A Conservator Ponders Impermanence

The ever thought-provoking Kevin Driedger wrote this essay for us back in October. Apologies to Kevin for taking so long in getting it posted, and a great big THANK YOU to him for his patience and for writing this post. When Kevin’s blog Library Preservation shut down, an important voice was quieted…but only for a little while. Great news! He has started Library Preservation 2 . We welcome him back with great enthusiasm and look forward to reading his posts.

“No thing is permanent.”

Although I don’t know what effect this would have I sometimes wonder what would happen if everyone responsible for the care and preservation of library collections were to begin their day reciting the declaration “No thing is permanent.”

This phrase seems to go against what we feel we are to be about – preserving items and collections permanently, or for a really long time, or for some time after they are no longer useful, or at least until after I’m dead and gone. To acknowledge that all things, including the items I am skillfully and carefully working on, are impermanent is an act of humility on behalf of the conservator. It is to acknowledge limitations. A conservator can do things to lengthen the useful (or non-useful) life of a book, but a conservator cannot make the book(1) permanent.

The death of a library book is seen as a conservation failure, although the fault causing the failure is usually not assigned to the conservator but to poor materials, poor construction, improper handling, or bad environment. Somebody did something wrong. With a capable conservator in charge at the book’s inception, to its use, its storage, and any necessary remedial activity, the book would still be around today.

I don’t find much discussion in the conservation literature about how long library items should be kept – conservation literature is most often geared to how to conserve things, not what to conserve or when to stop conserving and pronounce the book dead.

While the library conservation literature doesn’t often speak overtly about issues of permanence and impermanence its language definitely indicates a preference/ambition/expectation of the former. Newsprint is described as “impermanent.” Acid free, lignin free, buffered paper is described as “permanent.” But what kind of permanence is this?

What is the motivation behind the quest for permanence? Personally, I tend to think the quest for permanence, or the unacknowledged reality of impermanence, is rooted in our fear of our own mortality and the fear that we won‘t be remembered (preserved) when we are dead and gone. What seems obvious is our efforts at permanence, like all acts of preservation, are efforts to gain control – to suppress deterioration. Deterioration, as Lowenthal expounds, “symbolizes failure.” (2)

We human beings are destined to decay. The books we work on are destined to decay.  The 2nd law of thermodynamics tells us that over time these systems – us, our books – will become increasingly disorganized, will decay. (3) No dictums of “first do no harm” or principles of “reversibility” will overturn this law. It is in the destiny of us and our materials to return to the dust from whence we came – to be impermanent.

We in the western world have a mixed relationship with decay. When touring old Celtic churches some decay is charming, but buildings showing decay is quite disconcerting  when looking for a hospital. Some decay provides an air of charm and authenticity when reading a tome from a library’s rare book collection, but a book with too much decay is demoralizing for reader and librarian.

The ideas of permanence and preservation prevalent within library conservation literature reflect a western, modern, scientific worldview. Permanence reflects a linear view of time. Permanence entails continuing to exist in the never ending forward movement of time. To those who view time other than linear, such as cyclically, permanence is nonsense, illogical, and potentially even harmful. Notions such as Buddhism’s understanding of cyclical time with life, death, and rebirth have no place in western conservation.

“Indeed, Chinese scholars agree that old works of art must perish so that new ones can take their place. It is the memory of art objects rather than their physical persistence that suffuses Chinese consciousness and stimulates new works.” (Lowenthal, p. 74)

As a product of western scientific thinking, the library conservation community sees the questions surrounding permanence and impermanence as technical problems to be solved. They appear to rarely have been approached as moral or philosophical problems.

What are we trying to make permanent? The goal of making something permanent involves the idea that there is some distinct abiding thing that can be preserved. To preserve or make permanent means that there we have some object today, which will be the same tomorrow. For the library conservator, this object is a book. In its simplest terms, a book consists of text and object.

