Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Reading "Ethics and Critical Thinking in Conservation"

I recently completed reading – or more accurately, engaging – the recently published book Ethics and CriticalThinking in Conservation edited by Pamela Hatchfield and published by the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. (The book only appears to be available from the AIC website.) Its contents are mostly versions of presentations given at the AIC annual meetings 2010 and 2011. My copy is now probably one of my most marked up books I own. That is a good sign.

My challenge is how to adequately portray the thoughts and responses this volume engendered for me. I began with my usual process of going back through the book and writing by hand in my notebook notes and quotes, however I’m half-way through the book and have eight pages of these. I would then need to go through all these and try to draft a reasonably literate blog post. That’s a lot of work and I’m not sure the end result would be of great value to many, or any.

Instead I’ll try for a more summary overview – knowing my tendency to get caught up in the particulars and details.

I will acknowledge my own opinions and tendencies before even entering into this book. I have a very conflicted relationship with discussions about ethics (and training) especially within the conservation profession. It feels to me like low-hanging fruit about which everyone can – and usually does – have passionate feelings about which we love to express, but about which few of us have real strong theoretical understandings. (I say “us” because I very much include myself – I’m pretty sure I got a C in Ethics in college.)

So, yes, I openly confess that I went into this book expecting interesting and engaging opinions – which I got – but not necessarily a very strong intellectual rigor undergirding those opinions. I was pleasantly surprised – mostly.

The essays in this book for the most part represent voices from the world of art conservation. I am most at home in the world of book conservation/library preservation. I am disappointed this voice is not included in the volume. Oh well.

In the first chapter “Conservation in the 21st Century: Will a 20th Century Code of Ethics Suffice?” I was ready to reply with a resounding “no”, but Barbara Appelbaum softened me to the idea. I’m still not a big Code of Ethics guy, but her essay portrayed these documents as a little more gracious and open than I would naturally see them.

I will say that her defining “cultural property” as things that are “at least in an ethical sense, the property of the whole human race” left me a little uncomfortable. Without being completely certain of this assessment, that property of the whole human race feels decidedly Western to me. Not that Western thinking is bad, but when it is assumed to be universal thinking – it is bad.

“Legacies from the Past: Previous Repairs” by Deborah Bede tackles the fun challenge of what to do with previous repairs. One thing I appreciated is her acknowledgement of the person of the conservator in these decisions “Previous repairs have a relationship to the conservator’s own work, and for this reason they may be sacrificed to a desire to have the results of the current treatment reflect favorably on the conservator’s skills.” (p. 12) I think this is a helpful acknowledgement of some of the very real, and very human factors that go into conservators’ decision-making.

When approaching an object that has had a previous repair treatment a big question that must be answered is to what extent has that repair become an integral part of what the object is now? Does the repair help open up, or create more meaning, or does it close things down and limit meaning creation? (to be all Muñoz Viñas)

For e.g.: my family has an old family hymnal that was once very crudely repaired with white cotton string. If this book was to be regularly used, the repair would be a failure, limiting meaning creation, and needing to be undone. As this book is not significant to its owners as a regularly consulted source of German hymn texts, but rather its significance is as an artifact of family history the repair is absolutely crucial to its meaning.

Chapter 3 is “To Treat or Not to Treat: Decision Making in Preparing Archives for Digitization.” I will note that in my book above this title I wrote the word “frustrating.” I found this essay very engaging – in that I wrote in the margins a lot, but I did not find it satisfying. Ultimately, I was very dissatisfied with the author’s understanding of what a digitized object is and its relationship to the thing digitized. My glib summary of her argument is the digitized version is not the same thing as the original, therefore it is not particularly useful, therefore keep devoting resources to conservation.

I think it is a worthwhile chapter to be included in this volume and I’m sure it expresses the opinions of many – especially in the archives world – I just disagree with most of what the author says, and some of how she says it.

Chapter 4 is “Resuscitating Bamiyan’s Buddhas: A Dispatch from Dresden, Two Lessons Learned” by James Janowski. Above this chapter I have scrawled in my barely legible pencil marks “love this.” In this chapter the author looks at the rebuilding of the Frauenkirche in Dresden which was destroyed in WWII bombing and how that might inform approaching the Baminay Buddhas. I think the gist of this paper is caught up in the line “Conservation and restoration projects involve balancing various – and often competing – meanings and values.” (p. 50) And in the rest of the chapter Janowski eloquently discusses the various meanings and values of the Bamiyan Buddhas and what effect different activities might have on those meanings and values.

