Sunday, March 20, 2011

Death Denial and Preservation

A word of caution - the author is heading into territory where he has absolutely no business going. The following words are highly speculative (and highly suspect) and without much intellectual credibility. So, grab a drink and enjoy.

In the "A Conservator Ponders Impermanence" piece I wrote for PCAN, I suggested that our quest for permanence may be rooted in our fear of our own mortality. I'm not exactly sure what inspired me to think that. In the subsequent comments, Montana conservator Audra Loyal mentioned the documentary, Flight From Death: the Quest for Immortality.

Thanks to Netflix streaming I was able to watch this movie, and just rewatched it, and think it may just have some things to add to the conversation of the impetus for preservation. (Its also freely available on Hulu.)

Flight From Death explores humanity's relationship to death, highlighting the thoughts of Ernest Becker and his book Denial of Death, and the more recent concept of Terror Management Theory. (I am not a psychologist. I didn't even take the annoingly popular Intro to Psych in University. I have little-to-no foundation upon which to intellectually critique some psychologists' theories.)

As I take it, humans have a death anxiety because we can imagine future danger, and imagine and anticipate a future where we are no longer living. In response we develop cultures which help maintain a sense of security in an insecure world. Culture serves a death denying function as all cultures have myths of immortality. Instead of trying to live on in the physical world, we take our dilemma to the symbolic level. We invest ourselves in symbols that we get from our culture. We try to ensure that our symbols live on. We build our most symbolically significant buildings  - e.g. churches, courthouses - out of the physically most stable and durable materials - usually stone.

Books, and libraries are highly symbolic cultural expressions. The content held within a book, as well as the object itself, is a symbol and reminder of the continuation of the information and the personality which creates and sustains our culture. The creation of both books and libraries are themselves efforts at immortality. The demise of a book(s)/library(s) is a threat to our culture and the information and personality held within, and a symbolic threat of our own demise.

When the question of deaccessioning a library book (fancy talk for throwing away a book) comes up, one comment that I invariably hear is "Well, somebody in the future might want it." I wonder if this concern for dismissing  a book as insignificant and not worthy of shelf space also has personal dimensions - fear that someday someone might find my own legacy as insignificant and toss it into the trash bin. Do we keep things to pre-emptively justify preserving our own legacy? (And what does it say about me that I take glee in tossing "useless" books into the dumpster?)

An aside - When I'm given a book to work on that is really too far gone to bring back to workable condition - most often because the paper is brittle or the amount of work required is not justified by the value or significance of the book - in these instances I usually construct a box for the book. The image just occurred to me of that of a coffin. Often putting a book in a box is not a declaration that the book is dead, but it is nearing death. The box shelters our eyes from seeing this decay, and encloses the decay so it doesn't spread and affect other books.

When all is said and done, I do not mean to suggest that I think conservators and all those concerned with preservation are all neurotically trying to symbolically, or otherwise, avoid their own death by preserving the objects around them. I think this idea of death denial and conservation piqued my interest because I'm personally not entirely satisfied with the whole "scientific conservation" world-view which leaves (or attempts to leave) the conservator as a living/emotional/thoughtful/irrational/social creature out of the equation. I think who we are as persons and as societies shapes our conservation actions as much as the "facts" of the object on our workbench.

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