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November 2001


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"A LISTSERV list for discussions pertaining to New York State history." <[log in to unmask]>
Tom Perrin <[log in to unmask]>
Fri, 2 Nov 2001 14:54:12 -0500
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"A LISTSERV list for discussions pertaining to New York State history." <[log in to unmask]>
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"Pullen, Sharon" wrote:
> My evaluation of your two cents:
>         And, after they turn to dust, will the information they contain,
> both historical and cultural have been microfilmed or otherwise preserved?

These were copied over 30 years ago.

> Your private joy hardly counts as a service to the public.  You cannot call
> yourself a preservationist because you have not taken any steps to preserve.

Not so. You have no idea or conception or experience of what I do based
on any information, from any source other than my email.  That's just
not enough to form an informed opinion, let alone indulge in

>         Collectors, as you point out are about monetary value and personal
> satisfaction, not the cultural heritage and certainly not the public.

If collectors did not assign a monetary value, then little of any world
culture would ever have been preserved, and much would not have been
created. For example, Ptolmey's Geography was preserved and his map
reconstructed because a Medieval bookseller and a Medieval collector
reached a financial agreement over the worth of what turned out to be a
unique document. But even given that "monetary value and personal
satisfaction" comprise a portion of any collector's (either individual
or corporate) motivation, I would dispute that these values are worthy
of any one's disdain.  It's a little bit like sneering at an actor
because he or she likes being a thespian.  Take, for example, the
Scheide Library perched above Princeton University's Firestone Library.
Privately owned and operated by the Scheide family for several
generations (http://www.princeton.edu/~rbsc/department/scheide/), the
collection is world class, both in content, scope and monetary value.
It contains a very large number of items that are unique in their class.
I can probably say without fear of correction that the Scheide family
derives a great deal of personal satisfaction from their collection and
collecting efforts. That personal satisfaction will never diminish the
value or importance of the contribution the Scheide family has given to
the world at large.

>         Since you seem to have formed opinions regarding librarians based on
> instances with no dates and documentation with no citations, I know you will
> not mind that I have formed an opinion of you based on your email.

Well, folks, this is hardly the place for a doctoral dissertation. And
were I to mention all the libraries that have tossed (and continue to
toss) culturally valuable items on to the street and into the garbage
container, the list would be endless and ongoing. Most antiquarian
booksellers of my acquaintance have a host of examples. Like I said in
my previous emails, I have been a personal observer (and beneficiary) of
such.  I will give you one example, and one example only.

An academic library discarded a book printed on acidic paper. The pages
were brittle, cracked and detached. The photographs inside were faded,
and in some cases hardly illegible. I suspect that any librarian would
have discarded the book based on these factors alone. It is now in my
collection. Monetarily, it's only worth a couple of hundred dollars.
Culturally, it's priceless.  It is a work on Australian Aboriginal
languages, printed in the 19th Century in Australia.  The photographs
are original (i.e. not photoengravings) continuous tone photographs of
Australian Aborigines in their native state. With a little bit of
manipulation on my computer, the faded photography looks almost new in
its new digitized format.  Had I or some other collector not purchased
this treasure for a nominal $1, the book would definitely have ended up
in the dust bin. Because of its cultural and artistic importance, I
would have gladly paid a far greater ransom for the book had it been
necessary. But it wasn't necessary at all.

What were this library's alternatives?

The library could have had their discards/deaccessions evaluated by a
competent appraiser who is familiar with the various levels of the used
book/paper market: special libraries, auctions, internet sales,
collectors, flea markets and then made an informed decision as to
whether, or how, the book should be deaccessioned.

The library could have secured the services of a competent auctioneer,
had the book appraised, and sold the book at auction. This simple act
alone would have accomplished several purposes:

a) established a real-time monetary value to the item, thus educating
the library staff as well as the general public, as to the relative
market value of the library's collection.
b) this, in turn, might have led to greater safeguarding of the
library's collections.
c) provided funds for the library's current financial needs which might
not have been available elsewhere, including, remotely, an increase to
library staffers' salaries and benefits.
d) placed the book in the hands of a special collection (corporate or
individual library) who appreciates the importance and value of the
item, and will take some pains to preserve the book for future

I think that libraries and archives should have a discard/deaccesion
policy in place that takes these factors into consideration.  Library
discards should never be subject to the whim of politicians,
administrators or other cultural barbarians who have a full blown
anxiety attack at the sight of a full or overfull book shelf. For that
matter, circulation or the absence of circulation of a book should never
be a criteria for discard either.