The Bamiyan Buddhas present such a wonderful current instance of hearing the various interests and concerns surrounding issues of restoration – or not. One thing I heard in this paper, that I had not heard before and is significant to my own thinking is that the locals of the Bamiyan valley want the Buddhas restored. I would be much less sympathetic to their restoration if it seemed to me to be an outside “professionally driven” activity.

In a closing postscript the author asks “If restoration is possible and we don’t restore, are we complicit? Are we party to the destruction?” (p. 73) My response is, if we are, is that necessarily a bad thing? Is restoration always good and destruction always bad? (but that’s just me.)

In chapter 5 “Objects of Trauma, Finding the Balance” Jane Klinger discussed the logical, moral, and emotional character of conservators’ work with objects of trauma. The paper presented three conservation case studies, of a coat with “artificially created” bullet holes, of a Nazi era diary with later addition annotations, and with a fire-truck damaged in the world trade center attacks which still had dust on it.

Chapter 6 “Of Time and the Modalities of Conservation” by Frank Matero is about exactly what the title says it is about. Okay, it is the most philosophical of the chapters and a little more of a challenge to engage than some of the other chapters.

I’ll just highlight a few of the sentences that resonated with me.

“Implicit in conservation’s underlying principles is the notion that degredation is generally considered destructive or a negative condition that is detrimental to the visual and structural integrity of the work.” (p. 97)
“Original appearance, usually linked to artistic intent, is a transient condition that exists only briefly, if at all, after completion or delivery of the work.” (p. 98)
”What has been less thoroughly explored through frank and open conversation is the implicit intolerance for aging of industrial materials and forms such as concrete, steel, and plastics, as well as modernist art and architecture, the latter often restored to a state of original hyperreality in the name of artistic intent.” (p. 98)

“Classic Western conservation ideology has tended toward considering and admiring works of art and architecture as documents, thus placing increased importance on their material expression of authenticity.” (p. 99)

I think the main thing I appreciated from this chapter is captured in this final quote. “We preserve with intention, and it is that intention that needs to be continually examined and communicated as much as the work itself.” (p. 108) It is as important, and at this point probably more important for the conservator to be self-aware as it is to be aware of that which we are conserving. We should ask as many questions of our selves as we do of the objects we are working on.

In Chapter 7 Salavador Muñoz Viñas presents “The Frankenstein Syndrome” in which he discusses how in our conservation we often end up creating new creatures, which like Frankenstein’s creature are stitched together parts. As is stated in the abstract “This is not necessarily a bad thing, but remains a fact we conservators may tend to ignore or underestimate.” (p. 111)

In Chapter 8, “Restoration Ethics, Cleaning, and Perception: Case Studies from the Dutch Government Collection” the authors, W. Wei, Z. Benders, and E. Domelia Nieuvenhuis present two case studies of the decision making regarding conserving two items in their collection.

A sentence near the end of the chapter nicely summarized the function not only of this paper, but really of the whole volume.
“The object is to consider what the essence of the debate over restoration ethics is, and to (re)develop an awareness of what is happening during the decision-making process as a whole, and not just the technical aspects of the restoration.” (p. 136)

Just as the unexamined life is not worth living (or so I’ve been told) this volume’s essays demonstrates the value of a well-examined conservation life. Ethics and critical thinking are first about awareness.

Finally, thanks very much to AIC for publishing this volume.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Distribution is Preservation

Growing up in the preservation world I was taught, and I in turn taught that the single-most important factor in long-term preservation of materials was climate-control. Ensuring that some book sitting on a shelf would still be there in usable form 300 years from now is best accomplished by providing a stable and ideal environment.

I’m not so convinced of that anymore, or rather, I think I am less interested in preserving that one book sitting on your shelf as I am in providing access to that book – for as long as possible/necessary to as many people as possible. I am now of the opinion that the single-most important factor in providing ongoing access is distribution. (As I write this I take note that I switched from preserving a book to providing ongoing access to that book – hmm, curious.)

Distribution is not a guarantee of preservation – there has to be some motivation and capability to retain the thing that was distributed – but distribution vastly increases the likelihood of preservation. I’m sure one could develop a formula comparing the likelihood of survival and accessibility between one (or a few) book(s) in ideal environmental conditions versus several distributed books in less than ideal environmental conditions. (For a great analysis of the number of copies and likelihood of survival see Jake Nadal and Annie Petersen’s Scarce and Endangered Works: Using Network-level Holdings Data in Preservation Decision Making and Stewardship of the Printed Record )

In my experience (which is admittedly very limited and idiosyncratic) library and archives preservation has primarily been approached through the lens of preserving the specific and “unique” items in a specific institution’s collection. (In fact one of my concerns with the book conservation programs being absorbed into art conservation programs is that it is encouraging viewing each book as a unique item – and not part of a broader network of at least very, very, very similar published items held in institutions, and elsewhere, around the world.) It is perfectly reasonable that library preservation thinking has focused on preserving items in one’s institutional collections – because it isn’t very reasonable to expect me to preserve items in some other institution’s collections – but this approach may not be perfectly effective in ensuring long-term access to the items held by an institution. 

