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  Preservation's Crumbling Future

Shrinking budgets have led to backlogs in library preservation departments at Hopkins and across the country. Conservators are left wondering: If we don't preserve it, who will?

By Maria Blackburn
Photos by Mike Ciesielski

Opening Photo: For preservation director Sonia Jordan-Mowery, staving off decay is a Sisyphian task. After more than a century of heavy use, the 1890 Sanborn Fire Insurance Map of Baltimore, Vol.1 is looking worse for wear.

The huge book's quarter-leather binding is flaking and peeling and its front board has broken free from its binding. Gingerly lift the cover away and discover even more decay. Many of the pages are dark with dust and spotted with mildew. Rats have nibbled on the edges of the paper, leaving it torn and ragged, and there's a serious mold infestation deep inside the book. Generations of historians, architects, and urban planners have used this collection of maps to understand what the streets of Baltimore once looked like, who lived and worked where, and how the city has changed. Now it's virtually unusable.

It's been over a year since Hopkins rare books curator John Buchtel became worried about the condition of the Sanborn atlas and sent it from its home in the Rare Book Room at the George Peabody Library to the Sheridan Libraries Preservation Department at Homewood for an assessment. Was the mold active, he wanted to know. Could this book be saved? And how much might it cost?

He's still waiting for answers.

One of the first academic library preservation departments in the country, the Hopkins unit is known for its expertise and skill in restoring and conserving books. Founded in 1974 by renowned master bookbinder John Dean, the department has trained more than 500 conservators while helping care for many of the Sheridan Libraries' 3 million volumes. Yet because of budget cuts, shifting responsibilities, and staffing shortages, no one in preservation has had time to look at the Sanborn book, much less start work on it. The three-person conservation staff is far too busy repairing circulating books from the General Collection to focus on Special Collections materials. And so the decaying book has sat on a cluttered worktable in the basement of Krieger Hall for months.

Standing before the open Sanborn one recent afternoon, Director of Preservation Sonia Jordan-Mowery gently runs her index finger along the jagged edges of a page detailing what kinds of buildings once stood downtown.

"This is local history," she says. "If we don't preserve it, who will?"

We've all heard predictions of the paperless office and the bookless library, of the digital revolution that would make every image and every bit of text we desire available to us via computer keyboard.

Removing surface dirt from the 1890 Sanborn atlas — a resource now virtually unusable. The search engine Google made headlines last year when it announced that it would cooperate with Harvard and Stanford universities, the universities of Michigan and Oxford, and the New York Public Library to scan millions of books from their collections so that users anywhere could search them. And academic libraries at places like the University of Texas in Austin and the University of Southern California are capturing attention for their decision to move books from their main libraries in order to refocus the library into an "information commons" — complete with computers, communal work areas, and a stable of circulating laptops.

Although the libraries at Hopkins have devoted significant time and resources to digitizing certain types of books, manuscripts, and journals in their collections, the books themselves have not gone away. And they won't disappear anytime soon, says Winston Tabb, dean of libraries. "There's a huge fallacy afoot that digital will take the place of books," Tabb says. "The number of books being published every year is going up. Print is always going to be here.

"Part of what libraries have to do is preserve things as they are actually produced," Tabb continues. "This is why we need to have a preservation department."

However as academic libraries at Hopkins and across the country have moved to embrace new technologies, traditional paper preservation efforts have been overlooked, says Deanna B. Marcum, associate librarian of Congress for librarian services at the Library of Congress. "I'm afraid that because digital is new and requires so many resources we are leaving out or just dropping some of the responsibilities we have to the paper world," she says. "A lot of organizations have just said, we'll focus on digital now and we'll get back to the paper when we can."

During the Hopkins Preservation Department's zenith in the 1980s, there were 11 full-time staff members, eight of whom were trained conservators. Dean had modeled the department on the City and Guilds of the London Institute, blended old-world bookmaking techniques with new technology, and established an apprenticeship and internship program that drew conservators from all over the country. They specialized in high-end restoration and preservation of special collections books and manuscripts. "The program was a success from the moment of its creation," says Jordan-Mowery, who studied preservation here as an intern in the 1980s. "It couldn't help but succeed because there was nothing like it in the United States."

