Thursday, January 20, 2011

Review of Preserving Archives & Manuscripts

Preserving Archives & Manuscripts

My review of Preserving Archives & Manuscripts by Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler.(Chicago: Society of American Archivists, 2010).
Published in Journal of Academic Librarianship, forthcoming.

Preserving Archives and Manuscripts is an authoritative guide for those responsible for the preservation of archives, manuscripts, and historical collections, encompassing a range of materials found in such repositories and addressing practical means of implementing preservation programs. Ritzenthaler, Director of the Document Conservation Division at the National Archives and Records Administration, explains that preservation is “an integral component of all archival issues, functions, and decision making….Guidance is provided on optimum practice while recognizing that progress, of necessity, is usually made in slow steps based on institutional resources and the relative value, use, and stability of records within large holdings” (9, xviii). Noting that preservation is “a core management function and a primary ethical responsibility” of the custodians of historical records, the book accentuates the integration of preservation and archival management with special attention given to changing the way materials are handled and processed (xvii).

Chapters address the implementation of a preservation program, archival materials as physical objects, causes of deterioration and damage, creating a preservation environment, handling archival materials, storage and housing, integrating preservation and archival management, copying and reformatting, and conservation treatment. Appendices include a glossary, a bibliography and selected readings, basic preservation procedures, supplies and equipment, regional conservation centers, funding sources, and other topics. Notes Ritzenthaler, “The goal [for preservation programs] is to approach and understand archival materials in a way that combines intellectual interest in their content with a curiosity regarding their physical nature” (94).

The book is meant to be an institutional handbook where “preservation is addressed from programmatic perspectives that emphasize decision making and balancing multiple priorities” and “not a manual of preservation techniques” (xviii). However, the book abounds with technical information, and a reader new to the subject is challenged to connect the technical minutia into a cohesive whole.

The new edition emerges at a time when digital records are gaining importance, while the care of paper-based materials are a continuing concern. Unfortunately, the realities of the hybrid environment are not addressed adequately. As the author explains, “Electronic media are addressed briefly. The rapidly changing technology governing the creation, use, and preservation of electronic records is the subject of a growing body of specialized literature, to which there are references in the bibliography” (xix). While digital preservation poses different challenges than the preservation of analog materials, a book published in 2010 is expected to cover the breadth of preservation of archival materials.

The book’s strength is the history, construction, and care of paper manuscripts and books. Comparatively, photographs and audiovisual material get brief mention. However, Ritzenthaler’s other recent book, Photographs: Archival Care and Management co-authored with Diane Vogt-O’Conner, covers all aspects of photographic access and preservation.

Preserving Archives and Manuscripts is the final title in the Society of American Archivists’ Archival Fundamentals Series II and is the lengthiest of the six-volume series. Overall, the book presents information to create an effective, efficient preservation program, given an institution’s resources. Ritzenthaler believes that when records of enduring value are treated with care throughout their lifestyle, the amaranthine balance between preservation and access is achieved.

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