JAIC 1992, Volume 31, Number 1, Article 11 (pp. 95 to 101)
JAIC online
Journal of the American Institute for Conservation
JAIC 1992, Volume 31, Number 1, Article 11 (pp. 95 to 101)




The new developments outlined above represent a significant broadening of available options for preserving library materials, both rare and nonrare, in the original format. Many conservators take it for granted that the original format—that is, the artifactual identity of an object—is inviolable; its preservation forms the raison d'etre of the field of conservation. However, in a library setting, conservation is only a part of the overall preservation scheme, which also includes a function known as “reformatting.” In the conservator's lexicon of 10 or 15 years ago, “reformatting” meant any action that altered the physical construction of an artifact, including, for example, the encapsulation and subsequent post-binding of a brittle book or the disbinding of large books of plates and transfer to flat storage. As library preservation has developed, “reformatting” has come to mean the process of copying the textual content of a book or document onto another medium such as microfilm, microfiche, or optical disk. Recently, alternative terminology, such as “transfer” or “conversion,” has been proposed to describe the latter activity but has yet to be firmly established. For the purposes of this article, and with apologies to objecting parties, I will use “reformatting” in its most current meaning, that of reproducing text and illustrations using various imaging technologies.

Preservation reformatting, in the form of black-and-white microfilm, was originally conceived to salvage information carried on pages too brittle to use or repair or to provide a surrogate-use copy of a fragile rare item. Lately, the process has taken on a much more complex purpose and identity linked with the newest preservation buzzword, “access.” The purpose of library preservation and conservation has in fact always been to prolong the useful life of books and documents or, in other words, to facilitate and promote reader access to information. However, certain kinds of reformatting can now enhance reader access to information far more than any individual book repair or protective housing. Microfilming creates masters from which an unlimited number of copy films can be made and then bought or borrowed by other libraries, thus eliminating the need to film any title more than once. Digital storage, while as yet unproven as a long-term preservation medium, has the potential for providing on-line access to extremely high-resolution scanned imagery, which can be printed out on demand at the individual computer work station. Stable technologies with accurate color reproduction are being sought to facilitate reformatting of materials relating to art and natural science.

At the national level, reformatting programs are seen as the way to benefit the largest constituent group for the dollars spent. This view is due in part to the shared access reformatting can provide and also to the conviction that the preservation of information printed on brittle or potentially brittle paper is the most urgent national preservation need. At the request of Congress, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) has focused its library preservation funding on projects to microfilm paper-based materials dating from 1800 to 1950. The Washington, D.C.–based Commission on Preservation and Access has also concerned itself almost solely with preserving “information” and is active in promoting exploration of new reformatting technologies. This preoccupation at the national level has been frustrating for libraries trying to find support for repair and housing programs that may best serve local needs but are not eligible for federal funds.

Without denying the value and the appeal of new developments in reformatting technology, many preservation professionals have been disturbed by the seeming loss of stature of the original artifact (and the book format) in relation to the microform master and the digital disk. Once preservation dollars have been spent on creating a master in the new format, the original book or document, along with any associated binding, may be discarded or simply allowed to deteriorate, assuming it is not currently considered rare. This situation can be particularly distressing when reformatting projects are embarked upon for the stated purpose of “preserving” material in certain subject classifications, regardless of its present condition, on the assumption that embrittlement is inevitable and repair therefore not practical. While the “brittle book problem” certainly exists on a massive scale, there are also categories of material and types of damage for which repair or rehousing may be more appropriate as preservation solutions than microfilming. Thanks to recent efforts on the part of preservation professionals to promote a balance between reformatting and physical stabilization, the NEH will now consider proposals that include repair and rehousing of original material in collections being microfilmed for the purpose of broadening access, and the Commission on Preservation and Access has recently formed a task force to consider a national strategy for preservation of “the book as artifact.”

Another reformatting technology that has gained popularity in recent years with those preferring a low-tech, user-friendly replacement option for brittle books is preservation photocopy. Brittle pages are copied onto permanent/durable paper using an electrostatic copier that produces a stable, well-fused toner image. Color xerography can be used to reproduce color plates, sometimes with surprising accuracy. The photocopies are bound, and the new book placed on the shelf to be used and rephotocopied by patrons. If space allows, the original brittle leaves may be retained in the library as “leaf masters”; deacidification of the leaves may help to prolong their shelf life.

The most obvious advantage of bound photocopies is their familiar book format. Most library patrons find microfilm reader/printers awkward to use and the film itself difficult to handle. However, from the access point of view, photocopy has the drawback that it replaces a single deteriorated volume with a single sound one in the same manner as does conservation repair. Shared access is dependent on the old mechanisms of repeated photocopying and interlibrary loan. On the other hand, photocopying does ensure access at the local level and is a valuable alternative for libraries and patrons whose technological capabilities are not sophisticated enough to allow them to take advantage of machine-readable formats or microforms.

The issues surrounding reformatting of library collections are complicated, and this summary has covered them with a very broad brush. Many new avenues are being explored, and everybody involved with new imaging technologies and with library preservation has a slightly different set of concerns and goals. One consensus that does seem to be emerging is that a balanced library preservation program takes advantage of all available options, including repair, rehousing, reformatting, and mass deacidification, and that careful preselection of materials for each option is essential. Despite futuristic visions of “the electronic library,” there is a large constituency that remains committed to the book, both as an artifact and as a format that still provides the most democratic form of access.

Book conservators are sometimes accused of being too precious in their desire to retain artifactual integrity, especially where general collections are concerned. However, as conservators, it is our lot in life to wave the flag of the artifact and to be cautious about embracing sweeping mass treatments that drastically alter the physical or chemical characteristics of the collections under our care. It is also our job to keep devising new and better strategies for preserving artifacts in original format, not for the purpose of supplanting reformatting, but so that when reformatting is chosen, it is chosen because it is the most appropriate preservation solution.

Copyright 1992 American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works