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McGill Reporter
October 28, 2004 - Volume 37 Number 04
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Home > McGill Reporter > Volume 37: 2004-2005 > October 28, 2004 > TLC for library collections

TLC for library collections

The best way to keep an old car running well is through regular maintenance and safe driving. The same idea could be applied to the library collections, where its more than seven million items require basic care to ensure they last for decades.

Caption follows
McGill's preservation librarian Ann Marie Holland
Claudio Calligaris

Ann Marie Holland is McGill's preservation librarian, a position that she has held since August of last year. She faces a formidable task: to develop a plan to manage McGill's collections in a way that will ensure they survive for many more years.

"There has been a lot of ingenuity employed at McGill regarding collections care, but now we want to make sure that everybody operates according to a standard that we know works, that is effective for collections, that has been time-tested in other institutions and that has the greatest impact over the long term," said Holland.

Holland plans to implement a number of short-, medium- and long-term strategies to maintain and provide the best care for the longevity of the collections. Holland will be taking into account the diversity of the libraries' holdings, which includes three million printed items and about four million items more, including photographs, videotapes, computer disks and numerous others.

Acting McLennan Librarian Kendall Wallis likens Holland's work to Social Security for books.

"This is something that we've been willing to put off on our children and our children's children, and that just isn't responsible stewardship," he said.

"What Ann Marie is doing in terms of caring for these books is so vital. A lot of these books are not replaceable. She's looking to the future — books are going to grow older, and will need to be taken care of, and she's raising our consciousness in this area."

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Octavos and quartos in the compact shelving area: From the Division's general run of rare books, works on the history of ideas, literature, travel and exploration narratives, etc. printed between the 16th century to the 19th century, many in multi-volume sets.
Claudio Calligaris

Many modern books are only in print for three or four years, said Wallis, so being able to replace volumes that are lost or damaged can be a very difficult event for recently published works. Having a policy that cares for all materials, not just the oldest, is important.

"The half-life of books is something that is unpredictable," said Wallis.

The varied nature of McGill's collections — from vinyl records to Sumerian tablets — means that there is no one magic-bullet to preserve everything. Moreover, some items simply can't be preserved in a cost-effective manner in their current formats.

"We need to look at reformatting materials, so if they don't endure in their original formats, they can endure in another medium. Digitization is very much a part the preservation folio," said Holland.

After receiving degrees in French literature and library sciences, Holland worked in academic libraries in France and at the Université de Montréal, in their architecture collection. She also worked for a time for a prominent antiquarian book dealer, an experience that gave her a greater understanding of the nature of the effects of aging on printed materials.

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Small-format rare books: Engraved title-page from a 17th century printed work belonging to Peter Redpath's collection of Elzeviriana (works of the 17th century Elzevir family of publishers) in a vellum binding with overlapping fore-edges.
Claudio Calligaris

One of the first projects Holland undertook at McGill was to oversee the recent renovation of the Rare Books Division on the fourth floor of the McLennan Library. The collection is still being unpacked by a team of students, after having been stored in leased space in a state-of-the-art preservation facility. Now they are housed in a space with a dedicated climate control system that operates separately from the rest of the McLennan Library.

"Environment is the first step before you do a costly conservation treatment. If the environment is always going to be hot, which will therefore dry out leather and paper, then there's no point in making the conservation treatment expensive."

But with proper care and control, there should be less need to worry about applying conservation procedures to collections. Wear and tear on circulating items and the process of age will inevitably lead to at least some of McGill's collections requiring repair. Most of McGill's libraries have some form of book repair program, but ther are no across-the-board standards, few personnel, and very little budget.

Donald Hogan is the on-site conservation specialist for Rare Books, doing mostly minor repairs in his fouth floor workshop. The libraries don't have a laboratory for major conservation treatments. The 150 to 200 of these that occur in a year are usually shipped out to freelance book conservators. Assessing which books get this work done depends on a number of factors: circulation frequency, the types of treatment required, the nature of the book in need of work and, of course, cash.

"If it's going to cost more than the book is worth, if it's possible to get another copy for less than it will cost to repair it — you have to consider those factors," he said.

Other repairs may consist of using cotton ribbons to reattach covers, or vegetable paste to repair cuts and tears. Hogan still runs across books infected with mould, the result of floods that happened years ago.

Planning for such events is also a concern for Holland. She intends to put disaster kits in all of the libraries to deal with events like flooding, and to train staff in their use (including methods to temporarily fix a leaking pipe).

Holland does not want to have a reactive preservation program, however. Even the climate control renovations on the fourth floor of McLennan Library can't address the storage concerns for the Rare Books Collection, let alone the other collections around McGill. The real challenge is to find a space that can hold all of McGill's spill-off collections, the low-use but historically significant ones.

"Collections have grown to such a degree that McGill is almost bursting at the seams," she said.

"You can't just haul them off and put them on any kind of shelving or in boxes; you really have to be responsible with this cultural and intellectual heritage. McGill has a duty to make sure it acts responsibly for these collections."

A duty to future scholars, but also to itself. The library collections are one of McGill's most valuable capital assets. Protecting that investment is a matter of financial, as well as academic, good sense.

Right now, there is a committee working on an off-site storage plan, which could be a single facility for historical and accumulated collections.

"If these collections are deteriorating in a certain space, then the value of them is diminishing. It's really in McGill's best interests to maintain the collections that they determine are valuable."

One strategy Holland wants to use to jump-start the preservation program is to raise awareness at McGill about the various threats to its collections. "Degrees of Mutilation," a display that will be held on the main floor of the McLennan Library, will graphically illustrate the damage that occurs throughout the collections due to abuse, vandalism or neglect of books. While some items have been deliberately defaced — illustrations removed or pages torn — others have been damaged through more innocuous means, such as Post-it Notes, the glue in which can attract insects. One volume, found by Wallis, was even chewed up by a dog.

"Degrees of Mutilation" will be on display from November 5 to January 5.

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