Friday, February 29, 2008

BPL's Rare Books Turmoil

In the current Boston Magazine, novelist William Martin highlights the dire state of the Boston Public Library's rare books preservation/conservation program. Martin takes us inside the library to the workroom of Stuart Walker, the BPL's conservator, located just off the main rare books display area: "It's the windowless sacristy to this sanctum of books, and also a battlefield where, every day, Walker fights acid, mold, and all the other insidious enemies that the passage of time is using to destroy the library's treasures."

Walker's lack of resources, Martin writes "make for an ironic footnote in the dustup over the ouster of the library's president, Bernard Margolis, who, it was said, lavished too much attention on the central library - on collections like John Adams's - at the expense of the neighborhood branches." Margolis, no quiet lame duck he, says the problem is the BPL has too many books and not enough funds: "It's a lot to maintain, and sometimes we've needed leadership that understands that investing in this resource as a public good produces a direct economic return. But we haven't had the blessing of that."

Walker says his modus operandi has, by necessity, shifted from proactive to reactive, telling Martin "our work is essentially need-driven on an item-by-item level." Not exactly the ideal circumstance for preserving such an important collection, but entirely understandable given the current situation.

Friends of the library, including David McCullough (who has started a Conservation Fund for the BPL's collections) are busy raising money and pushing for more attention, staffing and resources for the preservation of the BPL's rare books collections. They are also thinking, Martin reports, about Doomsday Scenarios - perhaps donating the John Adams collection to the Library of Congress, for example, if resources enough to keep it safe cannot be mustered. Practically unthinkable, in my view, but I agree that steps must be taken to protect and preserve the collection.

Hopefully with a new Library president and a permanent Keeper of Rare Books (Earle Havens is fairly recently out, Susan Glover in as Acting Keeper), the importance of this issue can be expressed more forcefully to the powers that be.

Martin's entire article is well worth a read.

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