"People assumed digital was a way to preserve books, instead of a way to reformat content for surrogacy and access," says Jordan-Mowery. But Dean left Hopkins for Cornell University in the mid-1980s. In 1991, Hopkins reorganized the preservation department, cut its work space in half, and reduced the staff to seven people, with just three conservators. And the department's focus shifted away from Special Collections — the library's non-circulating collection of rare books, photographs, manuscripts, and sheet music that often needed costly labor intensive repairs — to the circulating materials in General Collections. Jordan-Mowery explains the thinking this way: "There was a cost savings in spending less time on more books."

It wasn't just about money. It was about the library of the future. At the time, library administrators at Hopkins and elsewhere believed that digitization would make Special Collections materials more accessible to researchers while helping to limit the use of the original materials and therefore preserve them. This didn't actually turn out to be true. "People misunderstood the limits of digital as a form of preservation," says Jordan-Mowery. "People assumed digital was a way to preserve books, instead of a way to reformat content for surrogacy and access."

Today, almost all of the preservation work at Johns Hopkins' Sheridan Libraries is focused on repairing and preserving books that circulate as part of the General Collection (see "Recase, Reback, Fan Glue . . . ,"). But the time may have come for the pendulum to swing back, at least a bit, says Jordan-Mowery, since advances in the digital age have not reduced use of Special Collections materials. "There needs to be a renewed assessment," she says, "of whether or not [the emphasis on General Collections] is still relevant today."

A gentle bath: Jordan-Mowery washes documents from the Baltimore Iron Works Company, ca. 1730, then lays them to dry. Faculty member Stephen G. Nichols is one person who'd like to see renewed attention toward preserving materials in Special Collections. Nichols, the chairman of the Department of Romance Languages and Literatures at Hopkins, served as interim director of the Hopkins library in the 1990s. In 2001 he chaired a Council on Library and Information Resources task force that looked at preservation needs of artifacts in library collections.

"To have a library without an active preservation department is like buying a Rolls Royce and never taking it to be serviced," says Nichols. "For some reason, people think books don't need to be serviced, but that is just not the case."

Nichols and other scholars note that the book — the whole book, the book as object — offers information beyond its actual contents.

"There's nothing like the real thing," says Phyllis Berger, who took her Introductory Photography students to Special Collections to inspire them in their assignment to make handmade books. She showed them examples of the many different forms a book can take, including a 16th-century emblem book and artists' books by Robert Motherwell and Hanne Darboven. "You cannot experience the tactile quality of the materials over the 'Net, nor can you really get a feeling for size," she says.

And there's something about the very act of looking at a book that's reflective, says Sanjay Arwade, a Hopkins assistant professor of civil engineering. Arwade recently took students from his Perspectives on the Evolutions of Structures class to Special Collections to look at an early edition of De Architectura by Vitruvius. The class also examined two large volumes on the Eads Bridge in St. Louis and the Firth of Forth Bridge in Scotland. "I wanted the students to see original period photographs and drawings of the structures, and to read firsthand descriptions of how the structures were designed and built, and how they were viewed at the time of construction," he explains.

Martha Edgerton hangs sections of a book from an 1890s sewing frame (right), to prepare for sewing them into a text block that she later trims (below), using a plough and press machine. "The experience of sitting in a quiet room and reading a book or examining a drawing or photograph is very different from looking at a computer screen," he says. "I think students can focus better when at a table with a book on it."

The preservation lab in the Krieger basement is filled with cubbyholes stocked with sheets of bookcloth and stuffed with aged, interesting-looking machinery used for all sorts of book and paper repair. There are paper cutters and encapsulation machines the size of treadmills, black and green iron book presses that look like medieval torture devices, and plough and press machines crafted from wood that's dark and satiny with age.

Martha Edgerton knows every strange-looking machine, every tiny instrument, and she knows how to use them to repair old and damaged books. In her 31 years as a book conservator at Hopkins (she was the first graduate of the department's apprentice program), she has perfected the art of book preservation and conservation.

To illustrate the time and effort required to preserve even a single book, she offers up the example of the Sanborn atlas.

