The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 14, Number 5
Aug 1990


Review

Daniel Traister. Review of "On the Preservation of Books and Documents in Original Form," a report by Barclay Ogden published by the Commission an Preservation and Access in October 1989. Review published in Rare Books & Manuscripts Librarianship 4(2), Fall 1989, P. 121-126.

Traister review reviewed here by Ellen McCrady

Perhaps Daniel Traister, a bibliographer, is distressed by the massive microfilming program planned by America's research libraries and funding agencies to save some of the brittle books of the last 140 years. Something has distressed him, because his review of the Ogden report is inexplicably vicious. It is not clear why he has chosen to attack Barclay Ogden, whose report urges restraint and moderation and defines the issues well. Neither is it clear what he wishes Ogden had said instead, or what research libraries should be doing with their brittle books instead of microfilming them. He affects an air of superiority and makes extensive use of quotation marks around words and phrases from the report in order to give an impression of scholarly exactitude and scrupulous fairness, but he does not explain the ideas he is attacking. He uses sarcasm and insinuation throughout his review, sniping at imagined and irrelevant faults, and deliberately misinterpreting Ogden's statements so that he can shoot them down. He misconstrues the topic and meaning of the report to his readers, few of whom can be very familiar with the preservation strategies proposed and their political and practical implications.

Why did the book review editor, James N. Green, believe that this incredible review was worth giving space to? Arid if Traister really cared about what microfilming programs are doing to books (instead of--say--Ogden's use of the subjunctive), why did he not address his objections to the people who are carrying out (or advocating) these program? We certainly do need a dialog between the preservation and the bibliographic communities on the matter of microfilming and original format. But we do not need a war.

Barclay Ogden's report is published in full an P. 6264 in the July issue of the Abbey Newsletter, without any editorial changes. It is exactly the same as the report Traister reviewed in Rare Books & Manuscripts Librarianship. The reader can refer to the original report and judge whether or not it deserves comments like the following.

After quoting the opening paragraph in full, Traister says, "His reader applauds this concern. What follows, however, elicits enthusiasm more tepid than one anticipates: a tissue of conventional pieties and strong exhortations to Do Good, it is banal and substanceless prose. Moreover, as writing, it too often dismays." Now, I checked over all the prose, and I found five passages I wanted to improve by some modest rewording, but decided to leave untouched. I did not find any conventional pieties or strong exhortations to Do .Good, or any banal prose, or substanceless prose either.

Enough of that. The question that keeps coming to mind through this remarkable review is: "Why is Traister so angry, when he agrees so closely with Ogden's point of view?" Both are in favor of preserving books in their original form, although Traister (who must never have administered a large microfilming program) seems to think that Ogden is capable of waving a magic wand to protect all books forever from guillotines and microfilm cameras, but has chosen not to do so.

The magic wand theory does not explain all of the anger, though. Another answer keeps suggesting itself to me: He is angry because he feels his territory has been invaded. It must seem natural to him for the rare book people to be the principal champions of preservation of books in their original form. Furthermore, he is the current chair of the ALA Rare Books and Manuscripts Section, so he would have been the obvious spokesman, if only Ogden hadn't published first. Or so he may feel. Perhaps he is so critical of the way the report is written, and its length (too short, he says), because he feels he could have argued more vigorously and eloquently for preservation of original format.

If this review is an example of the way he would argue, though, he should not expect to be very effective. It is unclear, not constructive, and offensive to the very people through whom he would have to work if he wanted to make any changes in the way things are done. (Preservation people liked the report. Several recommended it to me, and none has objected to anything about it.) If things eventually work out for the best, as I hope and expect they will, he will his peace with the preservation community and look for better ways to champion the physical book, within the limits of the possible.

It is not a foregone conclusion, however, that the rare book world offers the best leadership on this important issue. It is a complex issue, too complex to meet by simply taking an uncompromising stance and speaking with a great deal of self-assurance. There are other players: Congress, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Commission on Preservation and Access, the Library of Congress, the European Community.... The full range and nature of all the outcomes of proposed strategies has to be considered, including cost, movement of books within the library, long-range effect upon the collection and patterns of use, and on and on. Are rare book librarians prepared to offer leadership on these matters? I think not.

The preservation administrators, however, need the rare book librarians as knowledgeable spokesmen for the book, to explain to nonlibrarians and unawakened librarians, among others, what the original can offer that a copy can't, and to give examples of research gone wrong because the evidence McCorison, others, have done. (See the short description of Tanselle's Reproductions and Scholarship" on P. 53 and McCorison's paper on p. 84 of this Newsletter. Preservation administrators try to do this, because their work puts them in situation where an advocate is needed, but they know they are not experts. (I have found myself in this position from time to time, and feel a continuing state of frustration and inadequacy.) Isn't there some way for rare book and preservation people to help each other clarify the issues and reach the people who need to be made aware of them?

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