I don’t mean to dismiss the skills and interests of those who are pay keen attention to the unique qualities of individual volumes, but their interests are the miniscule minority and saving two really nice trees but losing the forest is not an excellent conservation strategy. I will be so bold as to suggest that saving the 1961 edition of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 is almost always more important than saving one institution’s specific copy of the 1961 edition of Catch 22. Yes, there are always exceptions.

What initially spurred me to write this post is an interesting blog post by Ed Summers based on a talk he gave – titled “The Web as a Preservation Medium.” There are lot of things said in that post which may not be relevant to physical material collection, but as I’ve said before, it is important for physical material preservation folk look to and learn from digital material preservation folk. Summers quoted Rufus Pollock of the Open Knowledge Foundation said This next decade belongs to distributed models not centralized ones, to collaboration not control, and to small data not big data.

The World Wide Web is a ridiculously successful tool for distribution. This blog post will likely be recreated on screens around the world maybe as many as 20 or even 30 times. It is being also archived by Internet Archive. Against my intentions parts of my previous blog are available online – thanks I’m sure to some Russian hacker. (It was a bit of a surprise to see this content which I had taken offline and thought it was gone “forever” suddenly re-appear less than a year later.) 

Now yes, print materials and print preservation are not the same as digital materials and digital preservation, but each has something to learn from the other. I think it is important for the print preservation world to better recognize the preservation power of distribution and incorporate it into their preservation strategies. Distribution as a preservation strategy requires the national and international collaboration of many institutions and may, at times, place the value of the cooperative over the value of the individual items in individual collections.

(p.s. As I was bringing my work on this post to an end, it occurred to me that perhaps the federal government document depository program might also be a strategic model to consider for distribution providing preservation and access. I, however, don’t know much more about the program than what I wrote in the previous sentence.)

(p.p.s This post deserved more time and thought and work, and that might happen some day, but it is what it is for now.)

Saturday, November 16, 2013

More stuff, more problems

Sometimes I fear I am a bad person – or at least a person unfit for any type of preservation profession.

day 18/365 by flick user shehan365
I was sitting at a plenary session at Best Practices Exchange, and Meg Phillips of NARA was talking about their mindblowing challenge of digital records management for the US federal government. She did a wonderful job of presenting the challenge and the legal directives and then she solicited the thoughts of the attendees about what they saw as the nature of the problem and how it could be resolved.

What follows probably further digs me deeper into the hole of being a bad person. The participants in the room seemed to be mostly archivists. I will make two bold assertions about archivists: 1) They will complain about having too much stuff; and 2) Given the choice between acquiring more or less stuff, they will almost always opt for more. (I don’t think these two characteristics are unique to archivists, but “characteristics of a profession” is qualitatively different than being idiosyncrasies of an individual.)

While the participants were dreaming of algorithms to automatically categorize the kinds of records the federal government was creating, I was thinking in my head – “Don’t take in so much stuff!” Just because something has been recorded in a “preservable” format it doesn't mean there is any reason to preserve it.

I am hardly moved by the plea to keep things because we don’t know what value future researchers might find in it. Nope, we don’t, and I hardly think we are doing the future researchers any favors by burying them under mounds of our mostly useless trivialities that might hold some gem.

The people of the future, just like those of the past, and we today will make meaning out of what they have access to. (The ingredients of “meaning” are far more vast and complex than the variety of documents and records available.) A people with access to 10 records will construct one meaning. A people with access to 1000 records will construct a different meaning, and a people with access to 100,000,000 records will construct a different meaning. I would argue that these meanings are not getting progressively better with the more records that are available. They are simply the meanings created with what is available. (There is an interesting, and I think related post on the Signal about what might impact might be had if we had access to the information on Lee Harvey Oswald's laptop.)

The stuff we have access to today is the product of a combination of human intention, luck, and natural causes.  I don’t know what the ratio is for importance of those three elements, but I’m disposed to guess human intention is probably be the smallest number.

