By Peter Waters

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Preserving our cultural heritage is no less important than preserving rain forests and endangered animal species. If society recognizes that books, manuscripts, maps and atlases, graphic arts, paintings, photographs, recordings, and a host of related material contain the essence, history, culture, and creativity of the human race, then we must begin to place a priority on their preservation if we expect future generations to be able to study and enjoy these vast and often irreplaceable resources.

How will the next generation judge our attempts to preserve the varied types of material in our major library collections? Have we assessed the preservation challenge adequately to be comfortable about a successful outcome, or do we need to take a closer look at some of the existing strategies?

To be faced with the overwhelming task of conserving the immense collections of rare and valuable material in a great library such as the Library of Congress, with a conservation staff of 30 members, is like looking through a tunnel which has no end. The single item conservation treatment approach, while important, is expensive and time-consuming and does not provide attention to the vast majority of the collections. The concept of phased treatment, which is a departure from single item treatment, seeks to secure a protective environment until such time as the object may be singled out for individual treatment—an element of preventive conservation.

The massive response to the Florence flood of 1966 marked the first recorded mass deacidification treatment of books and related material. The flood waters contained a high percentage of calcite and although the paper may have benefited from such an exposure, no one would recommend exposing library collections to such an aggressive one-shot treatment! The restoration work was extensive. Over 20 years later, 75% of the 80,000 or so volumes damaged by water, mud, and oil from the Magliabecchi and Palatino rare book collections have been restored.

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The experience of this disaster was invaluable. A close study of previous repairs, binding structures, and conservation practices revealed that not all damage was caused by the disaster itself. Restoration practices had to be reevaluated. Out of this experience came the avoidance of adhesives where practical—an early conceptual breakthrough in a "phased" approach to conservation.

This new approach to conservation, called "phased conservation" by its proponents, is the art and science of delaying the inevitable moment when material will perish. It identifies the degree of deterioration and seeks to provide projections of future decay rates. It responds to these factors in a planned, logical sequence of phases within the restraints of available resources. And it protects material from unnecessary restoration treatments. Above all, phased conservation stimulates a new realism in assessing the current state of deterioration and provides thoughtful alternatives to hasty or short-term actions that might otherwise be taken to save a precious object.

The foundation of a comprehensive phased conservation program is to provide physical protection to objects, which can be achieved by placing them in "archival" quality housing or boxes. Work is usually carried out jointly by conservation and curatorial staffs. Controlling the environments of books is the first line of defense in retarding their deterioration. As a means of balancing the needs of the disparate items of entire collections, phased conservation should become the principal management approach to the conservation of collections in both libraries and museums. It is pro-active rather than reactive, and it is cost-effective and efficient.

In 1988, another disaster struck which further challenged our basic approaches to preservation of collections. The Library of the Academy of Sciences (BAN), in St. Petersburg, Russia, suffered the most devastating library fire of this century. Approximately 180,000 17th-, 18th-, and 19th-century volumes were badly damaged. It was estimated that restoration would require 50 restorers over 40 years to complete. Such a prospect was daunting so the idea of phasing the work over a long period of time, based on priority needs, became the only viable option for this severely damaged collection.

The phased program at BAN was originally conceived to provide individual protective, handmade boxes for each damaged volume. Providing individual physical protection with an improved microclimate housing in a less than satisfactory macroclimate seemed at first to be a straightforward task. But there was no additional shelf space at the Library to accommodate traditional book boxes, which require several kilometers of extra space per book. Measurements of 10,000 books revealed no consistencies in book sizes. But manufacturing 180,000 individual custom-fitting boxes, in order not to require additional shelf space, seemed an impossible task. The answer to this seemingly unsolvable problem came with the understanding that because the volumes had been substantially soaked with water and dried, their original thickness had increased. By a random remeasuring of some 60 volumes with the addition of a kilogram of weight resting on the volume, we found that the average compression between the books with and those without a weight was 4.5mm. So the task was to find an automated method to produce custom book boxes which would not add more than 3 to 4mm to the thickness of each book, when weighted with a one-kilogram weight.

To solve BAN's problem, a computer-controlled manufacturing system was invented to automatically produce boxes using E-flute corrugated board stock, adding no more than 3mm to the thickness of each book. A total of 11,500 book containers were made with this technology in the United States and delivered to BAN for quick assembly. The result of this work has shown that less than one meter of additional shelf space was needed to house the 11,500 damaged volumes. This technology can produce at least 200 individual and infinitely variable-sized book containers per day, about 50,000 per year, inexpensively with one operator. This systems phased approach to the challenging problem presented at BAN has prompted the Library Director, Dr. Valerii P. Leonov, to propose that phased conservation should be included as a subject of library science.

What lies ahead in our search for meaningful solutions to the preservation of library and archive material? We might first define what it is that we are struggling to preserve, in what manner and in what time frame. We must develop new philosophies that might be based on the Bauhaus concept of "fitness for purpose," on policy approaches based on "preservation on demand" and "preventive preservation" measures, including the means to monitor and control environmental conditions.

As we look to the future with some optimism, let us constantly remind ourselves to ask of each other, "What are we doing and why are we doing it? Given the choice, most of us would prefer preventive medicine to a surgeon's knife or aggressive drug therapy! Should we not adopt a similar attitude for the preservation of cultural property?"

Peter Waters is the Preservation Strategic Planning Officer at the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. He played a leading role in the rescue of cultural property after the 1966 Florence flood, and developed the phased conservation program in response to the 1988 fire at the Library of the Academy of Sciences in Russia.