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The Importance of Conserving Books

By Richard Barden

As the Manager for Preservation Services at the National Museum of American History, I oversee and direct the work of the Museum’s three conservation laboratories (Costume/Textiles, Objects, and Paper) and direct the preservation activities of the museum. This year, I was selected to participate in the Smithsonian Institution’s Palmer Leadership Development Program. As part of the program, I am required to work at another Smithsonian unit for 20 to 30 days while performing my normal duties. The program aims to expand my knowledge and abilities through performing new tasks as well as expanding my overall knowledge of the Smithsonian.


One of my goals is to raise dedicated funds for Preservation Services at the Museum of American History. Allocated funding would allow me to hire more staff such as a Photography Conservator or more Objects Conservators, and help my unit to support interns and fellows. I would also be able to fund research into and the conservation of specific objects or collections, like the Gunboat Philadelphia or the Early Sound Recording Collection. To further this goal, for my rotation I chose to learn about fundraising, a.k.a. Advancement.

As I searched around the Smithsonian for a rotation in Advancement, I was fortunate to learn that the Smithsonian Libraries’ Department of Advancement was looking for assistance in developing materials to further their fundraising efforts for conservation. A perfect fit!

One of my first assigned tasks was to write a blog post about the importance of funding conservation at the Libraries. After more than twenty years of working in conservation at the Museum of American History I thought this would be easy. But in truth, it’s much more difficult than I imagined.  I never gave much thought to the larger reasons of why we save artifacts.  I’ve always appreciated historic objects and art, and innately wanted to keep and save them. Since almost all of my work at American History involves the conservation and preservation of three-dimensional objects, costumes, textiles, and paper based artifacts, to concentrate only on books and manuscripts is different.  So I asked myself why we save books.  And I did a Google search.


Libraries hold our thoughts, the way we think, how we express ourselves, our knowledge, feelings, our art and science, how and why we love.  More than any other artifacts, books and documents explicitly reveal our thoughts. They disclose who we were, what we did and why.  Books are the surviving and tangible evidence of our past thoughts.  As Bettina Drew wrote, “The past remind us of timeless human truths ……and is the basis for self-understanding.”

Everything changes and fades; nothing lasts forever and that includes books. The materials that books are made from deteriorate; leather, paper, ink, glue, and the media that make up the words and images face a myriad of factors causing them to crumble. Leather can become brittle or have red rot; paper becomes weak, brittle, tears, and can discolor; media can separate from its paper support and flake away; and the glue of bindings dries out, shrinks, and becomes stiff and brittle.

Sometimes, if you’re paying close attention you might notice these almost imperceptible changes: tiny flakes of loss from a word or image, the slow stiffening of paper as you turn a page, the change of color as paper ages, or the sound of the binding glue cracking as you open a book that you haven’t visited in a while.

Conserving books is saving the past: who we were, where we came from, how we lived, what we did and how we did it.  We should not forget; we should not lose the past, which is why it is so important that we conserve books.

The Smithsonian Libraries is dedicated to raising funds for conservation. Adopting a book is one way you can support their efforts.

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