While I may be a bad person, I’d like to think I’m not stupid. Advising NARA and the federal government to keep less stuff is not likely to result in a very l long or substantial conversation. But I do think all parties involved would be advised to approach the task with humility. (Advising the federal government to be humble isn’t likely to result in any more substantial conversations.) Future peoples will construct meanings both because of, and despite our actions today. Keeping more stuff today, doesn’t necessarily mean a better tomorrow.

There is never enough data to remove mystery.

p.s. After saying what could be seen as potentially disparaging remarks about archivists I want to add that I am in awe of and deeply grateful for the work of archivists. A reasonable response to the above post is when faced with the challenge of the onslaught of digital records, archivists choose to fight, I choose flight.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Print/Digital Preservation Divide

First I posted Paul Banks’ “10 Laws of Preservation.” Then I posted Dave Thompson’s “10 Laws of Digital Preservation.” Then Archival Products published their latest issue of Archival Products News with an article I co-wrote with Lance Stuchell, digital preservation librarian at the University of Michigan, titled “Bridging the Print/Digital Preservation Divide.”

The world of library and archives preservation – which is the work world I most identify with – is divided. But in saying it is divided I am not sure whether I am stating fact, opinion, or proposing a framework to look at preservation. I guess the reality is – it feels divided (which makes it more of a statement of truthiness.)

This division is increasingly characterizing my professional life. On Monday I get on a plane to attend Archive-It and Best Practices Exchange meeting – two meetings focused on acquiring and preserving digital content. Upon my return from these meetings I immediately turn my attention to speedily moving my work’s conservation shop – including things like a 500 pound cast iron press – down one floor to its new home. At this summer’s meeting of the Mid-Michigan Digital Practitioners meeting I presented on preserving digital state government documents. In a couple weeks I will present on constructing custom clamshell boxes at a Conservation and Collection Care Camp – that I am helping organize.

I am not telling you these things to let you know how vast and impressive my skills are – although I won’t try to stop you from coming to that conclusion on your own – but this is simply to relate that I feel like I have one fit firmly planted in print/analog preservation and the other foot is perhaps not quite as firmly planted, but it is well within the world of digital preservation.  And this leaves me to sometimes ponder – are these two feet walking down the same path? Are they walking down parallel paths? Or divergent paths? Also, does the fact that I have two left feet doom met to stumble and land flat on my face?

I don’t think I’m being too generalizing when I say that the two foci of preservation have resulted in two camps of practitioners. I’m going to guess there is not a lot of overlap in the NDSA/AIC venn diagram.

An intent of Lance and myself with our rather informal back and forth piece was for practitioners of print and digital preservation to address some common question about our work. I don’t know that this piece presents any profound new insights, but I hope that it might spur others ask and answer similar questions and have similar conversations. (As I just reread the article I did cringe a little wishing I could take it back and rewrite some of my sentences – but it’s done, which is more important than being perfect.)

If the preservation world is divided, is there a big umbrella understanding of preservation that can capture the interests and concerns of both print and digital preservation? If there is such a big picture understanding, to get that big picture do you have to pull so far back so as to lose sight of the details and therefore lose relevancy for the practitioner?

When I look at the two sets of “10 laws” my first response is these are very different lists. I don’t mean to exaggerate difference between disciplines, but I also don’t want to blur or gloss over differences. I am led to wonder – what are the commonalities? I would be curious to see someone – although it really couldn’t be “one” but some group – come up with a set of “10 agreements between print and digital preservation.” What are 10 mutual and meaningful understandings or agreements of the work we do?


Sunday, October 20, 2013

10 Laws of Digital Preservation

A few days ago I posted Paul Banks' 10 Laws of Preservation. I concluded post acknowledging that these 10 laws were book/document focused and that I would be interested in reading 10 laws of digital preservation.

Well, someone has taken me up on that challenge. Dave Thompson, digital curator at the Wellcome Library, London, happened across my blog post and offered up his 10 Laws of Digital Preservation. With his permission, I present them here.

While Banks' and Thompson's "laws" are their individual thoughts and not the consensus of their larger disciplines, they do present some interesting differences in what preservation means for print and for digital collections. 

10 Laws of Digital Preservation 
1. The game changes. Data is created in one context, but preserved in many. 
2. The point of preservation is access & managed access supports that. 
3. Only data that can be rendered can be meaningful. 
4. Data, even well preserved data, can render differently in different 
environments. 
5. Many copies help keep data safe but in many different contexts. 
6. Data life is finite but manifestations perpetuate the data. 
7. Inadvertent or unidentified data corruption is worse than data loss. 
8. Physical data-media doesn't always contain relevant information. 
9. Data without metadata is meaningless. 
10. There is no such thing as a digital original & original order is an arbitrary 
construct based upon rendering. 

