9.467 Significance of Primary Records

Humanist (mccarty@phoenix.Princeton.EDU)
Wed, 17 Jan 1996 18:22:16 -0500 (EST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 9, No. 467.
Center for Electronic Texts in the Humanities (Princeton/Rutgers)

[1] From: "Peter Graham, RUL" (64)
Subject: Significance of Primary Records & MLA/ARL meeting

[2] From: "Peter Graham, RUL" (128)
Subject: MLA Statement on Significance of Primary Records

Date: Tue, 16 Jan 96 20:31:37 EST
From: "Peter Graham, RUL" <psgraham@gandalf.rutgers.edu>
Subject: Significance of Primary Records & MLA/ARL meeting

From: Peter Graham, Rutgers University Libraries
Some of you will remember the draft statement by MLA something over a year
ago. This message follows up. The following message will consist of
the revised (12/95) MLA statement on the topic. --pg

Report on ARL-MLA Joint Working Group Jan. 4, 1996
on Significance of Original Materials

In mid-December I attended a meeting of this joint group on which I
had been asked to serve by ARL. The working group was formed to
discuss how best to proceed on some important preservation issues.

In 1994 the Modern Language Association established an Ad Hoc
Committee on the Future of the Print Record. Its initial draft
"Statement on the Significance of Original Materials" (October, 1994)
had taken a strong stand on the importance of artifactual materials
(books and manuscripts). However in the opinion of some library
observers it had taken an unrealistic stand in favor of retaining all
print materials of all kinds, without any priorities (there was also
some concern that it had overemphasized the destructive nature of
preservation processes in research libraries).

After receiving communications and after a forum at last year's MLA
conference the Committee issued its final Statement on the
Significance of Primary Records.* At our joint meeting we all agreed
it was a very positive statement. It is a statement very strongly in
favor of preservation efforts generally, and notes the importance of
physical evidence (the artifact) in addition to, and in support of,
the information explicitly carried by the printed or written page. We
all agreed that it is essential to remind scholars, librarians and
archivists of these important matters.

In the course of the year's comment on the draft statement it had
become evident that it would be desirable for the MLA to work with
other scholarly organizations to urge effective preservation of the
material records of the past. A Committee recommendation was "that
representatives of library, conservation and scholarly organizations
form a task group" to further "the greatest possible retention and
preservation of textual artifacts" and "the use of responsible
procedures." At our working group meeting there was agreement that
such a task group would best be led by the scholarly organizations,
with the library community enthusiastic supporters. The MLA will take
the lead in forming such a group and several other major scholarly
societies were named as already knowledgeable and likely to

The successes of the meeting in December were at least two: a
consensus that the present MLA statement is a very good one to build
on, and an understanding of how the task group to further it should be
formed. With that the working group concluded its work and I don't
believe will meet again.

The ARL-MLA Joint Working Group attendees comprised:
MLA (Modern Language Association) ARL (Association of Research
G. Thomas Tanselle, Chair Scott Bennett, Yale
Shelley Fisher Fishkin, Texas Meredith Butler, SUNY Albany
Phyllis Franklin, MLA Peter Graham, Rutgers
Philip Lewis, Cornell Jutta Reed-Scott, ARL
J. Hillis Miller, UC Irvine Merrily Taylor, Brown
Ruth Perry, MIT Duane Webster, ARL
Alice Schreyer, Univ. of Chicago
Philip Stewart, Duke

*see following message to HUMANIST, or see "Statement on the
Significance of Primary Records," Profession 95 (an annual MLA
journal), p. 27-28, along with associated articles by Committee
members on following pages.

Peter Graham psgraham@gandalf.rutgers.edu Rutgers University Libraries
169 College Ave., New Brunswick, NJ 08903 (908)445-5908; fax (908)445-5888

Date: Tue, 16 Jan 96 20:35:25 EST
From: "Peter Graham, RUL" <psgraham@gandalf.rutgers.edu>
Subject: MLA Statement on Significance of Primary Records

From: Peter Graham, Rutgers University Libraries
Following is about 3 typed pages or 10-12 typical screens. --pg
[Received from MLA office in electronic form 1/4/96....pg]

[Available also as "Statement on the Significance of Primary Records,"
Profession 95 (an annual MLA journal), p. 27-28, along with associated
articles by Committee members on following pages.]

Statement on the Significance of Primary Records

Modern Language Association of America

The Modern Language Association of America applauds two developments aimed at
ensuring the future accessibility of texts from the past. One is the
organized effort to microfilm the texts of nineteenth- and twentieth-century
books containing acidic paper that is now, or will become, brittle; the other
is the systematic transference of printed and manuscript texts of all periods
to electronic form. Everyone who cares about the past should be grateful to
the library world for the way it has responded to the challenges of textual
preservation. Frequently, however, discussions of these developments imply
that, once reproductions exist, many of the artifacts from which they derive
need no longer be consulted or saved. In this climate of opinion, the MLA
believes that it is crucial for the future of humanistic study to make more
widely understood the continuing value of the artifacts themselves for
reading and research. The advantages of the new forms in which old texts can
now be made available must not be allowed to obscure the fact that the new
forms cannot fully substitute for the actual physical objects in which those
earlier texts were embodied at particular times in the past.

