Book Review: Preserving Our Heritage: Perspectives from Antiquity to the Digital Age

Preserving Our Heritage: Perspectives from Antiquity to the Digital Age. Edited by Michèle Valerie Cloonan. Chicago: ALA Neal-Schuman, 2015. 736 p. $98.00 softcover (ISBN: 978-1-55570-937-2).

Weighing in at a significant three and a half pounds of not quite Bible-thin permanent paper, Preserving Our Heritage is the long-awaited anthology of fundamental preservation literature curated by Michèle V. Cloonan, Simmons College Professor and Editor-in-Chief of the journal Preservation, Digital Technology, and Culture. The impressive tome chronicles preservation through the earliest evidence of its conceptualization in historical works to examinations of the philosophical underpinnings of pressing contemporary issues such as risk management in times of both natural hazards and social unrest; the challenges of managing time-based media and digital materials; government policy in the area of preservation; ethics; the intersection of conservation, multiculturalism, and globalization; and sustainability.

Preserving Our Heritage includes three new pieces (Karen F. Gracy’s “Preservation in a Time of Transition: Redefining the Stewardship of Time-Based Media in the Digital Age;” Ellen Cunningham-Kruppa, “Exploring Cultural Policy at Humanities Texas;” and Rebecca Meyer et al., “Sustainability: A Review”), hard-to-find conference papers such as Paul N. Banks’s “A Library is Not a Museum,” and author-contributed post-scripts to their earlier pieces (Nicholas Pickwoad’s 1994 “Distinguishing Between the Good and Bad Repair of Books” and Anne J. Gilliland’s 2000 “Enduring Paradigm, New Opportunities: The Value of the Archival Perspective in the Digital Environment”). As valuable as the collected works are, they are ably supplemented by Cloonan’s introductions to each chapter, which weave the purpose, context, and relationship of one article to the next, and her notes, brimming with citations for further exploration and innovative works published too recently to be included in this volume.

Working from suggestions gathered from the field and with an Advisory Board whose members represent the fields of librarianship, archives, museum studies, and historic preservation, Cloonan has compiled a truly interdisciplinary work on cultural heritage preservation. The breadth of the collection is nowhere more obvious than in the book’s longest section, “Chapter 3: Preservation in Context,” which examines preservation practices and philosophies in each of the field’s four settings. As a librarian and administrator of the Preservation Statistics Survey (a project with a goal to document and share the preservation activities of all cultural heritage institutions), I found the readings on areas outside of my natural library habitat and in the context of archives, museums, and historic/architectural preservation fascinating, imparting a better understanding of the activities, values, and challenges of these diverse settings.

While the entire anthology was a delicious if strenuous read for my mid-career, overtaxed-by-multi-tasking intellect, “Chapter 11: Sustainability” did the most to impart new understandings about that currently ubiquitous buzzword. Particularly, the selection “Sustainability: A Review” by Rebecca Mayer, Shannon Struble, and Phyllis Catsikis is an accessible, practical exploration of the three aspects of sustainability—environmental, economic, and social—known as “The Triple Bottom Line” (637). Of late, grant programs, program planning documents and policies, as well as job descriptions tout the jargon of “sustainability;” I expect that this chapter will be a highly cited, effective clarification for our field.

Comparisons between Preserving Our Heritage and Banks and Pilette’s Preservation: Issues and Planning will surely come to mind; whereas the goal of Preserving Our Heritage is to examine preservation with attentive respect to each of the four cultural heritage settings (libraries, archives, museums, and the built environment), Preservation: Issues and Planning focused primarily on preservation in libraries and archives.1 In the Preface, Banks and Pilette cite the popular aphorism that preservation is a “technical problem in search of managerial solutions;” while their anthology was far from a how-to manual, with its attention to practical issues (environment, emergency preparedness, conservation, etc.), Preservation: Issues and Planning was far more in the weeds of the daily work of a preservation practitioner than the steeped philosophical tone of Preserving Our Heritage. And whereas the focus on practical considerations in Preservation: Issues and Planning meant that some of the content was outdated not long after its publication date (the move from set environmental standards to localized, sustainable approaches; the epic decline of library binding in the wake of electronic journal access; the shift from microfilming to digital reformatting), Preserving Our Heritage offers a self-awareness that, though the selected works present “seminal thinking” on issues fundamental to the field, particularly in “Chapter 7: Frameworks for Digital Preservation,” new terminology may “emerge by the time the ink in this volume has dried” (379,381). Indeed, while five of the eight pieces included in the “Frameworks for Digital Preservation” chapter were published in the 1990’s, it is a nod to the foresight of early leaders like Paul Conway. In his 1996 essay “Preservation in the Digital World” (excerpted in this section), Conway envisioned “applying fundamental preservation concepts, derived from the best present practices of paper and film, to the world of digital image documents so that the highest level of responsible preservation planning, management, and action can continue” (408).

By bringing new scholarship on emerging issues and hard-to-find works to publication as well as compiling a frame of reference timeline, pertinent ethical codes, and pieces that give us context on where we’ve been and where we’ve yet to go, Preserving Our Heritage will serve well as a textbook for graduate study in cultural heritage or as a reference work for professionals in that field. However thorough and timeless this work may prove to be, it is on us—the current and emerging body of preservation professionals—to stand on the collective shoulders of this compiled work and see further. In the Preservation Imperative podcast discussion of this publication, Cloonan notes, “We’re in a period of transition: we don’t have a Commission on Preservation and Access, ARL [Association of Research Libraries] has backed away from their preservation commitments, CLIR [Council on Library and Information Resources] . . . has other focuses, . . . and NEH [National Endowment for the Humanities] never gets more money . . . , IMLS [Institute of Museum and Library Services] as well. Who is going to address these big issues about our collections?”2 In the Epilogue, Cloonan is generous with ideas for “new and potential research foci,” sketching out topics in digital media, science (particularly transboundary conservation and taphonomy, the study of decaying organisms over time), and personal archiving and citizen-created content, as well as teasing out potential dancing partners for interdisciplinary research (657). I would argue that, in close competition to the glory of research, the daunting but necessary task of advocacy should be positioned as a focus of our field. We are so often told, these days, to do more with less. It is hard to read an anthology of exemplary scholarship like Preserving Our Heritage without imagining how we could do more . . . with more.—Holly Robertson (hollyrobertson21@gmail.com), Preservation Consultant, Washington, DC

References

  1. Paul N. Banks and Roberta Pillette, ed., Preservation: Issues and Planning (Chicago: American Library Association, 2000).
  2. Michele Cloonan, interview by Keven Driedger, Preservation Imperative, podcast audio, March 29, 2015, accessed April 10, 2015, www.preservationimperative.com/2015/08/5-michele-cloonan-preserving-our.html.

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