the field. Collections care will save all such bindings with the same care as they preserve the contents of damaged books, whenever it is feasible.

The program on "Reformatting and Media-Preservation"—locally known as RaMP—is the receiving center for many of the materials sent over from Collections Care. The goal of this program is stated in their mission statement to be keeping all library materials "available to readers for as long as they are needed regardless of the format used to record the information." A good deal of this work involves microfilming the unmendable materials. Before processing, the books are patched up as much as possible, missing pages replaced if other copies can be found, maps and illustrations repaired, marginal graffiti and underlinings erased, and paper clips and grit removed. One detail that struck me for both its practicality and its simplicity was that if damaged materials had been outsourced for repair they were returned to the library in two separate containers, to ensure that both the original and the processed copy were not somehow lost together.
Another major part of RaMP’s work is its deacidification program. Machine-made papers, with a high acid content that ultimately broke down the fibers of the paper and turned it hopelessly brittle, were used on a global scale from the 1850s to the 1960s; and though most Western countries, along with Japan, moved to use of alkaline paper for books some time ago, many other countries still have not done so. RaMP staff now make a routine acidity check of incoming books, and neutralize the acid when necessary. Following a sequential plan, they also scan and neutralize the acid in different special collections—a process currently being carried out on books in the Burmese and Near East collections. When books in any of Yale’s collections are discovered to be irremediably brittle, they too are outsourced for microfilming. Other members of RaMP staff working along with the program head, David Wells—a Texas-raised son of a history professor who developed a fascination with old books as a youngster—have their own specialized areas of expertise. One is the final source of judgment on "books beyond repair," and matches all such items with other editions in Yale’s collections and in libraries elsewhere, trying to ensure that the contents will not be irrevocably lost. Another focuses on checking and cataloguing all Yale’s holdings of microfilm. Yet another is the "trouble-shooter," who attempts to solve the many other unanticipated problems that can arise from hopelessly damaged materials in any media.

The third of the programs is housed in the "Conservation Laboratory." The head of this program, Gisela Noack, like her colleagues who head the other two programs, seems genuinely fascinated by her work. Originally trained in chemistry at a German university, Noack added the fields of bookbinding and library conservation when she moved to the United States. Her ability to seamlessly link these varied skills is immediately apparent as she guides her visitor around her spotless and airy laboratory inside the Sterling Memorial Library, pointing to the heavy-duty presses, the massive suction tables that can pull solvents through books, the rebinding facilities for the rare books that have had to be taken apart for repair or deacidification, and the special mounting procedures used on irreplaceable old prints and posters. She points out that today’s conservation expert not only has to love old books—she fell in love with her profession after first being allowed to handle an 11th-century manuscript with its seals still attached—but also has to take the broadest possible view of its challenges. These include not only the meticulous reconstruction of broken pages and shattered book spines, but also acquiring knowledge of the chemical properties of different adhesives, conducting aging tests on sample papers, applying environmental controls, pest management, reconstruction of book locks and clasps, and emergency procedures such as those needed after floods or fires. Her work, she told me, involves her in regular one-on-one meetings with the curators of Yale’s special collections (including the map collections and the many special collections housed in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library). Jointly, she and they have to reach agreement on what materials require the greatest priority in preservation: their calculations have to include the value and provenance of the item, the cost of the necessary procedures, its physical condition, and its use history. Once agreement is reached on priorities, she and her staff can get to work. So, for the first time in my life, I feel that I now have at least a nodding acquaintance with some of the skills and plain hard work that lay behind the books I so casually borrowed as I passed through the various stages of my own career. I feel somewhat ashamed that I did not think of exploring this fascinating field earlier, for the preservationists serve all of us historians, whether we are independent scholars, in teaching, or in the many fields of public history. And at least one piece of advice that I garnered during my brief foray into this arena will remain with me until I die:

If you are reading a precious book in the bathtub, and it falls into the water, DO NOT PANIC. Not even if it is the last book in the world. Jump out of the tub at once, wrap the sodden book in a waterproof plastic bag, and place it immediately in your freezer. When the opportunity arises, take the book—still frozen—to your library and hand it in at the desk. Preservation will take it from there.

—Jonathan Spence (Yale Univ.) is president of the AHA.