The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 20, Number 8
Dec 1996


The New York State Program for Conservation & Preservation of Library Research Materials

by Joseph F. Shubert

This paper was presented at the US-USSR Seminar on Access to Library Resources through Technology and Preservation, 5-8 June 1988, Washington, DC. At that time the author was State Librarian and Assistant Commissioner for Libraries. He retired last year, but the state preservation program he set in motion 15 years ago continues.

The New York State Library, established in 1818, has faced preservation crises over its 170 years, including those resulting from poor housing of its collections in inadequate space and a disastrous fire. Space was a problem as early as the 1840s (resulting in construction of a building to house its collections in 1854) and in the 1890s and again in the 1960s. In 1911, the Library's book and journal collections were destroyed by fire but, fortunately, manuscripts and papers escaped. Today's crisis in preservation lies largely in the steady deterioration of collections because of acidic paper.

Similar preservation problems are faced by other major research libraries, and in 1982 the heads of eleven research libraries and I met over a period of months to develop legislation which would provide funds to help these, and other, libraries move quickly in addressing the preservation problem. I will describe the program that resulted from those meetings. Before doing so, it is useful to see the role of the New York State Library in relation to other libraries in the State and to the preservation problems faced by libraries in the state.

Role of the New York State Library

The New York State Library, which is part of the State Education Department, has two major divisions: a research library and a division of library development. The research library has a collection of more than two million volumes and millions of microforms, newspapers, maps, manuscripts, and other documents. It is the largest of the 50 state libraries in the nation, and has pioneered the use of technology so that today its online catalog is available in 211 legislative offices, library systems and other libraries across the state.The library development division works with some 7,000 libraries throughout the State to achieve our goal that every resident of New York State should enjoy timely and free access, through local libraries working within library systems, to a full range of information resources and service, provided without restriction of censorship or violation of privacy. The Division administers state and federal aid for libraries, oversees public libraries, and advises and assists libraries of all types (public, academic, school, hospital, corporate, and special). Most of the assistance is provided through systems of libraries which are in large part supported by the State and through grants for particular objectives or services. Since 1984 one of the grant programs has been for the conservation and preservation of research materials.

The 1984 and 1986 LegislationIn 1983 we proposed that the State each year provide funds for four purposes: (1) basic grants of $90,000 annually to the eleven designated comprehensive research libraries; (2) $1 million annually for these libraries for collective action in preserving materials; (3) $1 million for grants to other libraries and depositories, regardless of size or location, for preservation of endangered unique research resources; and (4) an office in the Division of Library Development to "identify the conservation and preservation needs of libraries within the state, to assess the technology available for such conservation and preservation, and to coordinate the conservation and preservation efforts...." The law was enacted, without full funding, in 1984 and additional funding was approved in 1986. We currently have $1.8 million annually for the program and are working to increase the funds to $3 million annually.Funds for the office require annual appropriations as part of the Education Department operating expense. These funds have been too limited to accomplish the program objectives, and the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mellon Foundation have granted funds to strengthen the education and technical assistance services of the office.

