Artifacts in libraries are deteriorating. SU delayed a plan to save them.
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1930s Syracuse University football reels. Pulp science fiction journals. Portraits of Albert Einstein, WEB Du Bois and Langston Hughes. The original writings, letters and manuscripts of activists, abolitionists and anti-fascists.
All of these one-of-a-kind artifacts are in the care of the Special Collections Research Center at SU, the vast archive of precious materials that the university largely stores on the sixth floor of the Bird Library. And without immediate intervention, professors familiar with the collections say many of these items will soon deteriorate to the point that their original content – and the history they preserve – will be lost.
“What we are talking about is a rescue operation,” said Deborah Pellow, member of the Senate University Committee on Libraries. “It’s that simple.”
The university has a long history of monitoring the degradation of materials in its special collections, but damage to some of its most valuable artifacts was recently revealed when Pellow’s committee presented a report on the deterioration at a Senate meeting. from the university on February 24.
During the meeting, Pellow and his colleagues presented a difficult scenario: At-risk materials – which include “tens of thousands” of films, books, manuscripts, photographs, negatives, and tape media – could decompose beyond recognition if they are not moved. to a temperature-controlled storage facility. And SU, which delayed the construction of such a facility for several years, is running out of time to act.
“The problem is to stop the degradation of the collection,” Pellow, professor of anthropology at SU, said in an interview. “We cannot save what is degraded, but we can prevent it from continuing.”
The types of deterioration of SU archives are almost as varied as their content. Paper documents and manuscripts, such as the writings of abolitionist Gerrit Smith and old copies of the Daily Orange, become brittle due to their acidic nature. Audio recordings, including tapes donated by Dick Clark, are confronted with damage due to magnetic decay or, for some cylinders in Belfer’s audio archives, graphite from a nearby elevator.
Photographic prints in SU’s collection of famous photographer Margaret Bourke-White, which the report valued at $ 98 million, take on a bluish tint. Without intervention, the tint will advance over the images, obscuring their original content, the report says.
“Photographic equipment, some of which deteriorated beyond the rescue,” Pellow said.
The solution to many of the deterioration issues is the same, committee members said: building a secure, air-conditioned addition to SU’s existing library storage building on Jamesville Avenue. According to the report, SU had designed, approved and planned to fund the facility – known as Module 2 – as early as 2016, but the university halted the project for unclear reasons.
The committee’s report alleges that SU put the project aside to make room for other construction projects, including renovating the roof of the Carrier Dome and the National Veterans Resource Center. In a statement to the DO, a spokesperson for the SU denied that funds had been transferred from the construction of Module 2 to the renovation of the Dome roof.
“It is true that there have been major capital projects that have taken place since 2016, and they have prioritized health or safety issues or the student experience,” Chancellor Kent Syverud said. when he insisted on the matter at the Senate meeting. He said the scope of the project has changed since his first proposal.
The leaders of the libraries of the League recognize the need to act. David Seaman, dean of libraries, said in an email that the committee’s descriptions of the deterioration of special collections are accurate. A stable, safe and controlled environment like Module 2 would prevent further degradation of risky materials, he said.
SU originally planned for the pod to consist of multiple climate-controlled zones, with the ability to closely monitor temperature and humidity in each space, said Jenny Doctor, former director of SU’s Belfer Audio Archives. A separate space would allow materials to move slowly to warmer environments to avoid impact, she said.
A doctor, who left the SU in 2016 and is now the head of the Albino Gorno Memorial Music (CCM) library at the University of Cincinnati, said the humidity in the SU libraries had been particularly damaging to archived documents.
“Humidity is almost more important than temperature,” she says. “We have to have absolutely constant humidity, and that’s the big problem at Bird and Belfer. Moisture is all over the map all the time, and that’s what’s really terrible about the collection. “
The doctor, who praised the work of SU special collections staff with whom she worked while at SU, said it was around 2014 when SU first noticed the effects of improper storage of photographic negatives. , which launched a wider push towards redeveloping its storage facilities.
