Know of those hopeless cases? Those that not even the most skilled hands can help? Those that people shake their heads, step aside, and try to push out of their minds? Ever wonder what happens to them? Where do they go? What eventually befalls them?
I’m of course talking about books. Damaged books; books irreversible chewed, molded, torn, acidified; books missing boards, books missing everything but the boards; books beyond any conservator’s help. Thanks to my autumn in the preservation department, I can tell you all about the fates of these hopeless, brittle, & lost books.
It would be too easy to simply dump them in the trash and forget about them. In the best case scenario, which only works if you’re a single-digit number of years before retirement, you can discretely stack them in a dark closet and cross your fingers that nobody finds them until you’re out the door. Otherwise, you’re out of luck and must deal with them in a systematic manner.
Now, maybe you haven’t really given up the hope of being able to toss them, but before you can do so, you have to make sure that you’re not tossing the one of the last copies of, say, the second edition of America at the Movies as printed by Secker & Warburg. What constitutes “one of the last copies” is a scientific matter whose parameters include what loss rate do you assume, what duration of time do you want to ensure a copy exists, how sure do you want to be that a copy sticks around . . . etc. (For all the details, please see the not-very-long and rather-interesting paper by the name of “Optimizing the Number of Copies for Print Preservation of Research Journals” written by Yano, Shen, and Chan in 2008.)
Remember that scene from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy where the answer is 42? Well, turned out that robot must’ve been a) wrong, b) calculating something else, or c) had more risk aversion from us, because the answer is really 12. If World Cat tells us that there are 12 copies or less of a particular manifestation of work available worldwide (as far as WorldCat knows), then we fight tooth and nail to make sure our institution has 1 of the 12.
What does this “tooth and nail” fight by earnest preservation people look like? Needless to say (or at least I hope it’s needless to say), there is no ring, kudo chops, or mud involved. Instead, what we have is a lot of back and forth with subject selectors (“Are you sure you’re OK with us chucking this book? If you’re not, please make but a beep, and we’ll comply.” “Why, o why, won’t you beep? Are you ignoring our emails?”), a ton of checking with WorldCat (a ton, yours truly is now having dreams in which WorldCat and she are Graeae sisters tossing around yours truly’s one eyeball), double checking with ourselves (“Well, let’s take a look at these books marked for withdrawal one more time to make sure we’re not tossing the Hope Diamond into the refuse bin.”), and multiple other decision nodes.
One of the nodes that yours truly is unseemingly interested in is the point at which we decide to replace the hopeless book we have on hand by buying another copy on the OP (out-of-print) market. Buying! Buying is fun! It is especially fun when the book falls into the rare (and expensive) category, for which ABAA (Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America) is the place to go to window shop. (On a related note, I’m shamelessly dropping hints left and right that I would very much like to go the 45th California International Antiquarian Book Fair in Pasadena this Feburary with some in-the-know rare book people. I will let you know if my shamelessness pays off.)
In the sad, disappointing case where no copy if available on the OP market, and the book is in good enough shape to be scanned but hasn’t been by one of the big collaborative scanning projects like Hathi Trust, we send off our copy with kisses and best wishes to the Internet Archive so it can be digitized. Chances are that the physical copy will then be too destroyed to retain as print, but at least a preservation-worthy (and much use?) digital file is now available for either a) all of eternity or b) the time until we retire.
The next-to-last, but certainly not least, step is to document all that has been done and pass that information onto Cataloging, so that our records will reflect our new holdings appropriately. The really last step is to go dumpster diving for those discarded books that we’ve gotten attached to during the process.
This whole process (sans dumpster) is known as Preservation Review. I do the review, and the preservation department pays my wages. It’s a lovely, symbiotic relationship — much like that of between a leech and a 16th century patient. I play the leech, but unlike the stoic, quiet leeches, I can loudly proclaim that I have talented, charming, and insightful colleagues, and life in the preservation department, as far as the “you’ll jinx it” sentiment in me will allow, is pretty good.