Burn Away the Old, Make Room for the New?

Preserving ideas and how they’re presented

Did you know that, as part of their New Year’s celebration, Icelanders set off more fireworks per person—about 3 kilos (over 6.5 pounds)—than anywhere else in the world? It’s all part of burning away the old year to welcome in the new.

Another Icelandic tradition: Lighting candles on New Year’s Eve to help the hidden people (Huldufólk, i.e., elves) find their way to new homes, a journey encouraged with the gentle bidding, “Come, those who wish. Stay, those who wish. Go, those who wish, harmless to me and mine.”

Out with the old, in with the new works in many parts of life, including the turn of the calendar, but in libraries, we usually seek to retain the old while acquiring the new. Most libraries are, in fact, committed to preserving the knowledge and information that has gone before, and NLM’s enabling legislation establishes preservation as one of our key functions, explicitly stating that we are to “acquire and preserve books, periodicals, prints, films, recordings, and other library materials pertinent to medicine.”

I understand the basics of preservation—devising efficient and sustainable ways to stabilize and retain materials and to ensure permanent access to them—but I gained a deeper insight into the why of preservation during my holiday travels to Reykjavik, thanks to the visionary library staff at the Nordic House.

As I listened to Margrét Asgersdottir, the Nordic House librarian, I began to see preservation in a whole new light.

Two women stand next to a Christmas tree made from stacked books
Margrét Asgersdottir and I at the Nordic House Library in Reykjavik

Operated by the Nordic Council of Ministers, the Nordic House’s small lending library arose out of a multi-national effort to ensure the preservation of Nordic languages. As a result, their print collection comprises works in six of the seven Nordic languages—Danish, Faroese, Finnish, Norwegian, Sámi, and Swedish. The library holds no books in Icelandic—the seventh Nordic language—with Iceland’s public libraries responsible for collecting those materials.

Margarét spoke with great pride of their commitment to preserve not only the ideas that emerged from Nordic writers, but the very way they were created as well. To Margarét and the Nordic House Library, preservation includes ensuring the vernacular remains intact—protecting both the content and the manner of expression. As she explained, the complexity of human thought and communication requires that we consider the impact and insights gleaned from both what  is said and how it is said. Moreover, preserving the how may have implications far beyond an enhanced understanding of the what. It may help keep a culture alive, connect ideas across generations and fields, and reveal nuances detectable only through specific vocabulary or sentence structure.

The idea that we must ensure the permanence of both thought and expression may be familiar to many librarians, but for me, it was an incredible and unexpected lesson.

This idea provides me, as the NLM Director, with solid justification to invest in the complex process of preservation and will help me better understand the issues at play regarding how and what to preserve. As my colleagues in our History of Medicine Division know well, it is sometimes necessary to preserve an artifact in its original form—be it the laboratory notebooks of Nobel laureate Marshall Nirenberg or hand-scripted Islamic medical manuscripts. There is meaning to be found in the union of thought and form.

As a result, I will never again walk through NLM’s incunabula room and simply marvel at the beautiful collection. Thanks to my time in Iceland, I bring a new and deeper commitment to preserving both the form and content of the world’s historical knowledge of health and medicine.

Photo credit (Fireworks Reykjavik 2013, top): Robert Parviainen [Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) | cropped]

Author: Patti Brennan

Director, US National Library of Medicine

One thought on “Burn Away the Old, Make Room for the New?”

  1. Thank you, Dr. Brennan! It is fascinating to hear global perspectives on the value of preservation of the physical collection, something that we take very seriously at NLM. We approach this important task as a true team effort, not just within the History of Medicine Division, but in close collaboration with our colleagues in the Preservation and Collection Management Section of the Public Services Division. Preserving the world’s largest biomedical collection is a huge job, but it’s one we relish!

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