Without broad public perception of the significance of this point, sizable
portions of certain classes of textual artifacts face destruction. The MLA is
expressing no opinion about the relative desirability of different forms of
dissemination for future writing; rather, it is strictly focusing on the
future study of texts that appeared in the past in handwritten or printed
form on paper or parchment. By outlining the theoretical reasons for the
importance of physical evidence in textual artifacts, the MLA wishes to
promote awareness of the issues and to stimulate practical recommendations
for taking action on them.

Texts are inevitably affected by the physical means of their transmission;
the physical features of the artifacts conveying texts therefore play an
integral role in the attempt to comprehend those texts. For this reason, the
concept of a textual source must involve attention to the presentation of a
text, not simply to the text as a disembodied group of words. All objects
purporting to present the same text--whether finished manuscripts, first
editions, later printings, or photocopies--are separate records with their
own characteristics; they all carry different information, even if the words
and punctuation are indeed identical, since each one reflects a different
historical moment. Any such record may be a primary source, but an object
that is primary as a source for one purpose is not necessarily so for
another. A primary record can appropriately be defined as a physical object
produced or used at the particular past time that one is concerned with in a
given instance.

Physical evidence in manuscripts and printed matter is indispensable in two
ways. First, physical clues (such as the structure of the folded sheets in a
book) reveal facts about how an item was produced--facts that can in turn
lead to the discovery of textual errors and contribute to a knowledge of
contemporary textual, printing, and publishing practices. This kind of
evidence has primarily been used by analytical bibliographers and scholarly
editors. Second, elements of a book's physical design (such as paper quality,
page size, textual layout, choice of letterforms, and arrangement of
illustrations) can be significant indicators of how the text thus displayed
was regarded by its producers and how it was interpreted by its readers. This
category of evidence is currently being used by those investigating the
history of reading and the social influence of books.

Not only do editions differ from one another, but also copies within an
edition (of any period) often vary among themselves; as a result, every copy
is a potential source for new physical evidence, and no copy is superfluous
for studying an edition's production history. Furthermore, since the shape,
feel, designs, and illustrations of books have affected, and continue to
affect, readers' responses (some of which have been recorded in the margins
of pages), access to the physical forms in which texts from the past have
appeared is a fundamental part of informed reading and effective classroom
teaching; if that access is to be as widespread as it can be, the number of
available copies of past editions, held in libraries of all kinds, must be as
large as possible. The existence of community libraries along with academic
libraries has been, and will continue to be, essential for bringing
historical embodiments of texts--and the sense of the past they impart--to a
wide readership. The loss of any copy of any edition--from the earliest
incunables to the latest paperback reprints (regardless of whether its text
is considered interesting or consequential at the present time)--diminishes
the body of evidence on which historical understanding depends.

There is an obvious practical consideration that also supports the retention
of textual artifacts (handwritten as well as printed) after their texts have
been copied: the fact that the accuracy and stability of reproductions can
never be guaranteed. For this reason, the preservation of the sources of
photographic or electronic reproductions would seem a prudent course even if
those reproductions were the equals of the sources; but since they cannot
possibly be, a concern for maintaining our inheritance of textual artifacts
is not simply desirable but imperative.

It is clearly unrealistic to expect that all currently surviving manuscripts
and printed books can be saved. They are subject to the same vicissitudes as
every other physical object, and their survival depends both on the materials
out of which they are made and on the nature of the events that befall them.
But the attitudes that people hold about them can be instrumental in either
mitigating or exacerbating the destructive effects of these factors. As more
people come to see the importance of primary records, more use will be made
of them in reading and teaching, and more constituencies will join together
in the search for ways of financing artifactual preservation, storage, and
access. More records will then be saved because there will be wider support
for the allocation of resources to this purpose. Decisions about priorities
for preservation will still have to be made, by individual as well as
institutional owners of material, but those decisions will be reached in a
framework that recognizes the artifactual value of every object. An
appreciation of the significance of physical evidence also necessitates the
adoption of standards for the creation and identification of reproductions,
in order to minimize the damage done to primary records by the processes of
reproduction and to maximize the usefulness of the reproductions.

Readers find themselves turning continually to reprints or reproductions of
some kind. As they welcome the benefits conferred by new technology for
creating reproductions, they must remember the distinctive limitations of
every form of reproduction and the continuing need for the artifactual
sources on which the reproductions are based. Not only do those artifacts
provide the standard for judging the reproductions; they also contain, in
their physicality, unreproducible evidence that readers (scholars, students,
and the general public) need for analyzing and understanding, with as much
historical context as possible, the writings that appeared and reappeared in
them. If we approach the electronic future with these thoughts in mind, we
will be more rigorous in our demands of new forms of textual presentation and
more vigilant in our protection of the artifacts embodying the old forms.
Both these actions are necessary to ensure the continuation of productive
reading, teaching, and scholarship.

The Modern Language Association of America recommends that representatives of
library, conservation, and scholarly organizations form a task group to
promote continued thinking and cooperative activity leading toward (1) the
maximum retention and preservation of textual artifacts, as well as a
refining of the selection criteria necessarily entailed, and (2) the use of
responsible procedures in the creation and identification of photographic and
electronic reproductions based on those artifacts.

Peter Graham psgraham@gandalf.rutgers.edu Rutgers University Libraries
169 College Ave., New Brunswick, NJ 08903 (908)445-5908; fax (908)445-5888