Edgerton estimates that it might take her an entire year just to dry clean surface soil from the pages of the book. Then she would test the paper's acid content to see if it needed a deacidification treatment to stop it from becoming flaky and brittle, and she would test the pigment in the ink to see if it could withstand a water treatment. After this, Edgerton would remove the text block — the block of sewn signatures or sets of pages — from the binding, separate them, and wash them in plain water.

Recase, Reback, Fan Glue ...

Read more
"The stains from the mold problem would fade from washing," she explains. After washing, she might brush sizing on the back and front of each page to add some stiffness back into the freshly washed paper. "We are always testing and retesting to see what the paper needs," she says.

After sizing the pages, she'd repair holes and shredded edges in the paper with pieces of Japanese tissue applied with special glue. "Then I can start sewing," she says. She would attach newly repaired sections of the book on an antique wooden frame and, using archival linen thread that she's threaded onto a bookbinding needle, she would sew the pages back into a text block. From there, she would attach new endsheets and boards, repair the binding, and reinsert the pages. Or she might craft an entirely new binding and hand-tool it with gilt.

Working full time on the Sanborn map book and nothing else, she estimates the whole project might take her two years to complete. The project isn't likely to happen anytime soon, however. Because of budget cuts, Edgerton now functions as the administrator of the conservation unit — managing students, ordering supplies, coordinating library exhibits — leaving her little opportunity to do preservation work.

Weighing the needs of the books against the cost of preserving them is a constant challenge. "All preservation has to be balanced in terms of use," says Jordan-Mowery. "Just because you can fix something doesn't mean that you should."

Brass lettering tools, warming on a heating stove (right), are used for hand lettering a title on the spine of a book.

Replacing a damaged book might be a better alternative than spending years and thousands of dollars repairing it. Or perhaps encapsulating a little-used damaged book in mylar could be the best way to preserve it until it's needed by a user.

Tabb, who took over as library dean in 2002 after previously serving as associate librarian at the Library of Congress, says he's committed to strengthening the Preservation Department at the Sheridan Libraries and making preservation a more integrated part of the university.

Soon after Tabb's arrival, he hired Jordan-Mowery to fill the job of preservation director — a position that had been vacant for five years. She is now meeting with members of the library's collections management team to identify "pockets of excellence" in the MSEL's collections and to address their preservation needs. "It's not that items from the circulating collections shouldn't be repaired, because they should," she says. But outsourcing quick repairs could free up conservators to work on more labor-intensive jobs within Special Collections."We want to target our efforts on the materials that are of the most value to our users."

There are 300,000 volumes in the George Peabody Library, a cathedral of books that houses a myriad of rare and valuable treasures. There are old books, such as a 1470 copy of De Morali Lepra by medieval German theologian Johannes Nider. There are rare books, like a copy of the first American edition of Charles Dickens' Bleak House. And there are extraordinary books, like William Hogarth's 1793 The Analysis of Beauty, which features foldouts of elaborate copperplate engravings that humorously show the reader what the artist defines as beautiful.

Lena Warren shapes a text block using a hammer and a plough and press. Rare books — those considered so because of their age, edition, scarcity, and value — are housed in their own Rare Book Room at the library. But there are thousands of other special books just sitting in the Peabody stacks.

John Buchtel stops before a shelf in a second floor stack of the library and surveys a six-foot-high bookcase containing about 125 volumes. He sees cracked and peeling bindings and books tied with linen tape. He speculates that some 25 percent of the books in this library need some form of conservation repair.

And he's worried about the message the sight of these decaying books sends to students and scholars. "I'm concerned that if I walk them through the stacks and they see these kinds of problems, it's disheartening — it gives the impression that the library doesn't care about its materials. That's not true."

Caring for these books ensures that the materials will be available for years to come, Buchtel says. "We have a responsibility not to deprive the future of its past."

Doing nothing is not an option, Jordan-Mowery says. Nor is continuing to overlook the books that need help. "The books are deteriorating — we need to be responsive to them," she says. "So much of preservation is timing. We don't have forever to get to everything."

Maria Blackburn is a senior writer at Johns Hopkins Magazine.

Recase, Reback, Fan Glue ...

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