Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Reading "Preserving Our Heritage: Perspectives from Antiquity to the Digital Age"

Preserving Our Heritage: Perspectives from Antiquity to the Digital Age, selections and commentary by Michele Valerie Cloonan. Chicago: Neal-Schuman, 2015.

[Addendum: You can listen to my interview with Michele Cloonan on my Preservation Imperative podcast.]

This is a large book. It is many other things as well, including being a good book, but first impressions of the books size have stuck with me throughout its reading. It is 693 pages of 8.5 x 11 in. doubled-columned pages filled with not particularly large type. Granted, this volume’s heft may not seem to be the most essential quality of this book, but when you’ve taken on the task of reading the entire volume, it is a very real and present quality.

I have been anticipating this book for quite some time for two reasons: Cloonan's writings cause me to look at aspects of preservation in new ways – which is nearly the best thing I can say of any writing; I’ve also been anticipating this book because it took quite some time to finally come into existence. For two years I watched its publication date be pushed back again and again.

The book is an anthology, a selection of preservation writings over time – a very long time – with commentary by Cloonan. All of the pieces had been previously published, except for a few written specifically for this volume.

My first graduate degree is in biblical studies, and I noticed my mind occasionally going back to those times as I made my way through this volume. Here are some of the connections: both books tell the mythic/philosophical/historical story of how we came to be where we are today; both books tell that story with different and sometimes contradictory voices and perspectives; with both books the reader needs to decide what parts to read within the piece’s historical context, and what to read as “confessional” or as speaking directly to the reader’s context; and with each book, readers began the new year with the noble conviction that they were going to read the entire thing, and finding motivation to continue occasionally flagging along the way.

Here’s a listing of the chapter headings and each chapter contains several articles:
  • Early Perspectives on Preservation
  • Perspectives on Cultural Heritage 
  • Preservation in Context: Libraries, Archives, Museums, and the Built Environment
  • Collections: Development and Management
  • Risks to Cultural Heritage: Time, Nature, and People
  • Conservation
  • Frameworks for Digital Preservation
  • Preservation Policy
  • Ethics and Values
  • Multicultural Perspectives
  • Sustainability

The chapter titles reveal that this book is not only large in physical size, it is large in perspective. This large, interdisciplinary perspective on preservation is both the book’s biggest gift to the reader, as well as its biggest hurdle. By gathering all these voices across time and tradition into one volume Cloonan offers the reader a global perspective of cultural heritage preservation. Reading this volume will introduce the reader to new voices and new disciplines and is bound to expand one’s perception of cultural heritage preservation. This book weaves a wide web of interconnected preservation ideas and interests. The hurdle of this planetary perspective, at least for this reader, is trying to hold onto all these many voices and ideas at the same time to uncover connections, relationships, and patterns.

As I was working through it my mind did what it needs to do and developed a model or pattern with which understand or organize these various articles. I settled on four realms of preservation being Conceptual, Strategic, Administrative, and Technical. (I wrote more on this on some earlier blog posts. Post 1. Part 2.) These four categories gave me a framework to receive these different articles independent of the discipline they represented. Each article generally falls into one of these four categories, although many straddle multiple categories.

The majority of the articles reflect a library/archives context, with some articles from museum, historical preservation, and general cultural heritage contexts also included. I would describe the book as more multi-disciplinary than interdisciplinary. Cloonan places different preservation disciplines next to each other, but she doesn’t exactly get them to talk to each other. It is up to the reader to establish connections. In the Epilogue, Cloonan encourages the development of the interdisciplinary study of preservation as a distinct academic field.

As I was reading this volume I occasionally paused over the question: Who is going to want to read this book? And how will they read it? Some might use this book as a reference tool reading selected articles of particular relevance, but that would miss the value of the book as a whole, which is greater than its individual parts. Referring back to my biblical reference, this book, like the Bible, is not a great “how-to” book. It does not specifically tell the reader how to manage a preservation program or repair a book. What this book does is provide a historical and philosophical foundation from which decisions about preservation programs and book repair can be more wisely made.

I found a few chapters to be particularly valuable inclusions in this volume: “Perspectives on Cultural Heritage Preservation,” which includes most of the book’s conceptual/philosophical writings; “Preservation Policy,” which surprised me as being about government policy for cultural heritage preservation; “Multicultural Perspectives,” although I note that these articles focus on objects, and not libraries or information; and finally I found “Sustainability, A Review” and particularly helpful overview of this growing area of interest.

The chapter “Frameworks for Digital Preservation” is the book’s weakest section, largely because it has too much similar content. The majority of the articles were from the 1990s. I acknowledge that in an anthology that covers texts from over 2000 years selecting texts to represent the rapidly changing and growing discipline of digital preservation is a challenge.

Publishing this book is itself an act of preservation as republishing and distribution have long been seen as one tool for preservation. Also, by selecting these articles and inviting the reader to read and pay attention to them, Cloonan is shaping the reader’s memory and what they carry with them into the future. The content of this book is being preserved because it will be distributed to readers and libraries around the world, but also because the contents are now part of my thought process and will likely shape and be cited in my own future work.

This book does not set a vision for how to move preservation forward, but that is not what this book sets out to do. While this book doesn’t extend the reader’s vision on the future, it certainly invites the reader to look both deeper within and further beyond their familiarity. It builds a foundation that is both deeper and wider upon which to create new ways of understanding and accomplishing preservation.

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