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Grant, gifts enable U. of I. Library
to preserve endangered materials
Lynn, Humanities Editor
photo to enlarge
courtesy UI Library
grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
and contributions of $1.4 million will help
preserve at-risk materials in the U. of I.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. —
Thousands of endangered materials spanning at least seven centuries
will be rescued at the Library of the University of Illinois of
A $700,000 preservation grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
and contributions of $1.4 million from more than 1,000 “Library Friends”
will support the preservation of the at-risk works.
The Mellon grant, awarded in 2001, was contingent on Illinois raising
twice the amount. By the end of last year, in less than four years
total, Illinois’ Library Friends across the United States raised the
required $1.4 million. The combined sum of $2.1 million will form an
endowment to help support the Library’s mission of preserving
its holdings. This support will provide staff for the Library’s Preservation and Conservation
Program, in particular, a special collections conservator, a conservation
technician and two graduate assistants.
An additional outright gift of $300,000 from Mellon is being used to
design and equip a world-class conservation laboratory for items desperately
in need of treatment.
Valuable primary resources, such as manuscripts and early maps, as well
as general books that circulate widely, will be targeted for preservation
within the new facility.
“The University Library is privileged to hold magnificently rich
collections,” said Paula Kaufman, university librarian. “The
Mellon grant and our Friends’ contributions are allowing us
to match these collections with a high-quality, vigorous preservation
Until recently, Kaufman said, the Library’s focus had been “much
more clearly” on building collections than ensuring that those
collections would be accessible to future generations. A stronger
focus on preservation activities began five years ago.
“While we’ve had many preservation activities throughout
the decades, there had not been, until then, a focused, comprehensive
Without such a program, Illinois depended on outside conservators for
work on many pieces, including those of early writers such as John of
Wales, Bernard of Clairvaux and Raymond of Sabunde.
Modern-age works from writers such as Proust, Sandburg and H.G. Wells,
whose papers Illinois holds, also will receive their share of tender
The University Library has the largest public university collection
in the world. Its holdings of more than 23 million items are valued
conservatively at $1.5 billion. Yet nearly 40 percent of its collections
is at risk of physical deterioration.
Deterioration is an inherent enemy of library collections, said Tom
Teper, preservation librarian at Illinois, the person in charge of the
“It’s always a challenge, because the vast majority of materials
in a library are organic, and organic materials decay.”
The primary culprit is the high acid content of most paper used in scholarly
publications since the mid-1850s, Teper said. Complicating the situation
is the fact that paper from the 18th century has one life span, while
the composition of paper from the 19th and 20th centuries gives it a
different life span.
Poor environmental conditions – temperature, light, humidity –
also pose threats to collections. Ultraviolet light and radiant heat
weaken bindings and bleach cloth, Teper said, adding that the general
stacks, home to more than 5 million volumes, are largely without air-conditioning,
and large portions of the Library’s special collections require
Design and construction of the conservation lab, in the Library’s
high-density storage facility, has begun. Specialized equipment, such
as conservators’ sinks and benches, is being purchased. The
lab should be operating this summer.
“The space we had was woefully inadequate for the institution,”
Teper conceded, noting that lack of space affects workflow. While some
peer institutions have a 24-hour turnaround time, Illinois’ limited
space and staff combined to cause up to a four-month delay for general
“To have a conservation lab commensurate with the many needs of
the University Library means that we will be able to give the collections
the preservation care they deserve and need. These items represent a tremendous
Last year – and under far less than ideal conditions – the
Library worked hard to treat 17,918 books and 9,131 unbound sheets
(maps, for example, and other types of manuscript items); it de-acidified
2,100 books; sent 41,028 volumes to be commercially bound; made facsimile
copies of 279 books; and microfilmed 90,000 images.
Wary of the backlog that still exists, but encouraged by the additional
staff and new space, Teper said, “We’ll be able to ratchet
up our progress quite a bit.”