Libraries preserve the past

In previous posts, I have stressed that the library is more than a warehouse for books and other physical materials. But after all, it is in part a warehouse, and that is one aspect of an important function: Libraries preserve the past. Are you interested in history? genealogy? biography? novels set in the past? Do you want to know the background to today’s news stories? Today’s books, magazine articles, web sites, etc. are possibly only because libraries have collected and preserved all manner of documents that historians, family researchers, and authors need in order to gather their information.

Since time immemorial, libraries and archives have collected not only books (in whatever forms they existed at the time) but also records of vital statistics (births, deaths, marriages, etc.), land transfers, tax collections and receipts, court cases, summaries of important meetings from major international conventions to local town councils, and so on. (Not all archives are part of a library, and archivists are not librarians. As general as this post is, however, the distinction hardly matters.)

Published compilations of records from the city government, the major church, and a musical academy of Bologna, dating as far back as 1250, provided important primary source material for my most recent book on the history of the trombone. I also used old newspapers from the Times of London to the Orange County Patriot of Goshen, New York. These and other kinds of documents, and all the dazzling variety of information they contain, are available only because some library or archive preserved them.

Most libraries today have a lot of books, etc. that lots of other libraries have. These items make up the largest and most visible bulk of the collection. From time to time, it is actually necessary for a library to withdraw some of these items from their collection in order to make room for new acquisitions. On the other hand, many libraries–and not only the largest and most prestigious–own unique materials or items of which fewer than a dozen exist in the entire world. These include not only books, but pamphlets, manuscripts left behind by locally important people, railroad time tables, maps, telephone books, etc.

Preserving documents does not simply mean collecting and storing them. It also means repairing them when they get damaged and keeping them from deteriorating. For example, from the beginning of the nineteenth century until fairly recently, books were printed on acidic paper that basically ate itself up as it sat on the shelf. Libraries have invested a great deal of time, effort, and money to halt the deterioration and restore the books to good condition.

Today, preserving web sites and other electronic information is a matter of great concern, and libraries tackle all of the various issues necessary to make it happen. For example, early electronic information was preserved on cards or paper tape. Collecting and protecting the cards and tapes does not preserve the information, though, unless there is a computer of suitable vintage to read them. Similarly, the past century has witnessed many new recording technologies, but only some older recordings have made the transition. No one can listen to the rest of them without the right equipment.

Your local public library probably does not contribute to such major and expensive projects as mass deacidification of whatever was made of cheap paper or preserving and maintaining obsolete computers or recording equipment. It probably does have a collection of local newspapers, manuscripts, and other unique documents that will remain very interesting to researchers generations from now. Provided, that is, your library gets funding adequate to continue to maintain and preserve it.

Many libraries have put material from their archives online for people to consult and enjoy anywhere in the world. Of course, not every archive is part of a library. Here’s a private archive from Boone, North Carolina that I found while looking for a suitable illustration.

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