Book Reviews

Michèle Valerie Cloonan. The Monumental Challenge of Preservation: The Past in a Volatile World. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2018. 280p. Hardcover, $30.00 (ISBN: 978-0-262-03773-0).

Book cover for The Monumental Challenge of Preservation: The Past in a Volatile World

In her book The Monumental Challenge of Preservation, author Michèle Valerie Cloonan addresses a wide array of issues, as diverse as they are immense. It’s not just library and information preservation engaging this professor and Dean Emerita of the Graduate School of Library and Information Sciences at Simmons College. Rather, as her subtitle, The Past in a Volatile World, suggests, her scope is broader, and her focus is the preservation of world culture itself, in all its manifestations.

After noting that “we are what we preserve—and don’t preserve,” Cloonan guides us to flashpoints, crises, and critical events and contexts endangering the survival of cultural products across civilizations and time. There is a chapter discussing the removal of Stalinist monuments and protests against allowing the Book of Kells to leave Ireland for exhibits. A history of the term “genocide” and the evolution of the meaning of “cultural genocide” follows. A discussion of the horrific and ongoing war in Syria comes next, focusing on human suffering and the deliberate destruction of cultural icons and heritage at the hands of religious zealots. Cloonan then widens her viewpoint with a theoretical look at the urge to collect as a variant of the preservation mandate; next, she zeroes in on a case of an obsessive collector/photographer who lost his life trying to halt the destruction of architectural landmarks. In the section on “information or objects,” OCR issues, Google Books, the saving of vintage video games, and the ephemeral nature of digitization itself are discussed, while the next section, “The Greening of Preservation,” attempts to link preservation of the natural and the built environment with that of traditional records and cultural artifacts. As the book approaches its end, the essays/chapters become more philosophical, meditating on the conundrum of materials deemed offensive to some. Should they be preserved at all? What are the consequences if they are or are not? The epilogue considers Berlin as the objectification of many of the issues discussed; she calls it a “City of Reconciliation and Preservation.” The fact that is done in 276 pages, with many black and white photos, bibliography, and footnotes is astonishing, and “monumental”—a word so often used that it loses meaning, reduced to a pun.

The book is well researched; and individual chapters succinctly sum up situations and topics that could (and do) comprise whole volumes. As such, it serves as a good introduction to any number of diverse geopolitical, cultural, conservation and preservation issues, never doing full justice to a single one. Yet some vignettes and personalities are so well done that they manage to be both suggestive and satisfying. Cloonan is to be praised for her grand attempt, often succeeding in detailed analysis. The chapters hint at, but never arrive at, solutions, which, to be fair, is not one of the book’s stated intentions. Yet readers following her arguments, convinced by her combination of passion and cool analysis, may nevertheless feel frustrated by the oft-repeated phrase that solutions will be difficult. The book troubles the mind, no doubt as the author intended, but this reviewer found that lack of follow-through as to what we as professionals and citizens of a global village can do, troubling, too.—Harlan Greene, College of Charleston

Copyright Harlan Greene

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