I’m not suggesting these are the only or the definitive laws. There may be others, or 
I may be quite incorrect in my thinking. 
Feel free to challenge these. Feel free to tell me I’m wrong. Feel free to form your 
own opinion. 
Dave Thompson, October 2013. 
Tweet me @D_N_T

I too would be curious to hear from readers their thoughts one either sets of "laws." And now that we've got one set each of book/document preservation laws and digital preservation laws how about an attempt at a set of 10 preservation laws that are applicable regardless of media.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Paul Banks' 10 Laws of Preservation

I have this sheet of paper which floats around my work bench and on it are written Paul Banks' 10 Laws of Preservation. One day a while back I located the text of these 10 laws and did a quick reformat a single page mini-poster. I still haven't mounted the sheet anywhere. It just lies around occasionally getting in the way, which means I occasionally have to move it, which gives me the opportunity to once again reread them.

Paul Banks was an incredibly influential conservator first at the Newberry Library, and then went on to start the conservation program at Columbia University. I don't know for what reason he created his 10 laws of preservation, but I find they express the wisdom of a life-time of experience.

Paul Banks' 10 Laws of Preservation

No one has access to a document that doesn't exist
Multiplication/dispersal increases survival
Physical medium of a book/document contains information
No reproduction can contain all information contained in the original
Conservation treatment is interpretation
Authenticity cannot be restored
No treatment is reversible
Use causes wear
Books and documents deteriorate all the time
Deterioration is irreversible

Many of these laws are book/document focused. It would be interesting to read a 10 laws of digital preservation, or perhaps even a 10 laws of preservation that was relevant to all type of media.

(Added later) What new Laws of Preservation would you add? What has your experience of working with preservation taught you about the bigger preservation picture?

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

The Relationship Between the "Real" and the Digitized

“Beyond the Cult of the Replicant: Museums and Historical Digital Objects – Traditional Concerns, New Discourses” by Fiona Cameron in Theorizing Digital Cultural Heritage: A Critical Discourse. Edited by Fiona Cameron and Sarah Kenderline, Cambridge, MA : The MIT Press, 2007.

I read an interesting book chapter the other day. It was another example of reading something that was both far enough from, and close enough to the library/book context to both be different from the library experience, but also be relevant to the library experience. One of the biggest differences is the difference between the museum object and the book, and how these two objects function and derive their authority.

On a very simple, and perhaps so superficial level as to be not helpful, the value of a museum object lies in what the object is, and the value of the library object lies in what the object says. Honestly exploring the differences between the museum and library object would take many pages, and probably many books. Let’s just accept that there are differences in their functions.

Two things to note: She is writing out of/into the museum context, and when referring to “historical digital objects” she is referring to digital captures/reproductions of physical objects (she does not discuss “born-digital” objects.)

She discusses the different functions of original objects and their digital reproductions and how we approach them. “The value of the digital heritage object is derived from the viewer’s acceptance of the real object as authentic.” P. 56

She states that the meaning of objects is not simply resident within the object, but ascribed by the communities that encounter it. “The ‘real’ object’s enchantment, its aura, for example is its physical presence, but most important, it derives from ascribed social meanings.” P. 57 (This sentence seems to be missing a word or two, but it still seems to express a meaning.)

In newer “post-modern” thinking “the concept of real, original authenticity becomes a social construct, as exemplifies of western knowledge and taste, and systems of object value becomes mutable.” P. 54

Similarly, in creating digital reproductions of objects, those who have a role in this process have a role in shaping the meaning of the both the original and digital objects. “By virtue of its selection, the digital surrogate illustrates, reiterates, and passes on a set of social relations constructed for the ‘real’, while endorsing their ascribed value as the best aesthetic, historically, and technologically significant items in the collection.” P. 57

She brings in discussion of the history and role of photography as an analogue to the role of digitized objects, and points out that early understandings of photography were of the photograph simply as a pointer to, or representation of the thing photographed. Later, understandings shifted to recognizing the photograph as a distinct creative object in itself with a less certain relationship to the object photographed. Likewise, the digitized object is an entirely new object. “In creating new definitions for the digital historical object as an object in its own right separate from any referrant, and as an entirely new creative project the materiality argument can no longer be given pre-eminence. Rather, user behavior and experience becomes key defining principles which acknowledges the particular characteristics of digital medium. (Witcomb, 2007)” p. 68

