A trip to China helps preservation librarian Alvan Bregman save UBC’s ancient treasures
When Alvan Bregman travelled to China in September 2011, he had no idea just how valuable that experience would prove.
At the time, Bregman was the Preservation Librarian at UBC Library, a new job that involved the oversight and care of the Library’s physical collections.
Those collections pose unique preservation challenges. Paper and cardboard degrade. Leather covers dry out. Aging newsprint turns yellow and eventually disintegrates.
“Just about everything that’s made has what conservators call ‘inherent vice’ – that is, some tendency to break down,” says Bregman.
Not one to admit defeat, Bregman has taken many steps to protect and prolong the condition of the Library’s books and other physical objects – including a three-week Asian journey that involved a workshop on the care of rare Chinese books at Beijing’s Peking University (PKU) Library. Bregman wanted to see how these techniques could be applied to materials at UBC’s Asian Library.
Last year, UBC Library and PKU Library agreed to exchange staff and expertise related to cataloguing and conservation, especially for Asian materials.
On his trip, Bregman learned about traditional binding and paper repair, made the kind of wheat paste that is used for mending, and studied the construction of book casings. He discovered how to dye the paper and silk thread that binds many Chinese publications. He repaired items that had been damaged by ravenous insects. “It was an opportunity of a lifetime,” recalls Bregman, now the Head of Technical Services at UBC Library.
Putting new skills to the test
A year later, that trip took on a new significance. Last September, Bregman received news that a mould outbreak, traced to an earlier leak, had occurred in the vault of UBC’s Asian Library.
Luckily, the incident was covered by insurance – but the preservation challenge was daunting. About 400 moldy books, mostly rare Chinese and Japanese items, were stored in freezers to be decontaminated. As a precaution, all books in the Asian Library vault were hand-cleaned and then moved to a new home, the climate-controlled vault at UBC Library’s Rare Books and Special Collections (RBSC), located at the Irving K. Barber Learning Centre.
Bregman learned about traditional binding and paper repair, made the kind of wheat paste that is used for mending, and studied the construction of book casings.
“It’s a very intense and complicated project,” notes Bregman. Yet his earlier Chinese exchange had also armed him with knowledge and skills that were perfect for this test. “I was aware of the structure of Chinese rare books,” he says. “I knew what I was dealing with.”
Other experiences also came in handy. Before coming to UBC, for example, Bregman worked at the University of Illinois’s Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which closed for weeks in 2008 to deal with a mould outbreak.
Still, last September’s ordeal has yielded important benefits, such as the relocation of the Asian Library’s rare materials to the welcoming RBSC vault. Indeed, other special items from various UBC Library branches will move to RBSC throughout 2013. “UBC is following the North American trend of consolidating rare book material within an updated, environmentally sound and world-class facility,” says Jo Anne Newyear Ramirez, Associate University Librarian for Collections Management.
Books may be fragile, but anything digital can also decay. Dizzying changes in formats, software and more make it difficult to keep electronic assets from disappearing into the digital ether.
“The long-term stewardship of materials both digital and analog is one of the cornerstones of libraries,” says Bronwen Sprout, Digital Initiatives Coordinator. “At UBC Library we are creating and managing a large volume of digital material, and we’re responsible for making sure it is still usable into the future, as with our print material.”
The Library has worked with Artefactual Systems, a Lower Mainland company, to implement an open source digital preservation system called Archivematica this spring. Archivematica will go a long way towards ensuring that University publications, databases, theses, research data sets and other types of digital collections endure.
Digital preservation is a pressing worldwide challenge. Last September, UBC cooperated with UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) to hold a Vancouver conference on the preservation of digital heritage. The event attracted more than 500 public and private sector participants from around the world and led to the adoption of an official declaration this past January, whose recommendations aim to bolster an international strategy for digital preservation.
A safer place
Preservation remains the watchword of the B.C. Integrated Research Library, UBC Library’s planned new storage facility on the south campus for low-usage items. The building’s environment will be carefully controlled for temperature, light, pollutants and humidity, thereby extending the life of print materials by up to seven times compared to regular shelving conditions.
The Library is also about to launch a preservation campaign for its users and staff, in sync with the American Library Association’s Preservation Week from April 21 to 27.
For more on the Library’s efforts, please visit its preservation site.