Commitment Day

Twenty-seven years ago today, March 7, 1989, a group of authors and publishers signed a Declaration of Book Preservation, saying “We, the undersigned authors and publishers, hereby declare our commitment to use acid-free paper for all first printings of quality hardcover trade books in order to preserve the printed word and safeguard our cultural heritage for future generations.”

There was a footnote about using acid-free paper “subject to availability,” which wasn’t a dodge. At the time, acid-free papers were not widely available. They are now widespread. The notepad on your desk is almost certainly acid-free, and likely so are the post-its beside it. The paper in your printer is acid-free. The hand towels in the bathrooms here at ReCAP are acid-free, and not just because we’re that focused on preservation (though, let’s face it, we are), but because after 25 years, the paper industry has retooled. Things really changed.

Like many of these stories, there’s a woman whose name you’ve never heard who deserves credit, and there are institutions who put their weight behind her. I think it takes both, every time, to make a difference. A spark and a hearth, a bright idea and a place for it to grow… and also keep it from taking down the whole house, a realistic concern in case, because Ellen McCrady was a dynamo.

The headline institution here is the New York Public Library, but neither Ellen nor the Library stood alone. Ellen was part of the first wave of preservation activists in American libraries, and New York Public Library was buttressed by several of our nation’s great libraries, but I think it’s fair to say that in 1989, if you knew Ellen and knew NYPL, you were within one or two degrees of every place and person who shaped preservation in the end of the 20th century.

That also meant that you were in the circle that invented library preservation, period. I don’t mean to say that Blades* had no good advice to offer, or that William Barrow and Peter Waters should be overlooked, but the 1980s were the decade it came together for preservation and conservation in libraries as an institutional obligation, a focus of research, and a viable career direction.

That is not too long ago chronologically, less than forty years, but it is a very long time ago in the history of information. The rate of growth between 1980 and today, measured in terms of information published, in any sector, is centuries.

I reflect on this a lot as a preservation librarian. This is a young discipline, and it’s a young discipline that is learning the optimal approaches to its work, as it does its work, within a changing context.

All of that is a tall order, which is why this ought to come back to Ellen McCrady, because she got up and just did something. And that first step narrows the problems from infinite to merely vast, and from vast to extensive, from there to simply numerous, and over thirty or forty years, something you can almost feel you’ve got a grip on.

So today, re-read some back issues of the Abbey Newsletter, or Alkaline Paper Advocate. Tomorrow, make like Ellen McCrady, get your shoulder into history, and make it a little more likely that what we know today, we’ll remember tomorrow.

* Blades’ chapter headings from The Enemies of Books is still a pretty solid list of preservation problems: Fire, Water, Gas and Heat, Dust and Neglect, Ignorance and Bigotry, The Bookworm, Other Vermin, Bookbinders, Collectors, Servants and Children.

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