Here is a question for you:

Which library schools in the United States REQUIRE that their graduates
take a course in special collections, document preservation or in
archive management? Please let me know, because if I should ever become
a library trustee, one of the questions I will ask of any applicant for
a position is whether or not they have taken such a course.

>  Archivists are usually a complete mystery.

I suspect that the best archivists are trained historians, not
librarians. On the whole, I have found that archivists are the better
preservationists. If they have any collective fault, it is that in some
cases, their collections may be accessible only to themselves.

>         Do you serve as a library trustee?

No, and don't have to be in order to form an opinion based on my
experience and observations.

> Are you a member of your local
> library's friends group?

About five or six of them. So many that I have long since lost count,
even tho I write the checks. However, that fact, either alone or in the
company of others, does not affect the validity of my opinions nor
detract or add one iota to my experience.

>  Are you aware that in today's technological
> culture  the public library is the only source of hands-on computer
> experience open to many members of the community?

And your point with reference to this discussion is....?

>         Unlike collectors and self-styled documentarians, librarians, both
> public and academic serve an entire community.

All the more reason that librarians should be ardent preservationists,
collectors, and the like.  But here's another fast fact for you:  The
very best, world class collections in libraries are rarely put together
by librarians or by libraries.  They are, in fact, donated to libraries
by those very same collectors that you disparage. A wonderful example
would be the Cotsen Children's Book Collection at Firestone Library (
http://www.princeton.edu/~cotsen/research/index.shtml )in Princeton, NJ,
or maybe the Morgan Library in New York City.  The Cotsen collection is
especially relevant because the donor donated many millions of dollars
for the continuing maintenance of the 23,000 volume collection.

>         I firmly believe in the importance of preserving the past.  However,
> there is a vast difference between intrinsic and informational value and an
> even vaster one between what serves the public and what serves a personal
> preference.

Today's treasure is yesterday's trash, literally and figuratively.
Interestingly enough, the collecting marketplace is on the cutting edge
of determining what is culturally relevant and in need of preservation.
By the time that the average library or archive wakes up to what should
be preserved, too much has been lost.

I am happy to say that there are a very many libraries which are
enlightened preservationists.  If they acquire an item that is not
appropriate to their collection, they trade it for one that is.  Some
libraries will actively collect in an area that is on, or long before,
the cutting edge of popularity, and build a world class collection when
the collection can be built for pennies. I suspect that the number of
such libraries, and librarians is very, very few, as a percentage of the

>         As I type this a vast community of public servants struggles to
> recover lost history and preserve current history connected to the September
> 11 attacks.

What were they doing before September 11? It is precisely because War,
Flood and Fire are the enemies of culture that all possible efforts
should be made to preserve originals, duplicate them when possible, but
above all, preserve them.

So don't store your books and papers in basements in flood zones
(Colorado Librarians, please take note.)

> Will they be vilified by future generations because the manner
> or media they choose to use does not suit personal preference?  I certainly
> hope not.

There is no vilification here.  I never got personal. I believe that my
previous email described my own behaviors, opinions and beliefs, and
those of persons that I had directly observed. That's good enough for a
court of law, by the way.  Why not stop being defensive? Nobody was
attacking you! That said, I believe, from all my experience and personal
observation that public libraries in general, and some very good
academic libraries in particular (which I will not name here), have had
serious system failures in the preservation of books and documents.  The
world would benefit greatly from librarians not being defensive, and
doing, instead, something about the problem.

Tom Perrin
Ardent Preservationist and Documentarian (or is it the other way

By the way, I worked in a library for five years. I am married to a
librarian. I owe my ability to read, and probably my life to my local
public library (I was bedridden with polio BTV (before Television). One
of my first jobs was as an archivist, an occupation in which I could
have willingly, but not easily, spent a lifetime. I have written and had
published one book, which was well documented, received a great deal of
professional praise, which died in the marketplace and thus failed to
make me either rich or famous.  I personally own some 30,000 books, more
than I can ever read, but I hope to die trying.