Private libraries struggle to keep older books
G. Jeffrey MacDonald, Religion News Service
June 25, 2010

Private libraries struggle to keep older books

Private libraries struggle to keep older books
G. Jeffrey MacDonald, Religion News Service
June 25, 2010

SALEM, Mass. — Inside a

locked reading room atop a staircase at the Salem Athenaeum, hundreds of

theological books — including some that are nearly 500 years old — are once

again stirring up debate.

It’s not the subject matter

that’s contentious this time, since most modern-day readers have little

interest in centuries-old treatises.

At issue now is how to save

these religious texts, and others kept in cash-strapped private libraries, from

the ravages of time.

Here, a 1564 biblical

commentary by Protestant reformer John Calvin and collections of 18th-century

sermons require delicate handling as threads peek through thin, brittle


At New York’s General

Society of Mechanics and Tradesmen, librarian Melanie James says “a lot of the

religious books haven’t been touched (in preservation efforts). They’re kind of

falling apart.”

At the Portsmouth Athenaeum

in Portsmouth, N.H., centuries-old books on holy topics cry out for repair in a

bindery, but the library can only afford to mend a few books — and not

necessarily theological ones — each year, according to research librarian

Carolyn Marvin.

RNS photo by Bryce Vickmark

Jean Marie Procious, director of the Salem Athenaeum in Salem, Mass., holds a 1561 book of Aristotle printed in Greek that may deteriorate if the library does not get adequate funding for preservation.

For some custodians,

preservation means the expensive prospect of building climate-controlled

environments, where temperature, humidity and lighting are set to optimal

conditions for extending shelf life.

One such project at the

Boston Athenaeum in the early 1990s cost about $33 million.

At the Salem Athenaeum, only

books and pamphlets with high appraisal values are kept in a small,

climate-controlled vault. The rest, said Francie King, president of the Salem

Athenaeum’s board of trustees, face a bleak destiny.

“They’re going to turn to

dust,” King said. “We just can’t afford to do what it takes to preserve them,

unless someone were to give us millions.”

Others fear, however, that

calls for help could backfire and hasten the destruction of old books,

especially those that aren’t ultra-rare.

Michael Suarez, a Jesuit

priest who directs the Rare Book School at the University of Virginia, says old

book collections have sometimes been destroyed because custodians figured they

were doomed to crumble and that the content was likely being digitized


The logic: if it’s already

doomed, why not save space by destroying it now?

“Alarmist language (about

books crumbling has) led to the destruction of hundreds of thousands of

newspapers and books from the 19th century in particular,” Suarez said. “It’s a

myth that these things will crumble into dust just by sitting on the shelf …

It’s a myth that small libraries have a need for millions and millions of

dollars that they can’t possibly get.”

America has only 16 private,

membership libraries, where borrowing is restricted to dues-paying members.

Still, they contain a

disproportionate number of the nation’s theological treasures. That’s because

these institutions commonly date to the 18th and 19th centuries, when they

ranked among the top collectors of books and filled shelves with theological writings

of the day.

Librarians at private

libraries note that books published more than 150 years ago have at least one

advantage against the elements: they’re printed on fabric-based paper, which is

more durable than today’s paper made from wood.

Suarez adds that libraries

can preserve most old books by taking simple, money-saving steps, such as

keeping heat turned down in book stacks and avoiding exposure to direct


Today, librarians disagree

about the urgency of preservation efforts. James, from the New York library,

sees no great rush to raise funds to save religious texts, in part because

they’re not frequently read, and they’re not central to her institution’s


“A lot of the really old

ones (in our collection) have been digitized,” James said. “They’re out of

copyright, so it’s just a matter of finding a copy and digitizing it.”

Yet Suarez cautioned that

what gets digitized might not be the best available copy of a book. He adds

that books convey more meaning than mere words on a page: how they’re packaged

and marked up by readers long ago also add to a reader’s understanding.

Another issue: will digital

books forever be accessible? Maybe not, some say.

“Archives and libraries are

full of things that you can’t get a reader for anymore, such as old cassettes

and old film,” said Jean Marie Procious, director of the Salem Athenaeum. “You

might have it there but you can’t access it. That is always a concern with

digitizing … Whereas with a book, you’re always going to be able to read it.”