Our Heritage at Risk

Most of us rely on libraries – either the traditional brick-and-mortar facilities or any of a burgeoning number of online compendia. These libraries collect important (and some not so important) documents, things – and, increasingly, digital files. But from books to videotapes and CD ROMs, all data-, audiovisual- and document-storage media have a limited shelf life, so to speak. That’s why a small but dedicated cadre of conservators and preservationists spend their careers trying to keep evidence of our cultural heritage from spoiling.

GEORGE’S SCRAWLS Library of Congress conservator Healther Wanser works on a Dunlop copy of the Constitution that not only belonged to George Washington but also bears his notations. H. Wanser/LOC

And it’s proving an uphill battle.

While sitting in on a symposium hosted by the Library of Congress , this morning, I heard some disturbing stats about what may be in peril.

Diane Vogt-O’Connor, who heads LOC’s conservation division, gave an overview of the situation. U.S. libraries, archives, museums, and related organizations are caretakers for more than 4.8 billion artifacts, she says. These include 270 million rare and unique books, periodicals, and scrapbooks; 153 million photographs, and 189 million natural-science specimens.

Roughly one-third appear to be in “immediate” need of aid or rehabilitation, she said, citing data collected several years ago as part of the  Heritage Health Index . This index was put together by Heritage Preservation , a national nonprofit organization, together with the Institute of Museum and Library Services , an independent federal agency. The groups developed a survey and distributed it to many thousands of libraries and other organizations with major cultural holdings.

Sometimes ignorance – but more often resources – prevent libraries and other facilities that hold cultural artifacts from keeping all of their acquisitions safe. For instance, more than a quarter of the institutions providing information for the Heritage Health Index reported lacking any environmental controls to protect their collections from the ravages of temperature, humidity, or light. This included 40 percent of U.S. libraries.

And the threat of environmental damage is more than theoretical. Almost half of all surveyed managers of U.S. collections reported having had items damaged by light and 53 percent reported holdings damaged by moisture.

Maintaining these collections not only requires money but knowledgeable staff. Today’s symposium was convened to ask people in the field – often educators and conservators – what kind of people they need to help them safeguard today’s collections. The answer? That’s supposed to emerge over the next day or so.

Stay posted.
Janet Raloff

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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