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Archival methods for rare books and map

Professor,

In reading about the development of your personal collection of books, charts, maps, art, and other media for the display of information, I wonder if you would share your opinions and perhaps recommendations on the storage of archival materials. Books are the least of the problem for me - bookshelves work fine. Large quantities of flat materials, of all different sizes and materials, however, present a problem for me. Do you employ plain or "flat file" cabinets? Do you invest in climate/humidity control? Of course the answers vary with the material being stored - is there a seminal book on how to store such materials? I'm sure your collection dwarfs my own - what's your approach to managing your materials?

-- Bill Heggie (email)


Response to Archival Methods

The phrases to search in Google are "book conservation," "paper conservation," "archival," or "library archival." There are catalogs of archival storage materials; try the company Light Impressions.

The people who deal with your concerns professionally are rare book dealers and libraries. See what they do. Rare book libraries try to maintain 72 degrees temperature and 50% relative humidity the year round. Light also affects paper and color; nothing ever in direct sunlight obviously. Never allow fluids near the materials; no fluids anywhere on a surface with valuable items.

Very valuable items should be kept locked up; rare book dealers and collectors sometimes use bank vaults. According to rare book dealers and librarians, a stolen rare book is difficult to sell in the rather small world of collectors, dealers, and auction houses; thus insiders or crazed collectors are probably the most likely threat to walk off with something.

Fires are a disaster; several biographies of artists and designers have chapters with titles like "After the Fire." Another problem with fire is the water used to dowse the fire; imagine the damage if someday the volunteer fire department came charging in, water-hoses flowing wild. Or if a sprinkler system went off. Rare book dealers use locked fireproof cabinets (very heavy) and keep the books in sealed waterproof archival plastic bags. High-end rare book libraries use gas-type fire extinguishing to drive out the oxygen feeding the fire and thus avoid water damage.

You may wish to insure really valuable materials. Thankfully any particular rare book (even if very scarce) is likely to turn up at auction houses or dealers at least once every few years; books are replaceable.

Flatfiles are very useful; place materials between pH-neutral paper and in archival plastic bags.

My collection is for use in research and teaching. Thus wear and tear happens. I show several moderately rare books (a 1570 Euclid, a Galileo, a Newton) in my one-day course, and over the years those books have become worn. These books are not trophies locked up forever; the books are alive, seen, and used.

-- Edward Tufte


Response to Archival Methods

Here is some additional material on rare books, slightly revised from my earlier answer on this board.

I have always tried to have personal copies of research and teaching materials. As an undergraduate in the 1960s I spent lots of time xeroxing course materials rather than reading in the library. In graduate school I got a student loan for my big annual xerox budget.

This idea of having all the information in hand developed fully around the time of The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, when I started collecting Marey, Playfair, Minard, data atlases, and also fine press books (beautifully illustrated or printed books, an interest inspired by designing and self-publishing my own books).

These predispositions were accelerated by visits to the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University, where I taught. I made the mistake of going there in my Levis, or something insufficiently tweedy anyway, and even though I was a full professor, a snooty research librarian made it clear that the Beinecke preferred more refined sorts interested in more humanistic matters rather than science, statistical graphics, and displays of evidence. (I later mentioned all this to the Director, who thought my stories quite amusing, and dismissed the thought that the library could ever possibly be improved to assist with research.) Also that Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University had weird and arbitrary policies about showing books to students while teaching seminars at the library--only a small number of books per seminar and the books could be touched only by a curator (who knew nothing about the content). To top it off, the photographic department was weak, routinely producing poor images, useless for high-quality publishing work. Nearly every policy and action limited access to the wonderful books imprisoned at the Beinecke; it was a book collector's monument with untouched trophies on the shelves, rather than a research library. Of course I should have diplomatically worked my way around these impediments to learning.

At any rate, I made my own library, The Museum of Cognitive Art.

So, as Envisioning Information was underway, I collected maps, Japanese works of all sorts, evidence displays from legal cases, history of science books (Euclids, Galileo, Scheiner), books on color (Albers, Chevreul), typography, and nearly all the other material used in Envisioning Information.

And similarly for the next book, Visual Explanations.

And again for my current manuscript, Beautiful Evidence, which contains material from artists books (Matisse, Picasso, Derain, Dufy, and Ernst).

The original works are enormously inspiring. It is also straightforward to make high quality reproductions and scans for publication from our original copies, much better than photographs of books supplied by the too often sullen and bureaucratic staff at too many research libraries.

Also original copies of great books are inspiring to students--the physicality, the longevity, the powerful ideas in the book. That is why I show the books in the one-day course. It is always wonderful to see a book by Galileo, to see the only time in print where Galileo said that the Earth moves, or to see Playfair's invention of the barchart, or Albers' demonstrations of interacting colors.

Over and over, these books indicate the timelessness of ideas about information design; they say that information design is about more important things than the difference between release 3.0 and release 3.1.

Some of the books also suggest that real smart people have thought hard about displays of evidence--for example, Galileo, who carefully watched over the design and publication of both The Starry Messenger (1610) and Letters on Sunspots (1613). Galileo personally financed the engravings in The Starry Messenger rather than using coarse woodcuts to report his amazing findings.

-- Edward Tufte




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