Book Review: Preserving Archives and Manuscripts

Book Review by Kevin Driedger

I anticipated the new edition of Preserving Archives and Manuscripts by Mary Lynn Ritzenthaler because I occasionally teach an introduction to preservation course at Wayne State University. Most of the students in this class were in the archives program, while my experience and passion is very much in the library. Teaching students who were focusing on archives forced me to think about preservation in an archival setting and how it might differ from preservation in a library setting.

Early in the semester I assign the students to read two chapters on the nature archival materials as physical objects, and the causes of deterioration from the earlier edition of the Ritzenthaler book. My students and I have been deeply impressed by the depth of information found in these chapters.

I looked forward to this new edition for quite some time, hoping that it could perhaps serve as a course textbook when (if) I taught again. The first edition of Preserving Archives was published in 1993 and since much in the archives world has changed since its publication I was looking forward to studying the second edition. However, the new edition was announced on the SAA website as “forthcoming” and then mention of its publication vanished. Announcement of its publication finally reappeared early in 2010, this time with a February release date.

Ritzenthaler is the director of the Document Conservation Division at the National Archives and Records Management in Washington, D.C. Her other recent book is the very impressive Photographs: Archival Care and Management co-authored with Diane Vogt-O’Conner.

The author describes this book as an institutional handbook for preservation in archives where “preservation is addressed from programmatic perspectives that emphasize decision making and balancing multiple priorities,” and “not a manual of preservation techniques.” (p. xviii)

A list of the chapter titles provides some insight into the book’s content:
1. Archives preservation: definitions and context
2. Implementing a preservation program
3. Archival materials as physical objects
4. Causes of deterioration and damage
5. Creating a preservation environment
6. Handling archival materials
7. Storing and housing archival materials
8. Integrating preservation and archival management
9. Copying and reformatting
10. Conservation treatment

The structure and content of this new edition closely follows the earlier edition with some rearranged content and some expanded sections, particularly in the copying and reformatting chapter.

While Ritzenthaler states this volume “is not a manual of preservation techniques” it strikes this reader as very much a technical manual. It is overflowing with detailed technical information and the solutions suggested for preservation challenges tend to be technical rather than policy driven.

Whether it is the authors stated desire or not, this book makes an attempt at being encyclopedic with its detailed technical information on each of the topic covered. However, like all encyclopedias, this book faces a few challenges. The first challenge is connecting all that detailed technical information into a cohesive bigger picture. Knowing the details of the hectographic printing process (p. 66) is all well and good, but the larger dilemma is demonstrating how this information should inform the larger programmatic-based decision making. The other challenge with the encyclopedia format is most readers will immediately look for what is lacking, or what is given unwarranted or insufficient emphasis.

The book’s obvious focus, and strength, is the information about paper and bound volumes – their history, construction, and care. Archives, and libraries, however, consist of much more than paper and books. Photographs and audio-visual material get comparatively brief mention.

The most obvious omission in this volume, which is troubling from both a programmatic and a technical standpoint, is the almost total exclusion of digital media/electronic records. The author explains this absence in the book’s introduction: “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.” (p. xix, emphasis mine) While I realize that electronic media and digital preservation pose many different challenges than do the preservation of physical media, for a book published in 2010 which is intended to cover the breadth of preservation of archival materials, sloughing this topic off onto “specialized literature” just doesn’t seem responsible. The book does note “digitization” while talking about copying and reformatting. For digital preservation to work, it can’t be thought of as a side-line of a few experts, but must be part of the entire preservation program.

There are a handful of details in the book which distract this reader. One factual error–a 10F temperature change does not equal a 12C temp change. (p. 96) A 10F temperature change equals approximately 6C. Also, some details from the 1993 edition were not updated to 2010, such as, “Thermal facsimilie copies … are currently dominant due to their lower cost.” (p. 68) (While I’ve not seen what kind of fax machines they use at the National Archives, I’m quite certain I’ve not seen a thermal fax machine in the last decade.) Additionally, the index is haphazard. Some topics and people cited in the book do not appear in the index. Some subjects appear under various terms: for instance, the index for sound recordings reads in entirety “sound recordings, digital imaging and, 328n11” while there are several more entries under “Audio recordings. Also, some headings have a curious specificity. The headings for safety, in its entirety are: “Safety, human, 296. Safety issues in storage areas, 175.”

For a book that does a better job of providing a comprehensive overview of preservation in an archives setting (including digital preservation) I prefer Helen Forde’s 2007 publication Preserving Archives. Although it lacks the amazing detail of Ritzenthaler’s book, that detail is readily available in the specialized literature.

I still think this is a good and valuable book as was the 1993 edition but if you own the 1993 edition, I’m not sure there is any significant value in replacing it with this new edition. If you don’t have either edition, by all means go out and by one now. I cannot reiterate enough how loaded this book is with helpful information. Despite the challenges I see with this book, it is remains a phenomenal resource of information and I’m astounded that one person could write and know all this stuff.


One Response

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