Saving the jewels
At libraries and museums across the country, neglect and a lack of money threaten relics of American history
Copyright 2008 Houston Chronicle
Bernard Forrester, with his honeyed radio announcer's voice, exudes about 10 times the charisma you'd expect from an archivist. And last week, displaying the jewels of Texas Southern University's historic collections, he poured on the drama.
Behold: The archives of Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, who embodied moral authority during Watergate!
Benin bronzes and Dogon wood carvings from a museum-quality collection of African art!
"Chattel" papers from the 1800s showing slave ownership by Texas' founders!
A 400-year-old book about Africa! A first edition by W.E.B du Bois! A first edition of poetry by Phillis Wheatley, worth more than $30,000! Newspapers from the 1750s!
Those treasures aren't as safe as they should be.
History in dangerForrester was pulling out the stops for a visit by Anne-Imelda Radice, the director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services, which is to say, the head of a federal agency that gives money to institutions like TSU and tries to rally others to support them.
A couple of months before, Forrester had met Radice at an Atlanta conference about "Connecting to Collections," her agency's effort to support endangered collections. Radice gave the conference's opening remarks, and afterward, Forrester introduced himself. She was dead-on, he thought, in saying that the nation's heritage is endangered.
Even large institutions, like the Smithsonian, struggle with preserving artifacts and documents, and for smaller institutions, the problems loom even larger. Radice often cites statistics from a report by Heritage Preservation, a Washington, D.C., foundation. In 2005, Heritage Preservation surveyed roughly 3,000 institutions, and their confidential answers revealed that few were entirely prepared to care for their historic items.
Among the grim statistics:
• 26 percent of the institutions had no environmental controls to protect their collections from heat, humidity and light;
• 65 percent have artifacts damaged by improper storage while in their care;
• 26 percent have little or no security to protect their items from theft;
• 77 percent have no budget allotted specifically for preservation.
The IMLS urges individuals and granting agencies to give money to conservation — a cause far less sexy than acquiring new materials, but often far more important.
That call to action moved Forrester. In a letter, he wrote Radice that TSU's archives, housed in the university's 1956 library, had no separate climate control, no budget for conservation and no fire-suppression system at all.
If a fire broke out, he wrote, "just bring on the barbecue."
No place to repairWalking through the archives with Radice, Forrester tried to accentuate the positive at his institution — maybe because his boss and a newspaper reporter were on hand, too. The future, he said, looked brighter now than it did when he wrote his letter. Since then, the library has begun installing a fire-suppression system.
He gestured to a pair of double doors and said that someday, when there's money, that closet will become his "conservatory," a place he can repair fragile books. "I'm a ghetto librarian," he joked. "I know how to put books back together."
He didn't mention the archives' climate control, but he did mention a recent initiative: TSU has asked its congresswoman, Sheila Jackson Lee, to help it get money for a first-class digitization machine. The machine's delicate metal arms can turn the brittle pages as it records a book's contents, making it easy to post on the Internet or send via e-mail. Digitization won't save the book itself, but at least there would be a good record of its contents.
Forrester took Radice to a table where, in her honor, he'd arrayed the university's most valuable books, its best candidates for digitization. Following his lead, she slipped on white cotton gloves and gingerly handled the Phillis Wheatley volume, then Sir Henry Morton Stanley's 1870s writings about Africa and his search for David Livingstone.
They moved on to other books — some with water-splotched covers, many with busted spines. Much of the damage had occurred decades before Forrester took his job — maybe when the books were circulated in TSU's library, squashed in copiers, or stored in temporary buildings. Though better cared for now, most of the books haven't been repaired and all still suffer the slow ravages of fluctuating temperatures.
Examining A Negro's Complaint, a book published in 1731, Radice admired its hand-tinted illustrations. "If you had rice paper," she suggested delicately, "you could put that between the leaves to protect the pages."
"I'm ordering it," said Forrester. "But it's not here yet."