Bookbinding vocabulary  |  Websites 

Back to Articles

Preservation and Copying
at the National Archives of Canada

by Ellen Desmarais

The new preservation Centre
The National Archives is committed to preserving original material, whenever that is appropriate. As evidence to this commitment, is the construction of a special archival storage and preservation centre in Gatineau, 20 kilometres northeast of Ottawa, which will open officially in June 1997. The Archives believes that proper accommodations are the most cost-effective method of ensuring the long-term preservation of the holdings, and this new facility will provide the Archives, for the first time, with climate controlled, secure storage spaces which will be adapted to the various formats and media in the collections. Because the holdings include all the traditional records, which I identified earlier, as well as moving image and sound recordings, at least three distinct storage environments will be created specifically to the preservation needs of the records to be stored.

Preservation Specialists
The new state-of-the-art laboratories will provide staff with safe and adequate work spaces. Since the early part of this century, the Archives has employed its own binders. Originally these were trade bookbinders, but over the decades more emphasis was placed on preserving the integrity and structural elements of original materials, and conservation techniques were developed.

During the 1970's, other conservation specialists were added to the staff - for photographs, medals, maps and plans, and fine art - and in the 1980's, an in-house training program was implemented so that more staff could be trained to a higher level of skill in conservation of paper-based material and books. The focus of the training is on preservation of the original material, using the least intrusive methods possible.

Currently, I am responsible for a staff of 8 book, 6 paper, 3 fine-arts-on-paper, and 1 photograph conservator, and the manager of the mass deacidification system, nineteen in all- for traditional material. My colleague Bruce Walton is responsible for preservation of audiovisual materials, and for microfilm and photograph services, where there are another 25 specialists. The Archives generously supports training and professional development opportunities for all preservation staff to maintain their professional expertise and to be up-to-date with developments in technology.

Technology Alternatives
It is not always the case that "modern technologies" must be seen as somehow being in opposition to traditional notions of conservation and restoration. Technologies (both modern and no-longer modern) offer an alternative to traditional conservation methods. But more importantly, they offer increased access to the information.

The advent of the microfilming in the first part of the twentieth century is an example of technology offering a clear alternative. A volume (or document) microfilmed is a volume preserved, because it can be removed from circulation and spared further wear and tear, but it is in no way a volume "restored". It remains in the stacks in the condition in which it was placed there. The microfilm itself is highly stable, thereby assuring the long-term preservation of the document's information content. Moreover, the copy shares an essential continuity with the original. A book (or document) is text on paper; microfilm is text on film.

Modern Technologies
More recently, new technologies have appeared which offer an alternative to the "mature" technology of microfilm. The advent of computing power through personal computers, combined with the relatively low cost, impressive storage capacities and rapid access capabilities of modern digital scanning systems, have led to frequent assertions that the "digital library" is just around the corner.

Like microfilm, these new technologies offer the conservation that comes from copying-and-removal-from-circulation. Also like microfilm, they focus on the content, not on the carrier, and thus offer nothing in the way of preservation of the original. There is another significant aspect of these new technologies, however, which suggests that the "digital library" whatever its advantages, will not be an improvement over microfilming.

Transforming Text to Data
Microfilm reproduction represented a clear step away from the document or book as an artefact since it offers users an alternative means of access to content. Beyond this, however, microfilming represented continuity with library principles of stability through preservation. The new digital technologies represent a radical discontinuity in this regard - not only the replacement of the physical item, but also the continuing replacement over time, of the replacement itself. Unlike microfilm, which preserves the essentially textual nature of the book, and which can be used with only the most basic of machines (a reader), the new technologies transform text into the bits and bytes of digital information, onto a base which is inherently unstable, and which is accessible only through sophisticated software/hardware combinations. The rapid advance and constant change in the digital world means that the initial transformation of text into data is but the first of a series of reproductions, as data is migrated through the inevitable "evolutions" of the technology in order to make it accessible. At this stage, we have moved from the restoration of the original document or book, through its one-time replacement on a slightly more technological medium which is inherently stable (microfilm) to a future characterized by impermanence and technological dependence. In the process, we have gained far greater capacities for diffusion of content.

Back to page 1


Back to Articles