“Like the analog they [digital historical objects] are cultural constructs and have the power to shape cultural identities, engage emotions, perceptions, and values, and to influence the way we think.” P. 69

She has some interesting discussion of Western society’s concepts of “original” objects as authentic and true. “Western concepts of object-centerdness, historical material authenticity, and aura play a central role in upholding this differential relationship” of the digital copy being seen as inferior to its non-digital original. P. 50

“Moreover, this focus on materiality, theorist Jonathan Crary argues is inseparable from the deployment of vision as an object source of knowledge and rational though in the nineteenth century thus leading to the subsequent repression of other more experiential forms of knowledge production.” P. 52

 “The digital historical object has been undervalued and subject to suspicion because its labor of production has been concealed and therefore bears less evidence of authorship, provenance, originality, and other commonly accepted [characteristics] attributed to analog objects. For these reasons the digital object’s materiality is not well understood.” P. 70

It would seem to me that some of the reasons the original/digital distinctions are not as strong within the library/book world are that as objects books from the last century also “bear less evidence of authorship, provenance, originality.” Unlike the often unique and hand crafted museum object, the vast majority of the books we deal with are mass produced and bear little evidence of human involvement. Little of the authenticity of a book is derived from its qualities as an object. Therefore, the issues of creating digital surrogates are often not as striking as they are for museum objects.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Preservation Lectures Online

As there are an increasing number of lectures and other presentations which are captured in video or audio and made available online I thought there might be some value to provide a single resource that provides links to many of these videos. And so I have begun with a Preservation Lecture Videography page on my blog.

At this point I'm restricting this list to lectures. There are an incredible number of short informational and instructional videos, and recordings of teaching webinars which I've chosen not to include. Also, videos of lectures related to various digital preservation topics are growing at an exponential rate. (This is not a scientific/mathematical truth, but a gut truth.)

Please let me know if you know of preservation related lectures (either in video or audio) that you think should be included.


Monday, September 2, 2013

How to get your book repaired


As hard as it is to believe, lots of books do not reside in libraries. A large number of people don’t feel that having access to books in a local public or academic library is enough – they want to own books for themselves. And, just like the books in libraries, sometimes these privately owned books fall apart.

The motivation to have a book repaired, however, seem to be different between the library and the individual. For the library, providing access to functional volumes is a core of their business. Libraries don’t want to put significantly damaged books back on their shelves, because they are putting it on the shelf to be used and providing access to books which are damaged is not great customer service. When individuals put their books on a shelf, they are not usually putting them on the shelf to be used, but putting them there to be stored and owned.

Because of these different approaches to books (and I just came up with this explanation as I was writing it so I’m not sure how valid it is) there are different motivations to why a library or an individual wants to have a damaged book repaired. For the library, providing access to books is what it does (yes, and much more) and repairing a book may be a more economical way to provide that access rather than replacing the book – though not always.


The individual’s motivation for seeking to have a book repaired tend to be much more focused on ownership and emotion. The individual wants a book repaired because that book means something to them. Most of the items people have asked me to repair, or simply to consult on, are books laden with personal and family connection: family bibles, grandmother’s journal, father’s collection, map that includes the family homestead. I remember some years back a pre-teen bringing me her copy of the first Harry Potter book with concern about the cracking sound the book made as she opened it – so she would only open the book the minimal amount needed so she could read it for fear of damaging it.

The value these individuals are looking to restore is often much less about financial value than it is emotional value. The motivations tend to be more about making sure memories are honored and live on.

What was supposed to have been simply a blog post about sources for book repair has morphed a little. Back to my more pragmatic intentions.

If you have a book that you would like to be repaired there are a variety of ways to go about finding people and companies that can do that. Here are some ideas, in no particular order.

1) Contact the preservation department or individual at a larger local library, usually academic but state and large public libraries may be able to assist as well. Some preservation departments – or the individuals working there – provide book repair and other preservation services, but they all should know of what book repair services are offered in your area. (Within mid-Michigan, Michigan State University Libraries Preservation Department maintains a list of Local Book Repair Services.)

2) Another potential source for information about local book repair services is a good local used book store. These stores, especially those that also sell move valuable rare volumes, will often make use of, or at least know about area individuals and vendors who can do book repair.

3) The American Instituted for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works maintain a Find a Conservator web resource which guides users to lists of conservators with particular specialties and in particular locales. They also provide helpful information on how to choose a conservator.

4) Yellowpages, other corporate directories, the internet. You can also search for a book repair service the same you might search for a plumber – by looking in the yellowpages or searching online.