Almost half a decade later, how and when the university will move forward on the Module 2 construction project remains unclear. The university is exploring options to fund the project and sets a target date for its completion “as soon as possible,” Seaman said.
A previous statement by an SU spokesperson said the university had already allocated funds for the project, including funds committed by donors. At the Senate meeting, Syverud said “substantial funds” had been raised for Module 2.
Regardless of how SU funds the project, building Module 2 will be expensive, especially for a university strapped for cash due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The committee estimated that the project would cost around $ 6 million.
Hosting special collections and maintaining the facilities and staff that preserve them is also a financial challenge for many universities, the doctor said. As a result, libraries often have to speak up to remind universities of their value.
“It is expensive to look after a special collection,” said the doctor. “Deterioration is costly.”
Several committee members acknowledged that the SU is in financial difficulty during the pandemic, but they fear the university may no longer delay construction of a new facility. An inconvenient time is better than no time at all, they said.
“We can hold two different truths at the same time, and one truth is that the university is in critical condition financially because of COVID,” said Karina von Tippelskirch, another member of the committee. “At the same time, if I have a dying patient, I can’t say, ‘Okay, we’ll wait until after that.’”
Letting materials such as those in the SU’s special collections rot is not only a disservice to future generations of students and scholars, committee members said – it would also damage the international reputation of the university. Researchers from around the world came to view the documents from the SU archives, Tippelskirch said.
“The price of inaction is the embarrassment of our peers,” said Mark Monmonier, another committee member, at the Senate meeting.
For some SU professors and students who have conducted research in the SU special collections, decaying materials have immense personal value.
Tippelskirch is one of those teachers. She published a biography on journalist Dorothy Thompson using documents in the SU archives and in doing so, forged a connection to her sources.
Thompson, who graduated from SU in 1914, was one of the main voices opposing the rise of fascism in Europe. As a foreign correspondent, she interviewed a young Adolf Hitler before he came to power – and his scathing rebuke of the future dictator led him to exile from Germany, although she continued to denounce the fascism in Europe and Europe. in the USA
You can’t get closer to a writer who is no longer alive than to be interested in his papers and his handwriting, his typed, what he left behind.
Karina von Tippelskirch, member of the Senate Committee on University Libraries
Having access to not only Thompson’s published work but also her personal writings has given modern scholars visiting SU’s archives unprecedented insight into who she was, Tippelskirch said.
“You can’t get any closer to a writer who is no longer alive than to be interested in his papers and his handwriting, his typewriters, what he left behind,” she says. “We often overlook these things because they are right in front of us.”
Tippelskirch noted that Thompson’s materials are not at the greatest risk of deterioration compared to other items listed in the committee’s report. But some of Thompson’s photographs and manuscripts, especially those written on acidic paper, are starting to show signs of decay and would benefit from storage in a cooler space.
While SU works to establish a concrete timeline for the construction of Module 2, the university is also exploring interim solutions to mitigate the damage. The library can install smaller, self-contained storage units in existing facilities to house the most at-risk items until a permanent facility is in place.
But committee members expressed concern that whatever workarounds SU implements to stall the deterioration, they could be written off as a permanent solution – which they are not.
In the meantime, they said, items in the collections will continue to fade.
“What we need is a lasting solution that not only addresses the problem we currently have at hand, but takes care of it for years to come,” Tippelskirch said. “We all understand that a building does not go up overnight.”
At the University Senate meeting, committee members presented another option, if SU chooses not to build Module 2: hand over its valuable materials to another university that could better take care of it. Seaman said the SU had not considered abandoning its collections and said the university is committed to preserving them.
Seaman and committee members agreed on the importance of maintaining the SU collection, even though the future of Module 2 remains undecided. Their value – unlike their condition – will only increase over time, they said.
“We always have something new to discover when we have these materials,” Tippelskirch said. “They are not just about the past. They tell us something about the times we live in, where we come from.
Posted on March 9, 2021 at 12:57 AM
Contact Chris: [email protected]