Insights from practitioners in Information Management

Issue 83 – Priceless treasures at risk

Is your collection priceless? What would you do if it disappears one daynever to be seen again? Sounds far-fetched? Actually not at all! Here in WesternAustralia we witnessed the loss of one of our public library buildings, theadjacent and historic council building and the material housed within both. Butwhat are we doing about the loss and potential future loss of our collectiveconsciousness?

In this issue we will look at:

  • What cost “priceless”
  • Preserving and protecting your collection
  • Who pays the price for preserving access to the collections?

What cost “priceless”?

In August of this year I read with interest an article published in the Australian Library and Information Association (ALIA) journal “Incite” entitled “New Norcia Library – religious tradition and national heritage”, written by Sue Johnson, the librarian at the New Norcia Library. Sue gave a fascinating insight into the collection, which stands at 80,000 books and counting. Abbot Spearritt, the last Abbot of New Norcia had “encouraged donations of religious books to develop New Norcia as a repository of last resort” (Bold is mine). The collection has outgrown the main library building and according to Sue is now spread over ten rooms in 4 buildings.

Given the very recent fire at the Claremont library and adjacent heritage council office building, one can be forgiven for thinking that spreading the collection has got to be – not only a good thing, but essential – especially given the subject matter, its status as a place of last resort and value to the world’s collective consciousness.

Going back to the Claremont collection for just a moment and notwithstanding the traditional public library collection of popular books, CD’s DVD’s, newspapers, journals etc; the Claremont library like all public library collections, would have played home to a local history collection as well. Given Claremont is one of the oldest suburbs in Western Australia; the collection would have been extensive not to mention priceless – both in content and volume. However, our understanding of the Claremont fire, is that a lot of the Local History records (books, plans, maps and so on) were not in the library, but in the adjacent Council building, which was unfortunately also damaged in the fire. The heritage council building we understand can be saved, but the contents, the artifacts, along with the local history collection which spanned a century, most of which would have been irreplaceable has all but been destroyed.

Take a look around your own work place, your offices, libraries and repositories – what original material do you have hanging on the walls? Do you have copies of your registration certificates, licences, photographs and other framed items (usually found in entrance halls and receptions)? Or are they “it”?

Given that we really don’t know if the next disaster waiting to happen will be to our organisation or not, wouldn’t it make sense to ensure we do have copies of our vital records held somewhere other than a filing cabinet in the back office, or a cardboard box sitting on the floor waiting to go off to storage? And I am talking primarily about the physical “record” – the paper, the photographs and other items unique and essentially priceless to our organisation – as opposed to the electronic records which we can have lots of copies, backed onto multiple servers, backup tapes and stored wherever we like. That in itself is a problem and one we won’t be looking at in this edition – but nevertheless, we can all be guilty of thinking “it won’t happen to me”. We may have a disaster and recovery plan, but until we get to test it out (and we hope we never have to), it probably leaves a lot to be desired – but have you considered everything?

Preserving and protecting your collection

Every year I attend the Library Lecture at New Norcia, a chance for me to get away from the office and catch up with my colleagues in the library and information profession – and of course to hear from some amazing people who work in the information community. But it also gives me a chance to spend some time in one of the most amazing places in Western Australia. I believe it is well worth the 2 hour drive out of the city to experience the PAX (peace) and the hospitality of the Benedictine community. And no you don’t have to be “religious” to appreciate what is there, but please don’t take my word for it… I digress, well actually I don’t.

During the lunch time break I wandered up to the cemetery to pay my respects to the last Abbot, who passed away while on a trip to Europe in 2008.  Abbot Placid Spearritt was a staunch supporter of the library and information community and the special collections held by the Benedictine Monks.

However, the overall state of the cemetery bothered me, so when I had the chance to speak to the current Abbot, Abbot John, I asked him what plans there were for the Benedictine Community now the task of looking after the historic town of New Norcia had fallen to him.

I had explained my wanderings during the break to him, and my concerns. Abbot John was quite open about the issues faced by the monks, the visitors and the many different groups of people who called New Norcia home and made their living in and around the community. He said and I paraphrase “fixing the cemetery alone would cost a couple of million dollars”. Abbot John went on to explain that we saw, the crumbling walls (they are all made by hand) were just a very small part of the overall problem they faced, with some of the biggest being what lay beneath (pipe work), along with the termite’s natural but destructive habit of eating wood.

But what has this got to do with preservation in the true library, records and archiving sense?