Program AccomplishmentsSince 1984, we have granted $5.5 million for preservation in the eleven comprehensive research libraries and $1.7 million for all other libraries. We have an education program that encourages preservation planning at the institutional level, disaster preparedness, and public awareness of preservation needs.As a result of this program, each comprehensive research library has prepared a five-year plan for preservation. Most have reorganized or created preservation offices. The total number of staff engaged in preservation activities has increased from 83 to 203. Total preservation expenditures increased 47 percent, between 1984 and 1986 (from $4.6 million to $6.8 million). Important collections and materials have been preserved through microfilming and conservation treatment.Most of the grant funds in the eleven libraries have been expended for physical treatment (41 percent), preservation microfilming (20 percent), identifying and screening materials for preservation (11 percent), and such other projects as environmental controls, disaster preparedness, and staff and user education (28 percent).Recorded as well as print and manuscript material has been preserved. For instance, the Library of Natural Sounds at Cornell University has copied onto new tape almost 3,000 recordings representing 144 hours of recorded material, including African bird calls, meetings and speeches of the American Labor Party and over 30 years of broadcasts by New York City's municipal radio station.This year seven of the research libraries are beginning an effort to preserve 2,100 New York historic transportation and city street maps. The preserved maps will be fully cataloged in OCLC and RLIN and the project will publish a checklist of them.In the discretionary grant program aiding "all other libraries" we have authorized 116 projects at 78 libraries, archives, historical societies, museums, and other institutions. These grants have enabled institutions to improve environmental conditions, microfilm deteriorating materials, preserve early sound recordings, and treat maps, photographs, posters, manuscripts and other materials.Materials preserved have included pre-revolutionary land company records, photographs from North Pacific expeditions from 1897 to 1903 which trace the relations between the early inhabitants of America and Asia, Eugene O'Neill manuscripts, and a collection of Yiddish children's literature. A grant helped in the preservation of the 1850-1950 archives of the Steinway piano factory, materials which uniquely document the history of American immigration and unionization.Grant recipients have entered bibliographic information on all preserved materials into a national database, assuring that other libraries and scholars know of the availability of the materials preserved. We require public access to preserved materials.Experience in the program is proving useful in development of standards. For instance, as a result of the grants, Cornell University and three other libraries formed a consortium that has fostered further emphasis on preservation standards for recorded sound. A grant assisted The Rochester Institute of Technology in developing a test to show the relative resistance of microfilms to attack by atmospheric oxidants. The test method has proved reproducible and several photographic manufacturing companies will use it to improve microfilm technology.

Other DevelopmentsLibrary preservation emerged throughout a report and discussion at a May 1986 conference on "Our Memory at Risk; Preserving New York's Unique Research Resources." The conference was the culmination of a 1982-1983 New York Document Conservation Administration Training and Planning Program conducted by the New York State Library Archives and the State Library with the help of a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. The program focussed on preservation needs for historical records and unique research materials.Four other states (Illinois, Maine, New Hampshire, and New Jersey) have established programs roughly based upon the New York model. The grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mellon Foundation are intended to produce experience and materials useful to other states. In April 1988 we produced a one-hour teleconference, "Fighting Slow Fires," broadcast through the State by nine television stations. Some 50,000 persons are estimated to have watched the program, and more than 40 people from throughout the State telephoned questions to the panelists during the course of the hour.Grant funds helped Columbia University Libraries produce a 15-minute videotape which can be used by libraries and schools to train staff and users in the proper handling of books.In cooperation with the Northeast Document Conservation Center and library systems, we have begun a series of disaster preparedness workshops and will produce a disaster planning guidebook.Observations on the ProgramThe program has been remarkably successful in:

  1. aiding those libraries in which preservation has been a priority of the administration and adequate planning has been underway;
  2. encouraging library administrators to initiate preservation programs and re-examine their preservation priorities;
  3. providing a stable base for the preservation program in several of the comprehensive research libraries when retrenchment threatened all programs;
  4. focusing attention on preservation needs, and producing information useful to librarians and the public; and
  5. providing instruction needed by small institutions which have deteriorating materials and are interested in applying for grants.Experience also has shown that:
  6. A program of this magnitude requires more administrative and technical staff than most administrators foresee.
  7. Many people looking for technological magic in conservation need to think first about such simple steps as better staff and user education programs, correcting environmental deficiencies, and developing clear collection policies.
  8. The public is genuinely concerned about the specter of losing a large part of our cultural and intellectual heritage.
  9. It is difficult to quantify and cost out preservation needs at the State level because of imprecise information about collections, the condition of holdings, duplication of holdings, unpredictability of future use patterns, and because of the cost of obtaining analysis of such data.
  10. Cooperative efforts in preservation projects require more time and compromise than some administrators believe worthwhile.
  11. The bibliographic networks are an effective means of avoiding inadvertent duplication of effort.
  12. Preservation problems don't stop at state or national boundaries. What we preserve is important to libraries far beyond New York State; what those libraries pre-serve and how they do it is important to us; and the prospect of an expanded Federal commitment through the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Technical Library Services and Construction Act is encouraging libraries.Four years of experience with the program shows that a coordinated approach to preservation, in which institutional, state aid, Federal, foundation, and other funds are integrated is an important part of assuring access by scholars of today and the future.

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