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
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
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.”