April 13, 2001

Division of Rare Books Receives NEH Grant

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On April 2nd, U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-26) announced that the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) would award $228,000 to Cornell ‘s Division of Rare Books and Manuscripts in order to archive and preserve their witchcraft collection.

The grant, which was applied for in July, “will go towards preserving and cataloging 2,250 volumes of the A.D. White Collection of rare books depicting the history of witch persecution in Europe,” said Barbara Eden, preservation and conservation librarian.

The collection consists of what are referred to as “brittle books,” meaning books that are deteriorating due to the fragility of their paper. Preservation of “brittle books” entails either directly conserving the documents or duplicating them on microfilm.

In addition to the $2.6 million that the NEH has awarded to Cornell since 1995, the grant is part of its ongoing effort to preserve the over 3 million “brittle books” housed in various libraries and universities across the country.

Besides Cornell, universities such as Harvard, Yale and Columbia have all received a combined sum of $7.3 million from the NEH since 1995.

However, according to Sarah Thomas, Carl A. Kroch University librarian, “The money we have is insignificant compared to the problem.”

John Dean, a preservation and conservation librarian, noted that other areas of book preservation take priority over the necessities of the rare books collection.

The Division of Rare Books and Manuscripts contains 103 collections that are considered the best in the nation, including such cultural icons as the original Gettysburg Address in Lincoln’s handwriting.

“I have seen grown men with tears in their eyes as they observe pieces like this one. They are intrinsically valuable because of their artifactual status,” Thomas said.

Despite the caliber of these documents, funding for the conservation and microfilming of rare books is further down on the list of the University library’s budget initiatives. Thus, it is dependent on grants from outside organizations like the NEH.

“Funding is first allocated toward the library’s bread and butter priorities, such as maintaining the durability of paperback books and the over 60,000 subscriptions of periodicals circulating the library system,” Dean said.

Thomas estimated that the University provides approximately 40 to 50 percent of the budget and the remaining funding is contingent upon “soft money from federal agencies or private donors.”

This ratio reflects an increase in funding from the University in comparison with the past, in which, according to Thomas, “two-thirds of the budget consisted of soft money and the University supplied one-third.”

However, organizations such as the NEH generally provide funding for the microfilming of rare books and manuscripts, and do not usually fund conservation of the original documents.

“It is politically easier to justify the duplication of documents as opposed to their conservation,” Dean said. “Microfilming grants the entire nation access to documents, whereas conservation generally only benefits the Cornell community.”

Hinchey commented in a press release that he was, “very pleased that NEH has recognized and is helping to preserve these collections and make them available to a larger audience.”

Archived article by Hillary Profita