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Protection From Human Pests

A few months ago (while I was at NACO training) I got a reader's card at the Library of Congress. For a while I pretty actively went and requested books on Saturday afternoons. In particular, I was interested in archival manuals from outside the United States. One of the most interesting books I found was S. M. Jaffar's Problems of an Archivist, a manual written in Pakistan in 1948. I was struck by the following passage ("Protection From Human Pests"), taken from pp. 28-29:

"Human pests" and "White Huns" are the common epithets applied to human species acting as enemies of archives. History has recorded many such instances of vandalism as the wholesale destruction of priceless treasures of art and literature, the burning of big and beautiful libraries, the transport of camel-loads of books to distant countries and the sale of valuable manuscripts at ridiculously low prices. The transfer of artistic and literary treasures of subjugated countries by the conquerors to their homelands to adorn their own museums and libraries has depleted those countries of that wealth. In their anti-archival activities insects are impartial, but the human pest or "Homo Sapiens", as he is significantly called, goes for the most precious papers. Being rational, his ravages are more thorough and fatal than those of insect pests. As such he is capable of maximum harm in minimum time, especially when he is selfish, callous, misguided and bent upon mischief. The removal of entire pages ond [sic] pictures from valuable volumes and of seals and signatures of historical persons from rare records is the common experience of archivists and librarians.

An archivist (or a librarian) may rightly with-hold certain classes of documents as being fragile, but he cannot legitimately stand between the research scholar and the primary sources of his information -- the raw materials of history. Damages due to carelessness are also common: By resting his elbows on a batch of brittle papers or by spilling ink on important records, a research student may do incalculable harm. Old but important manuscripts have often been destroyed for want of space or thrown into wells and rivers out of pure piety to prevent their pollution by falling into unclean or impious hands. These are important problems which must be tackled by the authorities and the archivist. In order to ensure that the literary wealth of a country remains within it, it must be free and strong, capable of warding off external danger and guarding its cultural heritage. To prevent the export of valuable records, prohibitory legislation is absolutely essential.* To check damage being done through carelessness, a set of restrictive rules may be framed and enforced in archive offices and libraries. Documents scattered here and there and subject to premature decay and deterioration may be surveyed and salvaged by the state, if not by private enterprise. The archivist can frame and enforce rules within his sphere. Beyond that he is powerless. But he can draw the attention of the authorities to the problems beyond his control and suggest solution [sic].

* That which pertains to a countries past cannot form the exclusive property of a private individual. In its ultimate analysis, it belongs to the whole nation -- the State. The principle applies with equal force to the collections of private owners. Within the country they may form the property of private persons, but their export cannot be tolerated.

Much of this still rings true today, of course, but the context is particularly interesting considering it was written shortly after India and Pakistan achieved independence from Britain. I find books like this one to be the most telling about how both my profession has changed and has remained the same over the years.