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Scholar: Will libraries of the future preserve cultural heritage?

Photo of Michele Cloonan by Jeanette Austin.
Photo of Michele Cloonan by Jeanette Austin.

Michele V. Cloonan, Professor at Simmons College and Editor-in-Chief of Preservation, Digital Technology & Culture, presented the talk “Exeunt Libri: Will Libraries of the Future Preserve Cultural Heritage?” for the 2013 Donald G. Davis, Jr. Lecture on Thursday, October 17. Below, she shares her thoughts about preservation.

 

Preservation is all around us. It encompasses continuity and change. I first encountered issues of preservation as a child living in Hyde Park, on Chicago’s south side. Three particular touchstones have stayed with me. One was the dismantling of the Fifth Army Base on the Promontory Point. While there was wide-spread support for it to be closed, some people advocated for the preservation of parts of the installation, so that there would be a permanent record of the site.

 

A second touchstone was the Museum of Science and Industry, my next-door neighbor. I explored every outside nook of it as a child and was intrigued by what little I knew of its history. Built as The Palace of Fine Arts, it was constructed for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. One had to be captivated by this building, the only one to survive the vast White City.

 

Finally, the demolition of a beautiful brownstone apartment complex across the street from my house, which was replaced by a less-attractive high-rise, made me think about preservation as I watched people collect tiles and light fixtures right before the wrecking ball destroyed the building.

 

In ways like this, we are all touched by preservation. Each community shares its own stories of the old—and the newer. Most communities contain some legacies of their past, which may become “Places of Memory” (Lieux de Memoires, as Pierre Nora refers to them). Other historical artifacts are destroyed, or their sites become neglected. We contemplate the presence, as well as the absence, of cultural artifacts. They are part of our memory.

 

The rise and fall of physical monuments are part of the preservation continuum of cultural heritage.

 

As an adult, I have written about preservation, focusing mostly on libraries, archives, and museums. For my talk at the Harry Ransom Center, I will focus on preservation, memory, and libraries. Libraries represent many things. They may be storehouses of books and manuscripts, information centers, classrooms, and community living rooms. At the same time, the library exists in many physical and digital forms, some analog, others virtual. As a metaphor, the library may represent a fictional place (Jorge Luis Borges), or the concept of a library may occur within other metaphors such as the World Brain (H. G. Wells), the Memex (“memory” + “index”) (Vannevar Bush), or the Internet.

 

The Ransom Center is the perfect place in which to consider the interplay between preservation, memory, and libraries because it has been a leader in the American preservation and conservation movement; a preeminent collector of books, manuscripts, and objects; and a research center. Its original “temple-of-knowledge” architecture/building is now complemented by dramatic accents of glass, which invite us to reflect on its collections in new ways.

 

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