Date: Fri, 28 Oct 1994 10:51:15 +0700
From: Alice Schreyer <ads8@MIDWAY.UCHICAGO.EDU>
To: Multiple recipients of list EXLIBRIS <EXLIBRIS@RUTVM1.BITNET>

Last June, I posted to this list a report on the background and charge of the Modern Language Association Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of the Print Record. The committee has prepared a draft "Statement on the Significance of Original Materials" and organized a forum and two workshops (one of which is an open hearing on the draft statement) at the MLA Convention in San Diego in December.

I am attaching to this message the text of the draft statement. The committee seeks comments from members of the library and scholarly community. Please direct comments to:

G. Thomas Tanselle
Chair, Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of the Print Record
10 Astor Place
New York, NY 10003

The committee will review comments received prior to the convention and those made at the open hearing. The final version of the statement will be submitted to the MLA Executive Council.

14 October 1994

Statement on the Significance of Original Materials

The Modern Language Association of America urges the entire community of readers and scholars to recognize that the future of humanistic study depends on the preservation of original materials, even after the texts in them have been made available in other forms. Two developments in recent years have given rise to widely publicized discussions that stress the value of textual reproductions for scholarship and imply the disposability of many of the artifacts that originally transmitted those texts. One is the organized effort for microfilming books containing brittle paper; the other is the production of electronic texts. All scholars, indeed all readers, should applaud both the concern that has been shown for the survival of texts printed on acidic paper and the technical advances that permit the dissemination and manipulation of texts from the past in electronic form. But the advantages of the new forms in which old texts thus appear must not be allowed to obscure the fact that the new forms cannot fully substitute for the actual physical objects in which those earlier texts were embodied at particular past times.

Without broad public awareness of the significance of originals, sizable portions of certain classes of textual artifacts (especially nineteenth- and twentieth-century printed books) face destruction. The MLA is expressing no opinion about the relative desirability of different forms of presentation for future writing; rather, it is strictly concerned with the future study of texts (of all kinds) that originally appeared on paper, in the form of manuscripts and printed material. By outlining the theoretical reasons for the importance of originals (applicable to nonverbal artifacts as well) and offering some practical recommendations that emerge from them, the MLA wishes to promote understanding of the issues and to stimulate action on them.


Physical evidence in manuscripts and printed matter is indispensable in two ways for serious reading and research. First, physical clues (such as the structure of the folded sheets in a book) often reveal aspects of an item's production history that permit the discovery of textual errors and a fuller understanding of textual, printing, and publishing history. This kind of evidence is particularly used by analytical bibliographers and scholarly editors. Second, physical features of a book's design (such as paper quality, page size, textual layout, and arrangement of illustrations) provide significant evidence for understanding how the text thus presented was regarded by its producers and how it was interpreted by its readers. This category of evidence is increasingly being used by those investigating the history of reading and the social influence of books.

Ideally, therefore, every manuscript and every copy of every printed edition from the earliest incunables to the latest paperback reprints—not merely selected examples and not merely of works presently considered important#8212;ought to be preserved. Since copies of an edition frequently vary among themselves, every copy is a potential source for new physical evidence; whenever a copy is lost or discarded, the body of evidence from which generalizations can be made is diminished. And since the shape, feel, designs, and illustrations of books have affected, and continue to affect, readers' responses (some of which have been recorded in margins), access to the physical forms in which texts from the past have appeared is an essential part of informed reading and effective classroom teaching; if that access is to be as widespread as it can be, the number of available copies of past editions must be as large as possible. For these reasons, the loss of any copy of a book means the elimination of some of the material on which historical understanding depends.


(1) Providing means for retention of originals. Since it is unrealistic to expect that every surviving copy can be saved, the goal must be the preservation of as many copies as possible. Even this goal poses a variety of practical difficulties. A major one is the pressure exerted on library budgets by the space and maintenance requirements of an ever-expanding bookstack. Another is the continuing deterioration of books printed on acidic paper and the resulting need for costly (and still emerging) deacidification treatment for those books that are still salvageable. Two recommendations following from these points are

(a) that those responsible for the acquisition and retention of library materials and for the allocation of library funds recognize the need for acquisition and retention of originals along with the need for access to reproductions; and

b) that an organized effort (such as the establishment of a network of depositories) be undertaken for housing and providing access to materials discarded by libraries (such as copies that have been microfilmed, or texts that have been included in databases, or printed reference books that have been replaced by electronic revisions).

(2) Setting standards for reproduction of originals. Provided that the limitations of reproduced texts as substitutes for originals are understood, there are undeniable advantages in having them: the use of reproductions saves wear on the originals; reproductions can be made available in an unlimited number of copies and locations; and they can be more convenient to manipulate. An understanding of the continuing value of originals, however, necessitates the establishment of standards for the creation of reproductions. Among the recommendations for such guidelines are

(a) that photography of brittle books be undertaken only with cameras (now available) that do not require books to be opened more than forty-five degrees;

(b) that copies selected for reproduction (in whatever form) be chosen with a knowledge of the textual histories of the works involved and an awareness of the variant states within individual editions, and that every reproduction and electronic or printed citation of a reproduction include a statement identifying the edition and the location of the specific copy used;

(c) that electronic texts include digitized images of the original pages (both text and illustration, with the original dimensions specified) along with keyboarded or optically converted transcriptions, and that the accuracy of both elements be verified; and

(d) that the instability of reproductions (the deterioration of microfilms, for example, or the textual alteration that can result from the conversion of electronic texts for use in different hardware or software) be recognized, and that procedures be instituted to deal with it.

Anyone examining the reasons for retaining originals on paper should remember that, despite efforts to ensure the accuracy and stability of reproductions, these goals can never be guaranteed. Furthermore, the democracy of access to texts on paper will not soon (if ever) be equaled by the availability of electronic texts. In those parts of the world where there has been a strong tradition of local libraries, electronic texts#8212;for the immediate future, at least, and perhaps much longer#8212;will be accessible to fewer people, both at home and in libraries, than printed books now are. And the social and intellectual interchange that has been part of the reading experience in community and academic libraries is a valuable element of the cultural heritage of books, and one that may disappear with the decentralization of electronic access to texts. For reasons such as these, the preservation of originals would seem a prudent course even if reproductions were the equals of originals; but since they cannot possibly be, a concern for the welfare of originals is not simply prudent but absolutely essential. The maintenance of our inheritance of artifacts should be a major national priority.

Obviously readers find themselves, much of the time, turning to reprints or reproductions of some kind. As we welcome the benefits conferred by new technology for creating reproductions, however, we must remember the distinctive limitations of every form of reproduction and the continuing need for the artifactual sources. Not only do those artifacts provide the standard for judging the reproductions; they also contain, in their physicality, unreproducible evidence that readers (scholars, students, and the general public) need for understanding and interpreting, with as much historical context as possible, the writings that appeared and reappeared in them. If we approach the electronic future with these thoughts in mind, we will be more rigorous in our demands of new forms of textual presentation and more vigilant in our protection of the artifacts embodying the old forms. The Modern Language Association of America believes that both these actions are necessary to ensure the continuation of productive reading, teaching, and scholarship.

Ad Hoc Committee on the Future of the Print Record

Shelley Fisher Fishkin
Everette E. Larson
Philip Lewis
J. Hillis Miller
Ruth Perry
Alice Schreyer
Philip Stewart
G. Thomas Tanselle, chair

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