Well, take a step back for just a moment. The entire township that is New Norcia is one very large artifact. Every building, every painting, every piece of furniture, every fresco and candlestick, every piece of old machinery is part of the “preservation problem”. Most of us won’t ever have to face dealing with preservation on that scale, so let’s imagine your own house as an entire entity that needs to be preserved in some way. If you own a property or two, you will appreciate the cost to maintain the fabric of the building. Over time, the maintenance bills can become rather large.  

Then take the number of people who “visit” your house on a daily / weekly basis. If you are the parent to teenage kids, quadruple the figure – then imagine the wear and tear on the interior.

And what of the pictures you have on the walls, your book collection, the bits and pieces you collected or were given. Accidental damage, lending part of your collection, it being borrowed without your knowledge, theft and of course, our buildings are as prone to fire and storm damage as office buildings are.

Now multiply that by about 100 years and about a thousand times and you get some idea of the scale of the problem faced by New Norcia.

But who really cares?

This year’s annual library lecture was interesting. Margaret Allen, the CEO of the State Library of Western Australia spoke about ALIA’s election lobbying policy.  A series of questions were posed to each of the major parties on a range of issues, not least the National Broadband Policy and what was the Australian government (current and future) going to do about Australia’s growing “functionally illiterate” population.

In the United Nations report of July 2004, “A massive 17 per cent of the adult Australian population was functionally illiterate, or unable to read basic medical instructions.”

The 2006 Australian Bureau of Statistics “Australia’s literacy and life skills” survey states:

Just over half (54%) of Australians aged 15 to 74 years were assessed as having the prose literacy skills needed to meet the complex demands of everyday life and work. Results were similar for document literacy with 53% and numeracy with 47% achieving this level.

But why is the problem so large?

Margaret Allen says the problem is not just with “formal education” but the fact that parents don’t read to their children/babies. Failure to do so means the right pathways are not formed in the brain at a young age. Without this basic preparation by the time the children reach school age, they struggle to read and learn and as they grow older the problem is more costly to rectify.

Is that why as a community we are happy for the government to spend billions on sports stadiums but don’t care if our library collections go up in smoke?

So who pays the price for preserving access to the collections?

Can you imagine what life would be like without libraries and the structure that goes into what a library is and does? I know I am preaching to the converted here, but think about it for just a moment.

  • You don’t have access to a computer at home, do you pay to use an internet café or do you book a time slot at the local library? If you are not completely sure about what to do when you do get access to a computer, the library staff are there to lend a hand.
  • You want to read the paper from your home country, or to catch up with what is happening around the world, you don’t have access to a computer – and wouldn’t know where to begin to find the website even if you did … where would you go?
  • You need a book for a piece of study you have to do, you can’t afford the price of a brand new copy, or if you can, you wait for the book to come from any of the internet bookshops.
  • You read so much you can’t afford every book you want to read and friends don’t buy them so you can’t borrow from them…
  • You are researching your local history and the role your family played

Now imagine if there were no libraries and no special collections, just stuff stuck in attics and basements, long forgotten until someone goes through the boxes and suitcases – and throws them away because they can’t see the value in them.

To my mind, sometimes it’s not that we don’t have access to the material; it’s just that we can’t see the value in them. Is this why there is a problem with getting funding, or maintaining funding at an appropriate level for them, and don’t seem to care that these issues are not given the urgency in parliament they deserve?

My understanding with Claremont is that some of the replacement stock will come from the State Library of Western Australia’s Return and Exchange program. Speaking with a colleague who works in the public library sector, she says they are planning on going through their own collection to find duplicates of material they can give to Claremont to re-establish at least in the short-term, part of the library collection. My colleague also said it would depend on the Local Government as to whether they would be willing to put up the money needed to pay for copies of material they had lost, and if so how much.

But what of the rare and priceless material contained in the special collections?

Assuming there are other copies in existence, would it be appropriate to digitize this material, or even photocopy the material so the originals can be stored offsite and in a secure location somewhere away from the main operations? Copyright law notwithstanding, surely it would make sense. However, this also presupposes there is a place for the material to be sent. My understanding is that the repository of the State Records Office of Western Australia is full. Wouldn’t it be nice to think the government and / or the big mining companies and those organisations who are benefitting from the “Mining Boom” could put up the money to create additional space to house and preserve our heritage, and give the libraries enough money to digitize the special collections so they can’t be lost to both ourselves and our future generations. Again the question – where are our priorities as a collective consciousness?

For small collections such as those held by individual public libraries digitizing the special collections may be a relatively easy option (notwithstanding the funding issues of course), but for repositories of last hope such as New Norcia?

As always, I hope this has given you some food for thought and hopefully a chance to start the discussions that may eventually lead to appropriate action. My hope is that happens before the next “disaster” occurs.