A contest to promote the preservation of historic works on paper and other artifacts has begun in the state of Pennsylvania. This story may be of particular interest to residents of the Keystone State, but the issue to which it calls attention applies to all 50 states and hundreds of nations. Changing times have wrought changes to institutions that have traditionally preserved our historic artifacts. We will need to be vigilant lest they fall through the cracks in the changing landscape.
The Conservation Center for Art & Historic Artifacts (CCAHA), located in Philadelphia, has called on statewide libraries, museums, and historic sites and archives to participate in a program called Pennsylvania's Top 10 Endangered Artifacts. They are seeking nominations to preserve “inspiring historic items – drawings, paintings, manuscripts, rare books, maps, photographs, objects, textiles and more.” The winners will receive assistance with fundraising as well as a grant from the CCAHA.
The CCAHA describes itself as “one of the largest nonprofit conservation centers in the country... Our mission is to provide expertise and leadership in the preservation of the world's cultural heritage.” In particular, they focus on the preservation of “works of art and artifacts on paper, such as drawings, prints, maps, posters, historic wallpaper, photographs, rare books, scrapbooks, and manuscripts, as well as related materials such as parchment and papyrus.”
What the CCAHA is attempting to accomplish would be important in any time, but it is particularly relevant to this era. Libraries in particular, other institutions to some extent, were created to convey information. They were not invented as a means of preserving physical material. If a librarian was concerned about a book being lost or damaged, it was to assure that it and the information within would be available to the next reader. As time went on, libraries began to build permanent collections, rare book rooms if you will. Still, the purpose was to preserve content, and rare old books needed to be pampered and cared for simply because that was the way to preserve what was inside.
All of that changed with the digital age. It is no longer necessary to have a physical copy of that old book, lovingly protected to make sure its information is available for future generations to come. Its pages can be scanned and preserved forever in a computer. The preservation of information no longer requires the preservation of a hard copy. As any rare book librarian knows, preserving old books is an expensive proposition, requiring security, costly climate control, storage space, supervision, etc. However, the words of thousands of old books can be preserved on a chip that fits easily in your pocket. Climate control, security, storage space – none of these are a factor. Will old books continue to be preserved by institutions whose main mission is to convey information, considering the high cost of doing so?
And so today, the work of the CCAHA and everyone else who seeks to preserve the works on paper of our history is more challenging than at any time before. What they are doing, in the form of a clever contest, is to call attention to the issue, and the need for us to be actively involved in this preservation before the pieces of our history disappear forever. Institutions in Pennsylvania can nominate works they possess for the Top 10 list for preservation and the public will have a chance to vote on them. A website has been set up for this purpose, and it can be found at patop10artifacts.org. For those who do not live in Pennsylvania, you may want to think about ways of preserving such artifacts in your own communities. Every one of them has a history of its own to tell.