The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 15, Number 3
May 1991


Automation and Preservation: Bring on the Empty Horses

by Nancy Elkington

Opening remarks made by Nancy Elkington as moderator of the

ALCTS PLMS program which took place on Monday, June 25, 1990, from 2:00 to 5:30 p.m., at the ALA Annual Conference in Chicago. The author is Preservation Program Officer for the Research Libraries Group.

This Year marks the tenth anniversary of the Preservation of Library Materials Section (PLMS), the youngest section in ALA's Association for Library Collections & Technical Services (ALCTS). PLMS and the preservation administrators who comprise it have had a truly astounding impact on the profession over the past several years. In many institutions, we've changed the way people think about access to deteriorated collections, we've heightened people's awareness of the dangers of food and drink, we've increased people's understanding of the book as a physical object, we've altered people's concept about the environmental conditions under which our resources are stored, and we've convinced people of the need for planning in the event of natural disasters and other collection emergencies. This work has taken us across all traditional organizational and functional lines in libraries yet while we have daily contact and interaction with staff in all areas of public, technical and support services, we have not moved at the same pace into the automation arena of 1990's.

While we were busy trying-first-to build preservation programs and--then-to integrate them into our libraries' daily operations, another dramatic change was happening in the profession. Our libraries were beginning the process of bringing automation to bear on the problem of managing virtually every phase of their operations. National shared cataloging and inter-library loan systems were in place and steadily growing in size and scope. Librarians, seeing an opportunity to expand on these applications, began to exploit technology to help them their local operations.

In 1979, when PLMS was founded, local systems were being dreamed of; in 1990 they were commonplace. Online Public Access Catalogs (OPACS)-especially those with keyword searching capacity-provide powerful access tools for the library patron. Local technical processing systems function in tandem with national utilities. Acquisition system and serials modules link the supplier with the consumer to speed up the ordering, claiming and payment processes, while at the same tire serving as important financial managers. Circulation systems, one of the earliest library automation applications, are now sophisticated tools that help us to measure and manage the use of our collections. Most of these systems provide not only the to support specific library tasks, but-more importantly they offer a multitude of statistical report features that help us analyze workloads and streamline workflows. Best of all, librarians have discovered the means to link these several system into one, vast integrated library network.

We all know that preservation is a multifaceted activity that is inserted philosophically and practically into all aspects of library operations. Ideally, preservation administrators have access to information that is readily available to mangers of those other operations. Some of it is locally produced and locally meaningful, such as circulation histories for serials. If we know how our patrons use serial publications we can make informed decisions about how, when and even IF they should be bound. Some of the available data is nationally shared and nationally significant, such as how many copies of a rare map exist and who the owners are. If we know that our institution is the sole holder of an item we can and do make a variety of decisions about how it is treated, housed, protected, and shared. Inter-library loan data, if gathered from both local and national sources, can back up a decision to create a lending copy in order to maintain access to a heavily-used original at home. These bits of information are already being collected, yet our access to them too often depends on special permissions, negotiated with individual department heads, and on an infrequent basis at best.

At the same time that local integrated system were making it possible to information and service delivery in most library departments, automation of a simpler sort was starting to have an impact on preservation operations as well. Providers of commercial library binding services developed proprietary, automated systems and installed them in many of our binding units. For most of us, these systems are exciting advances over time-consuming manual operations, yet by definition, their usefulness is limited because they are most often stand-alone, single-task databases, unlinked to the library's local system. Beyond binding system, the greatest impact on preservation departments has been the introduction of the microcomputer.

In the past several years, microcomputers have revolutionized the library workplace, giving individual departments the power to create discrete databases and software applications, and preservation departments are no exception. In 1985, the University of Michigan began using a p.c. to product targets for its microfilming program. Soon thereafter the New York Public Library set up a local network to communicate about materials flowing through its Conservation Division. Dozens of institutions followed, finding ways to streamline workflows and capture and record bits of data to help them speed up their tasks, primarily by financing and building stand-alone, departmental databases.

At about the saw tine that sane of us were painfully building these pc-based, stand-alone databases, a few of our clever and foresighted colleagues managed to convince their administrations to permit selected pieces of preservation information to reside within the integrated library system itself. Preservation staff at Florida, Emory and Northwestern developed technical enhancements that would allow them to record an array of preservation information directly in their libraries' local systems. For the most part, though, this information cannot be accessed from beyond the local environment.

