Miriam Nelson

Miriam Nelson, head of preservation at Ohio University Libraries, stands inside the Southeast Ohio Regional Library Depository on Oct. 23, 2012.

Photographer: Kate Munsch, Ohio University Libraries

Miriam Nelson

Nelson examines a rare book in need of repair.

Photographer: Kate Munsch, Ohio University Libraries

Miriam Nelson

Nelson reviews work on Oct. 23, 2012.

Photographer: Kate Munsch, Ohio University Libraries

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Miriam Nelson works to extend the life of Ohio University's Libraries

It is true that maintaining a library requires knowledgeable librarians, systematic organization, accessibility for patrons, and of course, a custodial staff. But what about caring for the books themselves? The answer for Ohio University is Head of Preservation Miriam Nelson.

The Ohio University Libraries is home to a nearly 200-year-old collection, which has been systematically acquired to be appreciated and used, but more importantly, to be preserved. The fifth floor’s Archives and Special Collections reading room has strict procedures for accessing materials, requiring patrons to exercise care while handling them.

But sometimes care just is not enough. According to Nelson, use is the primary reason for any damage inflicted on a book.

"If you are looking into getting something to last hundreds of years into the future, of course, having it stored away in a climate-controlled room where nobody uses it, that’s how that can happen," Nelson said. "But that is counter to the Libraries’ mission."

For the Libraries and for Nelson, preservation is stewardship of a collection. It ensures that patrons will continue to have access to research materials that the Libraries have invested in and makes sure preservationists take care to maintain and preserve what is specifically important to the University’s research programs.

Acquiring the skills and knowledge to effectively care for items in a library takes instruction and experience, both of which Nelson has in plenty.

While acquiring her master’s degree in Cultural Memory at the University of London, Nelson frequented the British Library. In time spent there, Nelson realized that she was developing a deeper connection to the research side of academia, as opposed to the writing or presenting. Her fondness for working with artifacts is what led Nelson to pursue a Master in Library and Information Science degree at Indiana University. Nelson graduated from the program in 2007.

In February of 2012, Nelson arrived in Athens to begin working in the preservation department located at the Libraries’ annex. She is currently involved in preserving the archive of world-renowned photographer Lynn Johnson, an Ohio University alumna. Johnson’s work is inspired by and reflective of human suffering and accomplishment.

"It’s just a really amazing collection of contact sheets and negatives and prints in all different formats," Nelson said. "So we’re working with the archives to figure out how we can best store this material so that it can be actively used, but still preserved, and that’s been a really fun challenge."

For the most part, Nelson attends to each item needing repair in a systematic way. She first assesses the condition of the item, and then decides whether or not it needs major or minor repair. Knowing whether an item or book is frequently used or is non-circulatory helps to determine the type of work it will need. If the issue is major, Nelson figures out the role of the piece within the larger collection. Fragile, often brittle items in special collections usually receive protective hand-made boxes or coverings.

With some of the pieces, Nelson will use Japanese tissue made of kozo or gampi fibers to fix cracks in pages. Nelson explains that she often has to take into consideration the tensile strength, thickness and expansion and contraction of the paper because the Japanese tissue absorbs moisture from the wheat paste she uses and then dries.

The most difficult part of Nelsons’ job is just holding back and accepting that there is only so much one can reasonably do to preserve a piece.

"The trick is to step back and avoid being overly precious about each item, so that you can more easily identify what is possible, what is practical, and where your time will have the most impact,” Nelson said.
In addition to working in preservation, she also manages the Southeast Ohio Regional Library Depository, where overflow materials from six Ohio universities are sent. This auxiliary storage facility has a capacity of nearly 750,000 volumes. Combined with the collections housed at Alden Library, as well as the Music and Dance Library, Nelson and her colleagues are constantly kept busy.

"[The preservation department] works to protect and stabilize the condition of our rare and irreplaceable materials, but also to ensure that the new books and journals we are collecting today, whether they are print or electronic, will still be here for scholars far into the future," said Jan Maxwell, assistant dean for collections and access.

The Ohio University Libraries owns a number of valuable items known for their physical characteristics, content, age, scarcity or demand. When the demand for a book exceeds the supply, the book is considered a rarity.

"There will be material that perhaps is not widely collected by American universities or is kind of uniquely collected at a specific institution," Nelson said. "So in a way that kind of tells a story about Ohio University and about the Libraries."

Nelson does not feel that her job is threatened by the advent of digitized collections. Because there is already so much material for Nelson and her colleagues to maintain, they are left prioritizing which projects will receive the most attention.

The preservation department would have less to preserve if large numbers of materials began to undergo digitization. According to Nelson, the remaining items, however, will become increasingly important to preserve, demanding that they receive full treatment rather than restricted treatment.

Nelson’s profession has allowed her to look at books differently. Her passion for discovering the cultural context of a book is often transmitted to her peers when they approach her with a preservation issue.

"All of the sudden there is a possible solution to something they just thought was an unfixable problem," Nelson said. "There is an interest in maybe the value of the book as a cultural object that they may have never considered before."

Apart from the University, Nelson is a member of the Guild of Book Workers and the American Institute for Conservation. She teaches workshops both in Ohio, as well as in Mt. Carroll, Ill., at the Campbell Center for Historic Preservation Studies.

Nelson’s goals for the future are to better integrate preservation and the annex with the Athens main campus. Whether it is through holding workshops or events, or just raising campus awareness about the Preservation Department’s existence, Nelson is up for the challenge.

"There’s a lot of great things that happen out here," Nelson said. "I think that we are a resource that I would like people to know more about."