Saturday, January 3, 2015

Forces for Preservation

I’ve been thinking about the various images of what preservation looks like. The traditional library image of preservation is the intact volume kept in a controlled environment, protected from damage and theft. Over the years the library world has developed practices and policies to strengthen and reinforce this model of preservation.

This is certainly a reasonable model for what preservation looks like. It is a model built on the individual artifact / art conservation approach to materials.

Lately, however, I’ve been trying to ask myself “What are some characteristics of ‘things’ that have endured a long time – fulfilling the goal of preservation – and why have they endured?” I’m asking this because it seems to me that many of the ‘things’ that have endured a long time have not done so because they were well protected in a library.

It seems to me there are other forces that can lead to preservation, but to a preservation that looks very different than the traditional library preservation model. Three forces are: ubiquity, cultural identity, ritualized performance.

Ubiquity – Abundance leads to endurance. Right out of the gate I’m altering the ‘things’ being preserved compared to my initial library model. Ubiquity is a nonsense idea when attempting to preserve individual artifacts, as each artifact is unique. I’m moving from an item definition of ‘thing’ to manifestation or work understanding. (Please see Jake Nadal’s wonderful “FRBRas a Preservation Administration Framework”)

In general, the more there are of some thing, the more likely that thing will endure. The traditional library model approach to quantity is “What’s the fewest number of copies we need to keep to ensure endurance?” Ubiquity asks: how can we get more copies out there?

Cultural identity – Items that speak to a culture’s identity have a greater chance of enduring. The oldest things in a public library’s collection are books of local history and newspapers. These are kept because they help define the people who keep them. Books and documents help record and shape how a community understands its place in the world are to be honored and preserved. This is also why these materials often fall victim to conquering forces which want to dismantle their victim’s identity.

Ritualized performance – One of the surest ways to ensure the preservation of a ‘thing’ is to perform it. Perform may strike some as an unusual verb to use in the context of preservation. With perform I include such things as acting out a play, playing a piece of music, reading stories aloud, reciting texts during worship, displaying the item in an honorific setting, and many other means of performance. Ritualized performance often speaks to and encourages cultural identity. But performance also allows (people) to engage with the thing in more physical ways. By performing the ‘thing’ we begin to embody it. It is no longer just an object we perceive with our minds, but something we live through our bodies. And once our bodies learn new patterns of behavior, like learning to ride a bike, it becomes hard to forget.

I’ll an attempt an example of these three forces fostering preservation. In my own Mennonite religious/cultural tradition there are a significant trio of cookbooks: More-With-Less, Extending the Table, Simply in Season, which are referred to by the publisher as the “World Community Cookbook” series.

Ubiquity – All three of these cookbooks have been very popular sellers. According to the Wikipedia entry More-With-Less has sold nearly 1 million copies. Copies of this book can be found in homes around the world. It is for many the assumed cookbook, the one you expect others will have and be familiar with. (My own household has two copies as we each brought our own copy into the marriage.)

Cultural identity – A guiding principle of these three cookbooks is food as an expression of ethics and values. More-With-Less connects food and justice and encourages simpler living through reduced reliance on processed foods, meats and dairy. Extending the Table encourages a global identity with international recipes, and Simply in Season encourages cooking with locally grown, seasonal ingredients. These books shape and reinforce the cultural identity of the community out of which they come. They provide ways concrete ways to live out one’s culture and faith.

Ritualized performance – A cookbook without food stains is soon forgotten. The endurance of these books is ensured when more people use them to cook. In the act of food preparation these recipes and books become embodied in the acts of preparation and eating. The recipes are not just words on a page, but a series of physical activities, a collection of odors and tastes, and an invitation to sharing a meal time with others. As these recipes are made over and over again they become part of the communal memory. It would be an interesting challenge to see how much of these cookbooks could be recreated from the communal memory. It is akin to Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 457 where books are preserved through individuals’ memory and performance of their book.


Finally, I want to encourage those concerned with preservation to be open to considering and pursuing broader understandings of what preservation looks like and how best to preserve.

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