5) Do it yourself. Doing the book repair yourself is always an option. It may not always be the best option depending on the value you place on the item. The DIY approach can be great for inexpensive functional volumes that you just want to get more use of. It would probably not be a good approach for precious family collections. There are some great resources online and in print which teach basic book repair, and many of these techniques do not require purchasing many special tools or supplies.

(Updated on Sept. 3 - thanks to Eric for an updated URL)

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Local Preservation Happenings

I'm looking forward to seeing friend and colleague Jeanne Drewes return to mid-Michigan in September. Jeanne was the Assistant Director for Preservation at Michigan State University Libraries (which is how I got to know her) and then moved on to become Chief of Bindings and Collection Care at the Library of Congress.

Jeanne is coming to town to lead the first session of a two-part workshop on Risk Management and Disaster Recovery through the Midwest Collaborative for Library Services. The first session is Sept. 10.

The evening before she is leading a public talk on Preserving Family Treasures at the Delta Township District Library. If you can't make 6 pm at the library, the event will be live streamed and made available for later viewing. And yes, yours truly will be part of the Q&A session. (I seldom have a conversation with Jeanne where the conversation doesn't end with me doing some new thing - like taking part in her presentation.)

I'm always happy to see preservation training events happening in and around mid-Michigan. And, I'm always happy to see Jeanne who has been a mentor, and is an amazing font of energy and activity.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Preservation is About Looking Forward

(As with many things on this blog – these are minimally processed thoughts. I’m throwing them up on the wall and seeing what sticks. They were initially triggered by a tweet I saw a while back which included the words something along the lines of “preservation is about looking back, art is about looking forward.”)

I chose those words as my title for this post Preservation is About Looking Forward for a few reasons: First because I believe they are true; Second, because I believe they are not true; Third, because I believe they need to be true.

Preservation is about looking forward = true.
Preservation is about taking objects and pushing them, sometimes kicking and screaming, into the future. The past is past and we can’t do anything to change the past. Preservation professionals make certain decisions and take certain actions to shape what types of resources future users will have access to, and therefore help shapes what the future will look like.

Preservation is about looking forward = not true.
Preservation is about looking toward and treasuring the past. Preservation is about old things and memories. Preservation is not about creating new things, but about keeping our heritage alive and not forgetting it. Preservation is not about new fads, but about past traditions. Preservation is about history.

Preservation is about looking forward = needs to be true.
Preservation needs to be about looking forward if it wants to become more, and not less, relevant. (And with relevance comes attention, and participation, and influence, and funding.) Preservation professionals need to see themselves as creative; generating new things, new contexts, new relationships which create new, future knowledge.

Preservation is about looking forward is not necessarily a call to change what we do, but perhaps a call to change how we think about what we do.

Or not.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Put it on Paper

Two recent internet encounters have captured my attention. Both of these highlight the interplay of print and digital – or perhaps better said as the interplay of paper and internet (and both explore our emotional connections to print and internet.) Both are quirky and clever – which is a great way to catch my attention. And both have something to say about how we conceive of thingness and the thing’s preservation – at least tangentially.

The first one, which I came across via Gary Frost’s blog is a video of a talk by James Bridle titled “So what does the future of the book look like in a world gone digital?” It is one of the brightest responses to that question that I’ve seen by a man who thinks deeply about the book. He brings a very nuanced, personal, and playful approach to exploring our understandings of the book. It’s a 20 minute video that is really worth your time to watch.


The second one is Printing Out the Internet “A crowdsourced project to literally print out the entire internet.” It is an art project of Kenneth Goldsmith, LABOR, and UbuWeb inviting people to print out as much, or as little of the internet as they want and ship it to a space in Mexico City. You can find more details of their proposal. The project is begin done in memory of Aaron Swartz, the recently deceased internet activist.


Both Bridle’s various experiments, and this art project involve taking native digital content and embodying it on paper, and in Bridle’s case, bound volumes. In both cases, I think these projects uncover some interesting emotional reactions. We are jarred and disoriented. A bound volume of tweets seems curiously wrong. Proposing that you are going to “literally print out the entire internet” also seems wrong. For the entire internet to exist on the internet is okay, but the idea that it could exist on paper causes one’s head to hurt.

I think both projects do a good job of helping us explore and gain a better understanding of what are these digital objects – and what are these print objects – and how we relate to them both intellectually, and emotionally.

And hey, they are both playful explorations which are some of the most wonderful human activities.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Is there a past tense to preserve?



