Hesburgh Libraries: Preserving the materials that connect us to knowledge

Author: Tara O'Leary

Library Preservation 300

In keeping with the University’s commitment to advance research and scholarship, the Hesburgh Libraries acquires, stewards and maintains distinguished rare and unique collections to support world-class research and academic programs.

These efforts, combined with the University’s growing commitment to sustainability, inspired Julie Arnott, then head of preservation, and Liz Dube, conservator, to seek grant funding for a thorough assessment of environmental storage conditions within Rare Books and Special Collections (RBSC).

In 2014, the Hesburgh Libraries were awarded an assessment grant from the National Endowment for Humanities’ Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections program, which “helps cultural institutions meet the complex challenge of preserving large and diverse holdings of humanities materials for future generations by supporting sustainable conservation measures that mitigate deterioration and prolong the useful life of collections.”

The University’s Rare Books and Special Collections houses more than 175,000 volumes and about 6,000 linear feet of manuscripts, maps, posters, ephemera, and other unusual formats. These holdings provide students, faculty, visiting researchers and the public access to rare and unique materials.

These materials offer a multitude of perspectives that encourage users to contemplate and critically evaluate evidence, challenge preconceptions and enhance their understanding of and appreciation for the past. Premier collections provide primary research materials for areas such as Catholic studies, Irish studies, Italian studies, medieval studies and sports research.

The two-year grant, which wraps up in June, has thus far enabled the University to partner with specialized consultants from the Image Permanence Institute (IPI) to perform a painstaking assessment of RBSC storage conditions, to comprehensively analyze the mechanical systems serving these collection spaces and to identify and enact low-cost but high-impact modifications.

IPI consultants have visited campus two times, with a final visit scheduled for April, each time meeting with a broad-based Notre Dame team that includes library staff responsible for preservation, special collections and facilities; architects and utilities staff from campus Facilities Design and Operations; and the director of the Office of Sustainability.

“Managing collection storage and display environments for long-term preservation requires knowledge of the effects of temperature and relative humidity on diverse collection materials, an understanding of the complex mechanical systems that serve collection spaces, and the ability to develop customized strategies to improve collection longevity while maximizing energy efficiency,” says Arnott.

Dube adds, “The ability to convene a team with broad-based expertise from across campus, with expert facilitation from IPI, has enabled tremendous progress on our ability to understand the issues and identify strategic means of sustainably enhancing the life of the Libraries’ most unique and valuable collections.”

Over the course of the grant, the team has gathered extensive data about collection storage conditions and taken action to attempt to mitigate some of the most significant concerns. Most notably, additional ductwork is being supplied in order to enhance air circulation in RBSC in an effort to improve storage conditions.

During its final meeting, the project team will review the full 20 months of compiled data, including a preliminary assessment of the impact of recent mechanical system upgrades. The team will then discuss remaining challenges and begin to articulate next steps toward sustainable preservation of collections.

At the conclusion of the grant period, IPI will identify successes and challenges, and provide a prioritized listing of strategic opportunities for the future. Looking forward, the Libraries may develop a follow-up request to National Endowment for Humanities for matching implementation grant funding through its Sustaining Cultural Heritage Collections Program in order to advance these critical preservation and sustainability goals.

One thing is certain: As new knowledge formats continue to rapidly emerge, the work of preservation will continue to flex with the changing times. Regardless of material format or treatment approach, the goal of preservation and conservation is to support the Libraries’ mission of “connecting people to knowledge” by ensuring meaningful access to library resources. This project paves the way for the Libraries to approach future preservation solutions in an environmentally sustainable way.

To learn more about these collections and RBSC’s other holdings, visit 102 Hesburgh 
Library or online at rarebooks.library.nd.edu.

Contact: Tara O’Leary, Hesburgh Libraries, toleary2@nd.edu