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Grant, gifts enable U. of I. Library to preserve endangered materials

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor


examples of at-risk materials: torn articles, broken book bindings
Click photo to enlarge
Photo courtesy UI Library
The $700,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and contributions of $1.4 million will help preserve at-risk materials in the U. of I. Library.

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — Thousands of endangered materials spanning at least seven centuries will be rescued at the Library of the University of Illinois of Urbana-Champaign.

A $700,000 preservation grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and contributions of $1.4 million from more than 1,000 “Library Friends” will support the preservation of the at-risk works.

The Mellon grant, awarded in 2001, was contingent on Illinois raising twice the amount. By the end of last year, in less than four years total, Illinois’ Library Friends across the United States raised the required $1.4 million. The combined sum of $2.1 million will form an endowment to help support the Library’s mission of preserving its holdings. This support will provide staff for the Library’s Preservation and Conservation Program, in particular, a special collections conservator, a conservation technician and two graduate assistants.

An additional outright gift of $300,000 from Mellon is being used to design and equip a world-class conservation laboratory for items desperately in need of
treatment. Valuable primary resources, such as manuscripts and early maps, as well as general books that circulate widely, will be targeted for preservation within the new facility.

“The University Library is privileged to hold magnificently rich collections,” said Paula Kaufman, university librarian. “The Mellon grant and our Friends’ contributions are allowing us to match these collections with a high-quality, vigorous preservation program.”

Until recently, Kaufman said, the Library’s focus had been “much more clearly” on building collections than ensuring that those collections would be accessible to future generations. A stronger focus on preservation activities began five years ago.

“While we’ve had many preservation activities throughout the decades, there had not been, until then, a focused, comprehensive program.”

Without such a program, Illinois depended on outside conservators for work on many pieces, including those of early writers such as John of Wales, Bernard of Clairvaux and Raymond of Sabunde.

Modern-age works from writers such as Proust, Sandburg and H.G. Wells, whose papers Illinois holds, also will receive their share of tender loving care.

The University Library has the largest public university collection in the world. Its holdings of more than 23 million items are valued conservatively at $1.5 billion. Yet nearly 40 percent of its collections is at risk of physical deterioration.

Deterioration is an inherent enemy of library collections, said Tom Teper, preservation librarian at Illinois, the person in charge of the new program.

“It’s always a challenge, because the vast majority of materials in a library are organic, and organic materials decay.”

The primary culprit is the high acid content of most paper used in scholarly publications since the mid-1850s, Teper said. Complicating the situation is the fact that paper from the 18th century has one life span, while the composition of paper from the 19th and 20th centuries gives it a different life span.

Poor environmental conditions – temperature, light, humidity – also pose threats to collections. Ultraviolet light and radiant heat weaken bindings and bleach cloth, Teper said, adding that the general stacks, home to more than 5 million volumes, are largely without air-conditioning, and large portions of the Library’s special collections require improved conditions.

Design and construction of the conservation lab, in the Library’s high-density storage facility, has begun. Specialized equipment, such as conservators’ sinks and benches, is being purchased. The lab should be operating this summer.

“The space we had was woefully inadequate for the institution,” Teper conceded, noting that lack of space affects workflow. While some peer institutions have a 24-hour turnaround time, Illinois’ limited space and staff combined to cause up to a four-month delay for general collections conservation.

“To have a conservation lab commensurate with the many needs of the University Library means that we will be able to give the collections the preservation care they deserve and need. These items represent a tremendous investment.”

Last year – and under far less than ideal conditions – the Library worked hard to treat 17,918 books and 9,131 unbound sheets (maps, for example, and other types of manuscript items); it de-acidified 2,100 books; sent 41,028 volumes to be commercially bound; made facsimile copies of 279 books; and microfilmed 90,000 images.

Wary of the backlog that still exists, but encouraged by the additional staff and new space, Teper said, “We’ll be able to ratchet up our progress quite a bit.”