Sunday, January 16, 2011

Preservation Writ Large

I’ve yet to find many authors who write about preservation in a library context who inspire me. I think/hope there are more out there, but I’ve just not found them yet. One person, however, whose writing often stimulates my thinking in a very good way is Michèle Cloonan. Cloonan is dean and professor at the Graduate School of Library & Information Science at Simmons College and last year’s recipient Paul Banks and Carolyn Harris Preservation Award

In this post I will look at three of her articles. My intent is not a comprehensive scholarly essay reviewing and critiquing her scholarly work, but rather more of a personal conversation, occasionally disjointed  and scattered, between text and reader.

W(h)ither Preservation in Library Quarterly, 2001, vol. 21, no. 2, pp. 231-242.

This article has probably been the single most influential piece of writing to motivate me to think bigger thoughts about preservation. For one thing - it introduced me to David Lowenthal’s “The Past is a Foreign Country.” This article contains the sentence which I continually come back to a professional challenge.

“A rigorous examination of the field will show that there has been a myopic focus on the technical (such as preserving digital objects) and a concomitant neglect of the bigger picture (for example, public policy among other issues).” (p. 232 [emphasis mine])

Later in the article she writes

“The library and archival literature is replete with writings about the technical aspects of preservation. But where are the articles that address preservation issues from public policy, economic, political, social, or educational perspectives?” (p. 238)

“Myopic focus on the technical” has become a bit of a mantra for me - and not only as a critique, but more importantly as a challenge. This call to look beyond our myopic focus on the technical is a significant reason why I initiated this blog with its focus, I hope, on the “bigger picture.”

To help stimulate this bigger picture thinking, Cloonan suggests “Preservation professionals across various disciplines should meet with thoughtful thinkers from the fields of art, humanities, engineering, architecture, science, computer science, and industry on a regular basis to address issues particular to individual formats and inherent to all formats.” (p. 239) It seems that, at least in a small way, these kind of conversations are being facilitated through various online social media resources which invite all interested parties to participate.

She writes that too often preservation has been defined as a set of actions. Instead, “preservation must be a way of seeing and thinking about the world.” (p. 232) (I’ve thought more about this in light of my previous post - and subsequent comments - regarding the use and definition of the terms preservation and conservation.)

One theme Cloonan discusses in this article will be reappear in the two later articles is the impulse to preserve. In this article she cites Lowenthal as identifying five cultural impulses that have led to preservation:
1. Monuments and relics may be crucial to historic understanding.
2. Nationalistic impulses may lead to the preservation of languages, folklore, and material arts.
3. A society may feel an acute sense of loss resulting from unexamined change.
4. The rediscovery of ancient sites or monuments excites sentiment for preserving them.
5. A growing sense of individuality and nostalgia may lead a person to preserve family papers or memorabilia.

“The paradox of preservation is that it is impossible to keep things the same forever. To conserve, preserve, or restore is to alter.” (p. 235)  When I taught an intro to conservation class and we discussed this article I especially liked to highlight that second sentence “To conserve, preserve, or restore is to alter.” The prolific Dan Cull has written some good stuff both on his blog and on CeROArt  (whoops, make that e-conservation) around this concept. It has stimulated some interesting conversation - at least between he and I.

The Moral Imperative to Preserve in Library Trends 55(3) Winter 2007, pp. 746-755.

This article was published six years after W(h)ither Preservation and takes an even further step back and draws in issues of morality, international relations, and her concept of “monumental preservation” which Cloonan defines as the “preservation of all cultural phenomena.” (p. 747)

Such a breadth of topics and their inter-relations may seem too ambitious for some preservation-minded readers. One cannot always think about preservation on such a large interconnected scale, (It becomes difficult to perceive how themes of international relations relates to what techniques one should use in conserving a map.) however, we cannot not think about these larger interconnections. Or rather, we’ve a long history of not thinking about these larger interconnections and it has been to our professions detriment.

The impulse to preserve is faced with the equally strong impulse to destroy. It seems to me that we need a more critical approach to both preservation and destruction.

“If preservation assures cultural survival, is there a concomitant moral imperative to preserve?” (p. 747) (Curious note - Cloonan makes use of the word “concomitant” in both discussed articles. I can’t recall that I’ve ever made use the word, apart from citing her.)

“Preservation tries to assure the survival of the human record.” (p. 747)

In understanding morality, she looks to the work of R.M. Hare. The aspect of his definition of morality that she focuses on is that the moral agents have “to give as much weight to the interests of these other people as to their own interests; for unless they do, they will not be universalizing their prescriptions.” (p. 748) It is this “universalizing prescription” of morality Cloonan highlights.

In attempting to provide a definition a moral obligation to preserve, she acknowledges that the definition reflects western thought.

In the previous article Cloonan cited Lowenthal’s five cultural impulses that lead to preservation, one of which was nationalistic impulses. She notes in this article how these impulses both help and hinder the cause of preservation. The motivation to preserve one nation’s culture is often matched by the motivation to destroy the culture of “the other.”

In the next article we’ll see her discuss the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas as an example of destroying the culture of the other, as an act of “preserving” their own culture.

“If Hare’s ideas are to be applied to the UN or UNESCO … then protection of human lives or cultural objects can conceivably be accomplished.” (p. 750)

The Paradox of Preservation in Library Trends 56(1) Summer, 2007, pp. 133-147.

“Items owned by museums and libraries are preserved simply because they are in custody of those institutions.” (p. 134) This “custodial storehouse” model of ownership/preservation has been the dominant modern model. Cloonan then asks the postmodern question “What will post-custodial models look like?” (p. 136)

The defining question for this article, that gets to the heart of the paradox of preservation is “can we still assume that it is possible to maintain collections indefinitely or even for a long time?” (p. 136 emphasis hers)

She presents five case studies that highlight the challenges of this question. (I’ll only mention a few.)

She discusses the Nag Hammadi codices - 4th century Gnostic texts in very early Coptic bindings. The volumes were found buried in earthenware jars. Some of the texts were used to start fires by the finder and, after their identity was determined later texts have become damaged through use and misuse. Cloonan asks an important preservation question “Would these codices have been better preserved if left in the ground?” (p. 137)

While the texts survived 15 centuries relatively unscathed, it can reasonably be argued that the information gathered from these texts - both from the content and the bindings - more than compensates for the damage. “Another way to look at this is that before these volumes came to light, there was nothing to preserve.” (p. 138)

Sometimes the question is whether something should be preserved or not - using Nazi concentration camps as an example. (The World Trade Center site could be another example.) All such decisions are steeped in emotion - some want the site to go away, others see value in it being preserved. In writing about the Taliban’s destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, she writes “As with the intentional destruction of any piece of cultural heritage … the need or impulse to preserve is not universal.” (p. 142)

What impresses me about Michèle Cloonan, as displayed in these three articles, is her ability to perceive and reflect upon preservation writ large. Such writing inspires and compels me to look beyond my familiar scope of interests and beyond familiar answers.

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