I saw a tweet yesterday which got those rusty wheel in my brain spinning. It was from Kara Van Malssen @kvanmalssen who describes herself on Twitter as “Senior consultant for all things digital preservation & access @AVPreserve and Adjunct Professor for @NYUMIAP teaching digital preservation.” The intriguing tweet is below.



So it got me thinking, does the idea of a past tense for the word preserve legitimately exist? In a follow-up tweet she acknowledged that her context in writing this was the digital world, and I would broaden it out to the larger world of cultural heritage, but I’m not sure the question isn’t askable beyond those contexts of preservation.

Take as a comparison the act of painting a picture. During the activity or painting, a picture is being painted. Once the scene is done (with the cabin and the happy trees) the picture has been painted. The act of painting ceased because the goal was achieved and the picture is painted.

Does the act of preservation ever achieve its goal and therefore become a completed, past-tense activity, i.e. preserved? I have troubles imaging a context in which that could be the case. The only way it might make sense is with an unspoken qualifier of “preserved” (until we no longer need it, or resume preserving it).

I find it intriguing to think that we have all these preservation and conservation departments and professionals who work very hard at preserving things, but despite all that work, we have no preserved things.

(I acknowledge that this post is just a passing whim based on a tweet. I haven't spent a lot of time pondering it and it could very well fall apart under any critical review, but its been an interesting thought to have bounce around in my head for a little while.)

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Create = Destroy = Create = Destroy



Every act of creation is an act of destruction. Every act of destruction is an act of creation.

I saw being shared on Facebook the other day an article about an ancient Mayan pyramid in Belize (are there any non-ancient ones?) that was being destroyed for the purpose of a building new road. This story was being shared by preservation minded folks (and not road-builders) so I anticipate the intention behind sharing it was to share in and elicit moral outrage (the American’s favorite pastime.)

I don’t know if it was just a bit of a foul mood, or my inherited oppositionalism was popping out, but I was not morally outraged by the news. “What if they need a new road?” I thought. ”Plus, how many ancient Mayan pyramids do you really need?” (‘All of them’ is not a legitimate answer.)

I acknowledge these responses are rather flippant, but I’d like to think there is a sensibility behind them. A new road is not going to be built in Belize, or anywhere, without destroying something in the process. I grew up in the farming country of the Canadian prairies. I remember when work began to expand a 2 lane highway into a 4-lane highway – with a wide median. I remember thinking, and hearing others bemoan about how much farm land was being destroyed to build this highway. The thing is, 100 years earlier beautiful open prairie land was destroyed to create farmland. And before that prairies have been destroyed by fire and ice age glaciers. I’m sure plenty the Mayans did plenty of destroying in the building of their pyramids.

I guess a big question in the creation/destruction equation is whether the value of what is being created is greater than the value of what is being destroyed. Not surprisingly, lots of people will have lots of competing answers to that value equation. Is the fill for a new road in Belize more valuable than an ancient Mayan pyramid? I don’t know. A new road may enable the possibility the sharing of new cultural expressions that wouldn’t be shared and experienced without the road. Is a new Thomas Kinkade painting an increase of value over a blank canvas? I don’t know. But I do know that sometimes the old needs to go to make room for the new.

And so where does preservation fit into the Create = Destroy equation? I get the sense that some in the preservation field think they stand outside of the equation – their work is not to create, and definitely not to destroy anything, but to facilitate the ongoing existence of the items in their care. I am not of that opinion. In our preservation work we make decisions, and take actions which actively participate in creation and destruction. By interjecting ourselves and our intentions into the life of object, we destroy what was and create what wasn’t.

I’m still quite puzzled and unsure of what my professional relationship with destruction should be. In the western context I can’t imagine anyone being taken very seriously if they came forward proposing “I think we should destroy this piece of cultural heritage.” But I think there is a place for at least acknowledging that by doing a certain preservation act we are destroying something about the object we are attempting to preserve. By repairing a torn map, I am destroying its current state and the story its current state has to tell, and am creating its new state of being a repaired map.

Recently, I’ve become increasingly intrigued by the Hindu god Shiva, the destroyer. I’m intrigued that a religious tradition has such a prominent place for the idea of destruction. Within this tradition, destruction is seen not as unfortunate and evil, but necessary and purifying. 

“All that has a beginning by necessity must have an end. In destruction, truly nothing is destroyed but the illusion of individuality.” 

“Destruction opens the path for a new creation of the universe, a new opportunity for the beauty and drama of universal illusion to unfold.” (both from http://www.sanatansociety.org/hindu_gods_and_goddesses/shiva.htm )