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Old Vellum: A retraction--not a chance



Mr. Werner, the only things I'll admit & concede is that, yes, you have seen
them & I have not; nor have I been to the flea markets in Europe to buy
cultural heritage by the bagful as Mr. Minsky has.  Just because something
can be bought by the bagful at a flea market doesn't mean it has no
historical value.  However, I agree, not everything OLD is valuable or
worthy of the investment or resources to save it.  What we have here
obviously is a difference of opinion & perspective.  My point here is to ask
that before someone goes off & destroys a written document that its value be
properly assessed by someone with the proper qualifications such as a
manuscript appraiser or manuscript curator.  (There must be one or two in
Manhattan.)  Perhaps they're worthless save for the vellum they're written
on.  Thanks for checking.

I have seen numerous examples of collectors buying at flea markets &
auctions for the collections of research libraries, archives and historical
societies.  And certainly eBay has become an invaluable venue for procuring
material specific to an institution's collection policy.  Unfortunately,
this collection is slightly out of context since it's English & it's being
sold in America.

I will concede that there is indeed historical precedent for reusing old
vellum, the now famous Archimedes palimpsest in the custody of the Walters
Art Gallery being a recent example.  Only isn't it a shame that the original
manuscript didn't survive intact?  On the other hand, it did survive by
getting reused.  In addition, anyone who deals with old books knows that
many have the remnants of even older books in them.  From the middle ages up
until the 20th C, old books, whether printed or manuscript, were
cannibalized for their vellum and paper by bookbinders in making new books.
Today, some collectors dismember 16th & 17th C books to get at the scraps of
manuscripts & early printed text (they then probably look at the scraps and
wished they were intact or wonder whence they had come).

And what about all those wonderful broken atlases & Audubon's "Birds of
America" that are cut up & framed.  Even sadder, are the medieval manuscript
leaves of antiphonals and musical texts that are made up into lampshades
(John Gedler, 7th floor of the Chelsea Antiques Center had several of
those).  I once applied for a job at a "historical" document dealer in
Manhattan as their "conservation" person.  I did a trial period of 2 days
there & spent the time taking apart an Audubon book & a Civil War era
Harper's whose leaves were to be framed or sold piece-meal.  Was that an act
of destruction of cultural heritage?  It depends on who you ask.  That
dealer would make lots of money; more so than to restore the books & sell
them as books.  However, to a librarian, it's unthinkable.  For myself, I
could not do that for a living.  However, those books were the property of
the dealer & his to do with as he sees fit.

No, not everything old & valuable can be saved.  Part of this debate is a
value judgment & that depends on your individual perspective.  Last week I
assisted an elderly cousin & another relative in donating 7 boxes of
original manuscript & genealogical material to the Delaware State Archives.
These boxes could more easily have been sent to the landfill or, since most
of the paper was excellent in quality, someone could have used them for
crafts or to line the spines of books prior to binding.  Would this Sussex
County, Delaware material be viewed as "valuable" by someone in a London
flea market?  Or in Bosnia?  How about Korea where the alphabet is
different?  Well, they are valuable to the Delaware State Archives.  Will
they keep & conserve everything in that collection?  I don't know BUT, they
are qualified to make the value judgment about what is worth their limited
resources to preserve; and I defer to their decision.

I apologize in that I haven't seen this vellum collection of Mr. Jackson's,
but I did speak with him yesterday & also found out that the collection
includes documents back to the 15th C. & includes one from Charles I (scrap
that one down!)  I apologize also that I don't have the time at the moment
to visit & assess this collection myself nor the means make an offer.
Hopefully this dialogue will bring the issue to the attentions of those who
do.  Nor do I mean to denigrate Mr. Werner's reputation, but I do question
his value judgment in this case.  And I believe most historians,
researchers, archivists or librarians would respond as I have, based on the
facts so far presented.

My other concern is that many of our list members are amateur book artists,
binders, conservators &c.  We all don't have the same knowledge base or
experience.  To have someone in authority such as Mr. Werner, say here's
some old vellum that you can scrap down & use for your craft projects, I
believe, sets a troublesome precedent.  Maybe this vellum is of no value at
all to any historian anywhere in the; but what if it is valuable?  Here's
another example:  an antique dealer friend of mine told me how she cleans
stained ceramics & china by soaking it in 40% hydrogen peroxide she buys
from a beautician friend.  I didn't know exactly how object conservators use
hydrogen peroxide to reduce stains in ceramics, but I knew enough to
QUESTION the use of such strong concentrations.  When I voiced this opinion
of mine, she retorted very defensively, "That's what Winterthur uses!"  How
did she know this?  Another antique dealer told her; neither of them went to
Winterthur or know anything about conservation.  Well, I checked with object
conservators from Winterthur, Buffalo & the Virginia museum.  No, they don't
dunk things in 40% solution; they start at low concentrations & would never
put something "valuable" in straight 40%.  What's the old adage?  "A little
knowledge is a dangerous thing."

But it's all a matter of perspective.  There's the Robert E. Lee boyhood
house museum in northern Virginia that got sold to a private party & the NYC
Poe house that NYU (?) is converting to office space.  Then there's
Nicholson Baker's article in the New Yorker (7/24/200) "Deadline" about the
microfilming & destruction of newspapers by librarians (most of whom have
ties to the CIA, yuck, yuck).  I've heard & read stories about collectors of
American furniture in the '20s & '30s who went around buying Chippendale
sideboards off farmer's wood piles because the farmer replaced that old
fashioned junk with new Victorian furniture.  You know, walnut & mahogany
makes a good fire.  What's junk today, may not be in the future.  Well, I
could go on & on, but I'll shut up now though I'd be happy to continue this
discussion privately.

Bryan L. W. Draper
Special Collections Assistant
The Library of Virginia
800 East Broad Street
Richmond, VA 23219-1905
Tel:  (804) 692-3704
Fax: (804) 692-3709
Email:  bdraper@lva.lib.va.us

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