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Nicholson Baker and Preservation

The publication of Nicholson Baker’s Double Fold has focused attention on some of the problems research libraries face in helping to preserve our intellectual and cultural heritage. Although we do not share some of Mr. Baker’s conclusions, we welcome the attention he has focused on the preservation challenge. The pamphlet, Preserving Research Collections: A Collaboration Between Librarians and Scholars by Jutta Reed-Scott published by the Association of Research Librarians, the Modern Language Association, and the American Historical Association on behalf of the Task Force on the Preservation of the Artifact in 1999 addresses some of the preservation challenges facing research libraries. It provides a different perspective on the complexities of library preservation.

The University of Washington is fortunate to be located in an area with environmental conditions that are not as detrimental for the preservation of library materials as in some other locations. There are not the extremes of temperature and humidity, e.g., which have contributed to the deterioration of library materials in other parts of the country. Random sample collection surveys of some of our collections in 2000 and 2001 indicate that although a very high percentage of our books and serials are printed on acidic paper, brittle paper is not as significant of a problem as in many libraries in the eastern half of the country.

We do want to assure that our collections are stored under as optimal of environmental conditions as possible since good environmental conditions can extend the life of those collections. This summer, e.g., we will begin to field test a computerized system for gathering and interpreting data on environmental conditions in collection storage areas by monitoring temperature and humidity in our Sand Point Shelving Facility. The system uses advanced dataloggers and software recently developed by the Image Permanence Institute (IPI) at the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Our collections are intended for use, and like all libraries we have books that have reached a state of deterioration where they can no longer be rebound or repaired. The Libraries established a preservation replacement program in 1991 to address this problem. Under this program about a thousand deteriorated volumes have been replaced with high quality photocopies using acid-free paper. Other volumes have been replaced with reprints, later editions, or microfilm. The Libraries has not had an active brittle books microfilming program. In 1999-2000, only 34 books were microfilmed with 154 books filmed in 1998-99.

Although critical of library brittle books programs, Mr. Baker is particularly concerned about newspapers which offer special challenges since they are not issued for permanency, don’t hold up well to use, and, with a few exceptions, are difficult to access since indices to them are lacking. Baker tends to de-emphasize problems of poor quality newsprint. Newspapers are, however, a major preservation problem as they are particularly susceptive to damage from use and deteriorate rapidly if not stored under good environmental conditions. Newspaper backfiles also require huge amounts of space to store. The quality of newsprint and the space to house newspapers are real concerns for libraries.

The University of Washington has one of the largest microform collections in the country. This collection supplements our holdings. It has meant that our users have access to valuable materials that they would not otherwise have. Extending access to information found in newspapers has been a priority for the Libraries and we have acquired numerous backfiles of newspaper on microfilm. Most of our microforms have been acquired from commercial firms, governments, and other libraries. We estimate only about 5% of our microfilm was created by the University Libraries. Ninety-five regional newspapers are currently filmed using an outside vendor. In 1999-2000, a total of 100,080 pages were filmed. This microfilming extends access to researchers outside the University.

Although most newspapers are discarded after the film is acquired, some titles of special value to our region are retained in hard copy, e.g., the Washington Standard and Columbian/Daily Pioneer, two territorial papers; the Klondike Nugget, a Klondike gold rush newspaper; the University of Washington Daily; and newspapers produced in the Japanese American internment camps during World War II, e.g., the Minidoka Irrigator and the Topaz Times. We also have bound publisher’s runs of the Seattle Union Record, 1900 to 1928, an important labor newspaper that spearheaded the 1919 Seattle General Strike. Non-newspaper titles, such as the Argus, a weekly published in Seattle from 1894 to1983, have also been retained after filming. We have also kept copies of the Seattle Times and Seattle Post-Intelligencer Sunday magazines, e.g. Pacific Magazine, because of color printing and the large number of photographs in many of these magazines. Recently we assumed responsibility for a backfile (1876 through 1954) of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, formerly housed in the Seattle Public Library.

We share Mr. Baker’s concerns for the poor quality of early microfilm done before the preservation community developed standards for film stock and microfilming. All microfilming currently done for the Libraries is done to national standards using polyester film stock and is checked for quality control. The master negative is stored separately and not used. A printing negative is available to produce additional copies on demand and a positive copy is available for use.

The University Libraries has recently placed a new emphasis on preservation. Preserving Washington’s Collections: Strategies for the New Century (July, 2000) discusses the changing environment for preservation, provides some background information on the Libraries preservation program and makes recommendations for strengthening our preservation program. Many of these recommendations have been or are being implemented. We are identifying preservation priorities and attempting to align resources with those priorities.

The Libraries share Mr. Baker’s concern for preserving materials in their original format. A pilot program, for example, to use the Bookkeeper deacidification process to stabilize acidic materials already in our collections is planned. The Bookkeeper process neutralizes the residual acid that is in paper as a result of its manufacture and storage environment and deposits an alkaline buffer to further protect the paper extending the life of the original volumes by at least 300%.

The University Libraries is charged with preserving an irreplaceable collection of enormous value, a collection that continues to grow and expand in size, scope, and format. As “Preserving Research Collections” states, “Future preservation efforts in research libraries will require a strategic vision that integrates the need for maintaining print resources with the opportunities offered by digital technologies. Adding to the challenge of balancing conflicting needs is the problem of limited financial resources. If libraries are to preserve scholarly resources either in their original formats, or as reformatted surrogates, substantial economic and technical investments are necessary.”