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Monday, April 22, 2013

Perseverance in Preservation

“…let us save what remains: not by vaults and locks which fence them from the public eye and use in consigning them to the waste of time, but by such a multiplication of copies, as shall place them beyond the reach of accident.” 

This April 21st through the 27th is Preservation Week, a national movement working to increase awareness of the importance and scope of preservation needs of cultural institutions.  

While museums, libraries and other archives are dedicatedly working to protect historical artifacts and documents, the combined conservation needs still greatly exceed available resources.  In 2004 the first comprehensive assessment of the preservation needs of national collections was conducted by Heritage Preservation and the findings were staggering.  Over fourteen thousand organizations were surveyed, including 450 of the 500 largest cultural repositories in the U.S.  Eighty percent had no paid staff for collections care, and 71% indicated that caring for collections would require more training.  One hundred and ninety million artifacts are already in need of conservation treatment. Of the estimated 4.8 billion artifacts held by institutions, 1.3 billion are in danger of being lost.  

When Joni Mitchell sang “Don’t it always seem to go / that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone,” she was sounding a concern shared by people across the globe.  While the need for preservation will never disappear, the options for protecting treasured assets are far greater than they were in the recent past.  With the dawning of the digital age, preservation options for most artifacts now include virtual representations.   As technology continues to improve the process of creating digital copies or surrogates, efforts toward the digitization of cultural artifacts continue to expand.

With the launching of the Digital Public Library of America (DPLA), the electronic records of state and regional digital libraries will be searchable and accessible from a single online point.  In addition to bringing information access to an unheralded level in the U.S., DPLA also aims to encourage community digital preservation efforts.  Planned services include assisting local communities in the digitization of cultural artifacts.  One possibility is a “mobile scan-van” service that would allow local residents to scan their old photographs and other personal paraphernalia (which is especially exciting to someone whose childhood is currently archived in a shoebox). 

Image from the Thomas Warren Sears Collection, Archives of American Gardens, Smithsonian Institution.
At the national level, cultural institutes like the Smithsonian will continue to create and preserve digital representations of unique collections.  One example is the Thomas Warren Sears Collection. Thomas W. Sears was a prolific landscape architect – during nearly 60 years of practice he designed landscapes for playgrounds, parks, and private residences as well as urban housing developments, army camps, and cemeteries.  His zeal for his profession was equally matched by his passion for his hobby – photography.   Operating nearly a century before the ease of the digital camera, he photographed a collection of over 4,600 black and white glass negatives and lantern slides.   His images cross continents and eras with subjects ranging from street scenes to countrysides, private gardens to public parks, and from grinning children to somber adults.

Unidentified woman in Annapolis, Maryland, circa 1900-1901. Thomas Warren Sears, photographer.
Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Thomas Warren Sears Collection

Orchards (designed by Gertrude Jekyll), 1906. Thomas Warren Sears, photographer.
Smithsonian Institution, Archives of American Gardens, Thomas Warren Sears Collection
Some negatives from this fascinating collection had the misfortune of being composed of nitrate, an unstable, toxic and highly flammable material (its use as movie film led to multiple deadly cinema fires in the 1920s).  In the 1990s, these negatives were copied and the nitrate negatives destroyed for safety considerations.  Preservation efforts such as this may be unglamorous, but the reward of protecting the past is priceless.

- Jessica Hemphill, Archives of American Gardens, Intern, Winter 2013


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