Your chance to save history

Your chance to save history McGill University

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McGill Reporter
December 7, 2000 - Volume 33 Number 07
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 33: 2000-2001 > December 7, 2000 > Your chance to save history

Your chance to save history

| It's easy to become an active participant in the subject of history -- the ultimate spectator sport of academia -- at McGill. Here, one need go no further than the rare book collections.

For amateur or professional historians, art history enthusiasts and bibliophiles, McGill's catalogue of rare and antique books remains a veritable treasure trove. Our collection is among the best in Canada, rivaled only by the National Archives of Canada and possibly the University of Toronto.

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But having such an extensive collection means that the inherent challenges associated with rare books -- namely, restoration and preservation -- are all the more extensive.

"It's truly important for the treasures of the past that have been entrusted to us to remain with us for future generations of scholars and students," says Sheila Goldbloom, chair of the Friends of the McGill Libraries.

In response to the demands for restoration and repair, the Friends have established the Preserve a Book program, designed to raise funds to guarantee the longevity of the University's invaluable collections.

Of the hundreds of books requiring immediate attention, the Friends of the Library has created a list of 30 of the most desperate cases.

They are single works or sets of volumes from the Blacker-Wood Library of Biology, the Islamic Studies Library, the Osler Library of the History of Medicine and the Rare Books and Special Collections Division of the Libraries.

"We have a large number of books in peril on the shelves, but we consider these to be priority care items," explains digital collections librarian David McKnight.

For example, a 1789 book titled Le Juge à Paix needs to be rebound, adhesives need to be replaced and its spine needs to be repaired. Total cost: $450.

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Other books on the to-be-saved list include a rare copy of a collection of prayers, most composed by the famous Sufi master 'Abd al-Qadir al Jilani, published in 1683, and a 19th century collection of bird drawings by Edward Lear, one of the greatest names in nature art.

Preserve a Book is asking donors to commit to the total or partial cost of repair of a single volume or multiple volumes on its list, which can run up to $1,500.

"The option of adopting a part of a book is nice because not everyone can pay the full amount," notes Director of Libraries Frances Groen. "Helping in the restoration of a specific book gives the donation a personal ring." Alternatively, donors can choose to make their tax-deductible donation to the program as a whole.

"Restoration is a laborious, expensive process. It requires artisans with expertise in such techniques as restoring Renaissance binding," says Groen. McGill does have an in-house conservation specialist who performs minor repairs and emergency surgery on books. However, most of the work is contracted out to conservators across the country who specialize in specific areas like paper or binding.

Given the prestige of many of the items in McGill's collections, it is surprising that our libraries have no annual budget for restoring their rare books. All restoration dollars come through private donations. A portion of Richard Tomlinson's recent $64-million donation has been designated for digital preservation of some key library holdings.

Sadly, a conservator's work is never done. "We will always need to repair books. They become susceptible to environmental conditions, aging, or other factors -- even acts of God," McKnight says with reference to the flood that damaged thousands of volumes of the Rare Books and Special Collections Division when it was located in the basement of the McLennan Library a few years back. "But not all damage is caused by unforeseen events. We also acquire books in a fragile state, knowing their rarity and intrinsic value."

The Friends of the Library reminds the McGill community that a rare book is worth very little if it is not accessible to the public. "We need to make the libraries and their contents more accessible to the McGill community," Goldbloom says. "To protect and guard an old manuscript is to make it accessible to new minds."

Indeed, part of the problem may be that simply not enough library visitors make use of its rare books. "Our rare books are certainly not used nearly as much as they should," says conservation specialist Donald Hogan. "It's a valuable resource, and not enough people take advantage of it."

For more information about the program, you can visit the Friends of the McGill Libraries web site.

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