I. Introduction and Summary

On June 7, 1993, the Commission on Preservation and Access convened an international group of scholars, librarians, archivists and information scientists at the Rockefeller Foundation Study Center in Bellagio, Italy, to explore opportunities for international collaboration in saving the contents of libraries from loss through the embrittlement of the pages of their books. This conference, Preserving the Intellectual Heritage, had three principal objectives:

  • to increase awareness and concern about the problem of decaying library collections, especially among European scholars;
  • to begin to build a European-centered effort that can effectively collaborate with scholars and libraries in the United States, while still addressing preservation issues that may be unique to some of the European countries; and
  • to enlarge and begin to solidify the scholarly linkages between Europe and the United States in all fields that depend on the endangered literature on both continents.

Preserving the Intellectual Heritage was organized by the Commission on Preservation and Access and supported by the Rockefeller Foundation and the Andrew W Mellon Foundation. The 23 participants, whose names and brief biographical information appear in the Appendix of this report, came from eleven countries of Western Europe and the United States. None were official delegates of their nations or of the professional organizations to which they belong They were chosen to provide the widest possible range of scholarly, national, and technical interests consonant with the purposes of the meeting and the capacity of the conference facilities. They were invited to participate because of their interest in preservation issues in their particular countries as well as a desirable degree of prominence and influence there.

The decision to center the objectives and the agenda of the conference on Western Europe and the United States was motivated by several factors: the overlap in the scholarly contents of western European and North American libraries; the comparatively good physical condition of many of the books in western European collections, as well as the active interest of these countries in preservation; and, finally, the effective linkage of the Commission’s International Project with the European adoption of a common bibliographic record for preserved materials that is compatible with U.S. practice. These several conditions seemed to bode well for the Commission’s announced goal for the conference, namely that it would be considered to have been successful…if it develops a framework for productive contributions to a multi-national, collaborative, European organization or consortium that serves international as well as national needs, and is capable of working with parallel groups in the United States to divide responsibilities for the preservation and exchange of preserved materials with North America. Such an ambition,” the Commission also noted, “need not be limited to western Europe and the United States but, indeed, should be thought of as expandable to the rest of the world.

The conference began with a review of both the U.S. and the European efforts so far to preserve the intellectual heritage. Several participants were asked to prepare papers that could be circulated in advance. Other participants had been invited to make informal comments from their personal and professional vantage points. All of these contributions are paraphrased or summarized at appropriate points in Section 11 of this report, Record of the Conference.

United States and European Experience with Preservation

United States participants reported on extensive programs of reformatting[1] (substitution) on a mass production scale to capture as much of the intellectual content as possible of the estimated ten million unique titles that are in danger of loss through decay of acidic paper. Though archives, audiovisual and other collections are also endangered, the Commission on Preservation and Access decided to begin with books as the most tractable part of the problem. The size of the problem, together with the time and funds available, make the task of selection essential. Not all books can be saved Scholars are the principal users of most of the endangered material and should be involved, along with librarians, in designing the selection strategy and setting priorities. Extensive publicity and educational efforts have been successful in persuading the U.S. Congress to expand an ongoing preservation program at the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), and private foundation funding has helped the Commission on Preservation and Access establish scholarly committees on selection as well as to pursue a program of research and development in methods of preservation. The Commission’s strategy has been to explore convertibility among media: print on paper, film and digital electronic. The huge potential of the latter, as well as the current obstacles to its widespread and routine use, were explained.

Discussion of the U.S. experience revolved around alternative technologies, and the necessity and difficulty of making choices of what to save. While many scholars are reluctant to let anything be lost, some archivists keep only a small fraction of what they receive, and most librarians recognize that all collections are necessarily incomplete The problem of criteria for selection is unavoidably complex and controversial.

The experience of four western European countries reveals a great deal of variation in both the level and type of preservation activities. Some countries have well-developed programs involving collaboration among institutions; others have well-articulated national plans that are yet to be implemented; and some have just begun to study their preservation problems. Many European scholars, like their U.S. counterparts, seem to be unaware of the deterioration in library collections (or unconcerned about it). That is true of the public at large as well, and governmental bodies generally are not well informed about the problem. Still, where concerted efforts have been made to enlist public support for preservation, they have been successful.

Several countries have chosen to select materials for preservation on the basis of their relevance to the national cultural heritage So far there has been relatively little international collaboration, although efforts are underway to develop a register of microform masters and to record the existence of preserved materials in a common bibliographic format.

Microfilm is widely used for capture and storage of book contents, but Switzerland has tested several systems for mass deacidification and Germany is building a deacidification plant. None of the countries present has had substantial experience with digital electronic methods, but there is much interest in this technology.

The extent and nature of deterioration in European libraries parallel the North American experience. The pages of pre-1800 books are in fairly good condition, while covers and bindings have been badly damaged by heavy use and poor storage conditions. Later publications have decaying acidic pages as well. The proportion of endangered material in collections varies both within and between countries. Estimates are often based on slight or unreliable evidence, but the inevitable conclusion is that the problem is enormous, structural in character, and requires both a national and an international approach. Without doubt, millions of books are endangered and millions of dollars will be required to save even a portion of Europe’s cultural heritage.

Exploring Emergent Issues

The conferees recognized the importance of raising the level of awareness about decaying books among scholars, librarians, university officers, cultural ministers, publishers, private foundations, professional societies and parliaments. The weight of opinion sided with the view that scholars had to be involved in developing the strategies of selection and in assigning priorities, even though it may be difficult for scholars to agree on what is most important. Even a chaotic, conflictful debate, however, could be informative and productive. At a minimum scholars must take responsibility for developing a personal, informed interest in preservation and for “carrying the message of preservation into the chambers of power.”

The conferees did not take a position on which methods of preservation were to be preferred, but there was no dissent from the view expressed that it was important not to delay preserving materials until a particular method has been proved optimal Instead, the most flexible, dependable and economical methods should be used at once, while experiments and trials of alternatives proceed. In the end it might well turn out that different methods would be suitable for different materials. The important aspect of the choice of method is to insure the maximum convertibility from the contemporary capture and storage method to the improved techniques expected in the future.

The conferees discussed strategies for enhancing both inter-European and transatlantic cooperation for dealing with preservation problems Extensive exploration of alternatives for organization, membership, sponsorship and mission led to the conclusion that a European counterpart of the Commission on Preservation and Access should be formed, and that the initiative should come from the persons present at the conference.

The recommendations of the conference, approved unanimously, create an ad hoc steering committee that is responsible for initiating and supervising the process of constituting a European commission on preservation and access. The general nature of such a commission is sketched out, and the steps to be taken by the ad hoc committee are prescribed: first, to enlarge its membership by inviting some persons not present at Bellagio to join it; next, to take steps for nominating and electing members to form the board of the European commission; and finally, in concert with the board, to proceed with the formal and legal establishment of the organization.

Having approved the recommendation to establish the ad hoc committee, the European representatives then elected Pieter Drenth, Michel Jouve and Geoffrey Martin as its members with Alison de Puymège as secretariat ad interim. The ad hoc committee was encouraged to move quickly to take the first step and to complete the expansion of its membership to six persons by July 20, 1993.

The full text of the resolution and recommendations adopted by the conferees is presented in Section III.


1. “Reformatting has been the American term for copying to a different medium. The corresponding European term “substitution” may be more felicitous.

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The Commission on Preservation and Access was established in 1986 to foster and support collaboration among libraries and allied organizations in order to ensure the preservation of the published and documentary record in all formats and to provide enhanced access to scholarly information.