National Humanities Alliance
Statement on the FY-1989 Appropriation for the National Endowment for the Humanities
Before the U.S. House of Representatives, Subcommittee on Interior and Related Agencies (Committee on Appropriations), by Patricia M. Battin, President, Commission on Preservation and Access, Speaking on behalf of the Association of Research Libraries, the Commission on Preservation and Access, and the National Humanities Alliance
March 17, 1988
Mr. Chairman and Members of the Subcommittee:
The National Endowment for the Humanities has long been known to me; during my ten years as Vice President for Information Services and University Librarian of Columbia University in the City of New York, I had the opportunity to serve on several NEH review panels. The Columbia Libraries are also included among the many university libraries receiving grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities to preserve distinctive research resources and make them more accessible to more scholars.
In my present role as head of the Commission on Preservation and Access, I hope to take my previous experience and concern with the humanities in general, and preservation of our nation's recorded heritage in particular, to a wider national audience -- including the Endowment, with which the Commission has had an ongoing and salutary relationship -- to develop, in partnership with the Endowment, NHA, ARL and other concerned organizations, a coordinated, cost-effective national program to save our written heritage.
2. THE IMPORTANCE AND USEFULNESS OF THE ENDOWMENT
Both the National Humanities Alliance and the Association of Research Libraries, along with the members of the Commission I represent, strongly support Dr. Cheney's comments on the importance of our heritage as stated recently in an article in The Washington Post: “Our society, like all societies, depends for its cohesiveness on common knowledge -- a ‘symbolic code,’ Alfred North Whitehead called it. While that knowledge must reflect the experience of each new generation, it must also be linked to the tradition that has formed the society....Without this link to the past, we are unmoored, lacking the awareness of where we are and who we are, which is essential to determining what we, as an American community, shall be. As Whitehead put it, ‘Those societies which cannot combine reverence to their symbols with freedom of revision must ultimately decay.’"
3. STATEMENT OF THE PROBLEM
And that is the immediate danger we face. As you know from testimony last year before this Subcommittee -- and before the Subcommittee on Postsecondary Education -- the acid paper on which we have recorded our words and images for the past 150 years is deteriorating at an alarming rate. We face a problem of monumental dimensions. In the area of books alone (the first among several priorities we hope to address in years to come), all indications are that as much as one-fourth of the collections of the nation's major libraries -- including the Library of Congress and the major research and university libraries -- is in a state of serious embrittlement due to the acid paper on which nearly all books have been printed since the mid-nineteenth century. In gross numbers we are talking about 75 million volumes. As Vartan Gregorian says in the documentary film, Slow Fires, if George Orwell were writing futuristic fiction today, he would not call for the burning of books, but merely for their being printed on poor paper that would soon self-destruct.
And, as you can imagine, the crisis is worldwide. While other nations are mobilizing to address the brittle books issue, it is no secret that it is the United States and a few other nations of the developed world that will need to take the lead in saving materials from and for the whole world. In a global society, we are as dependent on the knowledge that is published in foreign literatures as we are on our own. The work we accomplish in preservation will have international as well as national implications and benefits.
A key part of understanding what is at stake in the brittle book issue is to recognize the enormous contribution both public and private universities have made over the decades to our nation's well-being by developing and supporting distinctive research collections. That contribution has not been to scholarship alone, but to the American people at large. Brittle books and the papers and manuscripts decaying in our archives represent a major social problem of concern to all of us. The brittle paper problem is indeed a problem of societal, and not just library-world, dimensions. Therefore, the brittle book problem represents a serious threat to a fundamental national asset -- an asset that undergirds our common knowledge, our symbolic code, perhaps as no other does. For within this national asset are the parts of our common knowledge that cannot be related to us except through books and documents in our libraries and archives -- because the narrators and speakers and players are long dead.
The operating budgets of our libraries and universities can no longer support this national asset alone. We believe that it is in your best interests as representatives of a nation critically dependent on this asset to form a new partnership both to protect our heritage and to extend at the same time far broader access to it, an expanded access that is crucial to our survival in a global society. The new technologies available to us -- products of a strong research establishment which has long depended upon recorded literature -- can be utilized not only to preserve a significant portion of our printed heritage, but also to make it far more widely available for use than it is in its present condition.
4. RECENT DEVELOPMENTS
I should note here that the Commission was established in 1986 following the recommendation of a study group organized by the Council on Library Resources. As you may know, the Council on Library Resources was itself established in 1956 and has been funded since its inception by major private foundations in this country. Preservation has been a key area of the Council's endeavors for more than 20 years, and studies funded by the Council resulted in much of what we now know about the causes of paper deterioration. The Commission on Preservation and Access, in its turn, is funded by a group of major universities and private foundations, including the Council, and counts among its members the Deputy Librarian of Congress, the directors of several major university and research libraries, and university officers. Its creation and work was endorsed by the Association of Research Libraries in a resolution passed at its 1984 meeting.
Because of these initiatives, much has been learned and accomplished in the past 20 years. In addition to the seminal research commissioned by the Council on Library Resources, we can note the following activities:
5. PROPOSED APPROACH
6. PROPOSED PARTNERSHIP WITH NEH
To accomplish this goal requires at least a five-fold increase in our current level of effort. We are well aware of the need for controlled, incremental expansion of the necessary operations into a flourishing infrastructure. Our analysis indicates that NEH is now spending between $2 and $3 million a year on preservation (in addition to its support for the newspaper project). This year saw an auspicious beginning with NEH matching grants in preservation of $1 million to two outstanding research collections. Several more applications are in preparation for the coming year.
We propose that federal funding for preservation microfilming be increased by a minimum of $2 million a year until an annual level of $10 million is reached. (Please note that we are proposing new funding, and not transfers from other budgets within NEH.) Additional university proposals, at the rate of two to four a year, can be expected to parallel the increasing amount of funding planned, until a level of 150,000 volumes a year is reached. Coordination of selection and recording of volumes filmed to avoid duplication and insure broad bibliographic access would be monitored at the national level, and within a very short time -- perhaps four to five years -- a significant number of endangered items would be both preserved and made nationally accessible.
I want to emphasize that NHA, ARL and the Commission are proposing a true partnership: funding through NEH would not provide the entire costs of such filming. Universities and other participating research libraries would be contributing both professional time and funds to the work. The Commission plans to seek the participation of state and local legislatures, private foundations, and the corporate sector in this crucial venture. It is a challenge that must concern us all, and we believe the National Endowment for the Humanities provides an unparalleled resource to solve an unparalleled crisis.
Thank you for the opportunity to testify today to our affirmation of the work that has been and continues to be accomplished by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which represents a unique part of the American federal structure. Others have spoken and will speak to other significant Endowment programs; for those whom I represent, we believe that major participation by the Endowment in the preservation of and access to those documents that comprise our common heritage is essential to the success of the broader program objectives. If we are to take seriously Whitehead's injunction to have reverence for our symbols, there is little better way than to contribute to their continued existence. For as we preserve our heritage, we guarantee our future.
Many years ago, the founders of the Virginia Historical Society observed that "We cannot be indifferent to our past if we would stand with credit in the future." We owe to those who follow us the knowledge of their past.
National Humanities Alliance (Washington, DC). All rights reserved.