We have clearly reached a point in our development where we need to understand the MARC formats in order to capitalize on them. Adaptations on the MARC record over the past ten years are having a significant impact on how we share certain kinds of preservation information. The first adaptation was the addition of the 007 field, designated for the recording of technical attributes of microforms. Its installation in the early 1980's allows us to share information about the physical nature of preservation master negatives and all other microforms. The second major change was the addition of the MARC 583 field. First approved for use in the AMC format, the 583 represents a major breakthrough for have some of us might share information about a variety of preservation activities. The "Preservation Action Note" is designed to allow us to record actions like: *) "reformatted onto 35 mm microfilm with the original with-drawn; "repaired a broken spine after deacidifying"; or even, "this volume was reviewed this year and should be reviewed every five years from now on". Some of the work to define how we use this field has been done, but not nearly all.

More recently, a number of conservators and preservation, administrators have joined the ranks of other library staff in exploring the use of expert system . Going hill beyond the simple recording of data or actions taken, such systems open the door to an immense array of possibilities for sophisticated mechanical intervention in the human decisionmaking process, resulting in what we hope will be better and faster decisions.

Many of us have, over the past five years, talked at length about how to move preservation onto the library automation agenda. Many of the preservation administrators I've heard from whose imagination was held captive by the question have shared my dismay at our inability to incorporate our activities and needs into the general library automation planning process. But those with the most knowledge and energy have surged ahead regardless, forging individualized automated solutions to preservation management problems, most often with no external leadership and little technical expertise. So, when it came time to name this program, I thought of all those preservation folks, racing against the wind, receiving little support outside their departments, basically trying to invent alone what should be a profession-wide solution, A story came to mind that seemed to illustrate vividly the essence of our position: Hollywood director Mike Curtiz, best-known for his film "Charge of the Light Brigade", spent an entire morning setting up a shot that would consume less than 30 seconds of screen time. The scene involved a herd of 100 riderless wild horses galloping across a plain toward the camera.

It took him half a day to prepare the shot because these were wild horses-riderless-each having its own notion of what to do. Some wanted to stroll over to the river for a drink, some wanted to trot around and see who else was in the herd, and sane wanted to run free and fast, albeit in several completely different directions. When Curtiz completed the camera set-up and got the horses settled down as best he could, he paused for a moment and then -instead of issuing the standard "action" command-shouted "Bring on the Empty Horses!"

The ground shook for miles with the thundering hooves of those powerful animals, all moving together towards a shared destination. Well, we don't have such a director; we don't have anyone who can force us to run at the saw- speed at the same tin-e and in the same direction toward the same destination. Instead, we have a situation much like that of ten years ago: we have to rely on each other to harness our awesome energy and focus ourselves on a shared solution for the future. Although we all know that there are a million ways of getting "there" from "here", nevertheless a set of rudimentary directions can often help us keep away from dangerous swamps and snakepits and on relatively dry and uninfested land. Here, then, is such a road map. It provides the barest of outlines to guide us into the future and help us to apply current automation technologies to our best advantage-

Assess the depth of interest in automatism applications for preservation, measure the extent of knowledge- about automation, and develop a resource listing of automated tools currently in use (whether custom-designed or off the shelf). A number of efforts to automate aspects of preservation are already underway; the individuals responsible for some of the more sophisticated efforts can be identified and invited to participate more actively in the planning process.

Determine the kinds of information we need to access in order to manage the preservation of and continued access to our collections. Such a determination cannot be made in a vacuum. one possible approach would be to analyze the full scope of our functions and the full range of data gathered and used by our staff.

What functions are undertaken by preservation departments?

What other functions might be undertaken by a preservation department in an automated preservation management system were available?

What kinds of data are gathered (bibliographic, numeric, etc)?

How is the data gathered?

How is the data used?

Analyze the function/data lists. Compiling such a list will be difficult; honing that list into a reasonable compromise that the majority of preservation specialists can live with will be exceptionally challenging. As this is being accomplished , others among us will need to start thinking about where spreadsheets, databases and expert systems can be most effectively deployed.

Determine logical residences (office, local system, national utility) of information. Finally, we will need to decide which of those pieces of information have only departmental value, which have value to other units in the institution, and which have value beyond the institution (e.g., regional, national, or international value). In those cases where we all recognize a valid reason to be able to share information beyond the walls of our institutions, a number of follow-on tasks will become necessary: cost and benefit analyses of getting the data into "sharable" shape, communications mechanisms (USMARC formats or other means) to be identified and (possibly) modified, and national standards for input and update conventions to be developed.

These are clearly enormous yet riveting challenges, ones which cannot be solved in a single afternoon by two people sitting around a conference room table at ALA. There is room for local, regional, and national activity in a variety of forms. But first we need to agree that the automatism of preservation management functions is a desirable end. If such a consensus exists, we can then begin to invest the requisite tire and energy to make that particular dream a reality. Could I see a show of hands?

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