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Interview with Jane Hedberg

The Weissman Preservation Center in the Harvard University Library—located on Holyoke Center's eighth floor—is a locus for preservation activities within the Harvard libraries. Headed by Jan Merrill-Oldham, Malloy-Rabinowitz Preservation Librarian in the Harvard University Library and the Harvard College Library, the Weissman Center provides a broad range of preservation services, working in concert with libraries throughout Harvard.

Jane Hedberg is a preservation program officer for the Weissman Preservation Center. Hedberg's charge is to provide outreach services within the library community. She received her BA from Smith College and her MS from the Simmons Graduate School of Library and Information Science. From 1984 until May 2000, Hedberg worked at the Wellesley College Library, initially as Serials Librarian and most recently as Preservation Administrator.

LN
What are the most important preservation issues for us to consider?

JH
One of the most important preservation issues for Harvard's libraries is the proliferation of media types in our collections.

A related challenge is the decreasing length of time before a medium begins to deteriorate. It used to be that books were published on paper that could easily last hundreds of years. When a librarian purchased a book, serious preservation problems were far in the future. Now it's true that newspapers present preservation problems after a few decades of aging. But for some digital media, the life span can be as short as five years.

A relatively new challenge is presented by the need to preserve not only the object itself, but its associated technology. For example, with printed books we focus on conserving paper and bindings. For electronic books, we will need to preserve the electronic files, and to ensure compatibility with the applications needed to search, display, or print them.

LN
How did you become interested in preservation?

JH
I became interested when I was still at library school. Then, in 1984, I took a job at Wellesley College as the Serials Librarian—specifically because responsibilities included preservation. The program included only binding and book repair—and that was done in the serials department. Over the years at Wellesley, we expanded our preservation activities and developed a separate preservation department. In 1999, we built a new collections conservation facility.

LN
That's a significant organizational change.

JH
We're talking about the years when preservation programs were developing in all libraries—when they were being integrated into many library activities. It was quite a natural growth.

LN
I suppose that it's natural growth throughout the library world.

JH
Yes. My personal experience is that preservation is like motherhood and apple pie. Everyone agrees that it's a good thing. We wouldn't have acquired, cataloged, and housed these collections if we didn't intend to preserve them. The problem is, how do we go about this in a meaningful way?

Preservation is also very different from one library to the next. It must be firmly grounded in the mission of the institution. Harvard's mission as a research institution requires that we preserve much of what we hold for absolutely as long as possible.

LN
What brought you to Harvard last spring?

JH
When the preservation program officer's job opened up here, it had a number of attractive attributes. One was working in a library system of this size and complexity. Another was the focus on teaching and training. I had been teaching at Simmons and at the Northeast Document Conservation Center, and I'd also been on the faculty of the Commission on Preservation and Access Seminar series. I enjoyed all of that greatly, so the teaching aspect of this job appealed to me.

LN
You're running programs that encourage people to be proactive about preservation. Is that a major focus for you?

JH
Yes, encouragement is a large part of the job. Helping people to sort out the possibilities. The message always goes back to the mission of the library. What is the nature of the collection? How are researchers, students, and faculty supposed to use it?

LN
Typically, what kinds of support are you asked to provide?

JH
Usually I am asked for information, advice, or assistance. Probably the most common occurrence is a phone call from someone who's got a problem. Sometimes I do research, but sometimes I already know the answer.

LN
Real-time problems. "This happened." "That pipe broke this morning."

JH
Yes. You're talking about emergency response. And preparing for emergencies is always a big part of any preservation operation. Luckily—knock on wood—we haven't had a disaster since the Preservation Center was established. I'm hoping it stays that way.

Just in case, we have the library collections emergency team. It consists of 14 members of the professional staff, from here in the Weissman Preservation Center and from the Preservation and Imaging Department in the Harvard College Library. There's a cell phone that we take turns carrying, so one of the team members is available 24/7. If you have wet library books, you can call for help anytime. The 10-digit phone number is 617-240-2500.

LN
What other kinds of real-time problems come to you?

JH
All kinds of things. A library finds a stash of nitrate negatives—or acquires a collection that shows signs of insect damage.

LN
Bugs?

JH
Yes. If I get a call about bugs, I help to determine whether there are live specimens—which there usually aren't.

LN
Is entomology a requirement for your job?

JH
It isn't really. But the Weissman Center's collection of reference books is excellent—and most of these problems—as annoying as they may be—are anything but exotic or even unusual. When we need to, we call in specialists. Where insects are concerned, we employ "integrated pest management." This is a set of practical methods that come from the agriculture industry, where they have learned that heavier and heavier use of insecticide produces bigger and tougher bugs. So, the modern goal is not to kill the bugs, but to deny them the conditions that they need to flourish. We want them to leave the library and go somewhere more hospitable.

Common insects like silverfish need moisture. If we reduce the humidity or dry up standing water, generally speaking they will disappear. Silverfish also love corrugated cardboard boxes, where they like to live in the channels. Sometimes eliminating cardboard is enough to encourage them to move on.

LN
When you meet with library staff members—who may or may not have a formal preservation program—how do you advise them?

JH
Whether the library is big or small, I ask for a tour. We talk about the collections—and preservation concerns. Harvard librarians are well informed and very articulate, and they know what their preservation needs are. One simply has to ask.

LN
Are there any special projects here at Weissman that you'd like people to know about?

JH
There is one, in particular, that I want people to know about. We've invited Wilbur Faulk, an expert in security and disaster-preparedness from the Getty Conservation Institute, to make a presentation to library staff. That will be the morning of April 26. Security is a very important issue for Harvard libraries, and Mr. Faulk is an internationally acknowledged expert. He will be giving the same presentation at ALA this summer, so we are getting a sneak preview.

Another exciting project is a prototype, now in development, for achieving service continuation following a disaster. This kind of planning is done in businesses quite often, but it's not been done in a university library before. The project raises interesting questions. What constitutes the library, if the building and collections have been damaged? Of course, when you go through this type of planning, the real emphasis is on prevention. You identify those things that you can do to prevent a disaster and you create the backups that would make recovery easier.

LN
What's your most important message for the Library community?

JH
I want people to know that the Harvard University Library's Weissman Preservation Center is here to help. Call us when you need information.

LN
When can they call you?

JH
The office is open from 8 to 5 weekdays. The phone number is 495-8596.

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Last modified on Thursday, April 18, 2002.