First the object – from the moment of creation of a book, this physical object is constantly changing, constantly decaying. Physical and chemical reactions, speeded up or slowed down by different environmental conditions are breaking down the structure of all parts of the book. We can take efforts to slow that process but we should always remember we cannot stop or reverse it. The various materials will fade, change color, weaken, become brittle, become worn, become damaged. The book is constantly changing. A 200 year old book in “pristine” condition is physically not the same book it was 200 years ago. At some point in the future, this book as a distinct object will no longer exist.

And regarding the text – Conservators by and large do not give much attention to the text of books. Our task is to ensure the ongoing life of the physical object, so the text written on its pages has an ongoing life. But, despite conservator’s proclivities for books as objects, the primary purpose for most books is to hold within them text.

Readers interact with the text to create meaning. Without this meaning the text is just scribbles on a page. I confess to subscribing to a distinctly post-modern hermeneutic where the meaning of a text does not reside in the text itself, or with the author and the author’s intent, but the meaning of a text is created by a community of readers as it interacts with the text. As the community of readers changes – and it constantly changes – so too does the meaning they derive from the text. Therefore, despite what U.S. Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia wants you to think, the meaning of a text held within a book is no more fixed than the materials or structure of the book. (Justice Scalia believes in the “original intent” of the U.S. constitution, however I, and many others, believe “original intent” is as much a modern construct of modern readers as is what he would dismiss as a modern interpretation of the constitution.)

Thus, if we have a library filled with books that physically are constantly and irreversibly changing filled with texts whose meanings are constantly and irreversibly changing, what is there to preserve? If there is no distinct abiding thing, what is there to make permanent?

What would it mean for a library conservator to take seriously this vision of impermanence? I’m not certain. Accepting that no thing is permanent, however, does not remove the obligation of the conservator to strive for a long (or appropriate) length of life for objects in our collection, nor does it remove our obligation to do the work we can for each object. Ultimately, it will return to dust, but now, it is the only thing that matters.

We are temporary beings, working on temporary things. Nevertheless, do good work.

(1) I’m using “book” as a symbol for a library’s material collections.

(2) David Lowenthal’s The Past is a Foreign Country is a masterful work that deserves some in-depth pondering.

(3) I acknowledge this is a trite and likely erroneous application of the 2nd law of thermodynamics – but I don’t often get to refer to it and am hoping that most people who read this don’t have a much better grasp of this concept than I do.

Kevin Driedger

Lansing, Mich.

Oct. 2010

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9 Responses

  1. It was pointed out, by a magazine editor no less, that the book title in footnote 2 is a little off – it should be “The past is a foreign country.” There was a missing ‘r’ – which greatly reduced the breadth of the past.

  2. Fixed! I also added a link to the title on Amazon. Thanks Kevin!

  3. Though still not addressing the point of why and for how long something should be kept, it is obvious the question of how long a physical item should be kept is being addressed in libraries. Answer: Not at all. Either by choice or outside force libraries are ingesting an increasing number of digital only items/collections. Of course digital has its own set of “forever” issues but they will be address by others and not involve bench conservators.

  4. […] entitled “No thing is permanent” and I found it really interesting, I’m glad to see that PCAN have published it on their blog.  “We human beings are destined to decay. The books we work on are destined […]

  5. Keep the discussion going! also be sure to read Dan Cull’s post about this. And surf over to Library Preservation 2 for more.

  6. Wonder if conservators should view themselves more as hospice workers? My coworker and I were just having a discussion about the Western (and especially American) struggle with the concept of death, and she recommended this documentary:
    Flight From Death: the quest for immortality
    It covers research that has been done investigating humankind’s relationship with death.

  7. Great essay! I like the bionic mortality link to embodied media.

    The only pause for me concerns the live link. The physical books interplay with living people. The cascade of those interplays is especially evident in older books that have outlived most of their readers. The conservator hands-off those embodied readings.

  8. […] Driedger. A Conservator Ponders Impermanence. Preservation and Conservation Administration News. January 3, […]

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