The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 19, Number 6
Nov 1992


LC Round Table on Preservation Research & Development

A report by Linda Nainis

Preservation scientists and administrators of major library, research and archives programs gathered at the Library of Congress on September 2829. The meeting promoted an awareness of current preservation-related research activities across a number of technical fields of investigation.

"Our very presence here is helping us define a new domain, a new area of competence in a field that we should call preservation science," said Winston Tabb, Library of Congress, in his welcoming address. Preservation science is broader than conservation science. At its heart, preservation science is materials science, said Leslie Smith, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST); it is a discipline that can "provide fundamental data on the inherent stability of materials, the interaction of materials with their environment...." In addition, Paul Conway, Yale University, asserted that preservation science incorporates social science concerns about "organizational behaviors that are centered around the creation and the acquisition and selection of information sources for long-term preservation, such issues as the politics of preservation within institutions, within a society that does not value its own history, and such issues as the sociology of learning and scholarship which lead to the acceptance of [digital] technology as a preservation medium."

Three reporting sessions covered research related to different media types: paper-based materials, photographic images, and digital technology. In the session on mass preservation of paper, presentations from four major research organizations--the Library of Congress, the Getty Conservation Institute, the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, and the National Archives of Sweden--gave a sense of the breadth and scope of preservation research projects that are being conducted in deacidification, environmental conditions and storage, and paper chemistry.

Presentations from the research directors of the National Archives of Canada and the Image Permanence Institute described a similarly impressive range of work that is largely concerned with photographic image preservation.

While the sessions on paper and film reported on fundamental scientific research activities, the digital technology session was more oriented toward applied research. Representatives from NIST, the National Agricultural Library, the Government Printing Office and the National Library of Medicine spoke of the promises and problems of preserving existing digital media and of converting library holdings to digital format.

Having reviewed where preservation research is today, the participants discussed where we need to take it tomorrow. In terms of communication, what is needed from the scientific community, stated Paul Whitmore, Carnegie Mellon University, is better education of policy makers about the value of science, and, as James Druzik, Getty Conservation Institute, stressed, a better diffusion of knowledge. There was consensus that scientists and those organizations sponsoring scientific research bear a responsibility to disseminate scientific information to those who need it. Furthermore, to be truly effective, dissemination of knowledge must be more than simply distributing report findings. Mailing a report does not constitute communication, said Druzik. Based upon a recent study showing that most technical information absorbed by policy makers comes through people, and not reports, Druzik suggested conducting a series of highly focussed workshops. These face-to-face forums are needed to deliver the messages of the scientific community clearly and uniformly, to increase the library and archives preservation community's knowledge, and to influence preservation policy.

The challenges to a scientist who tries to look into the future were eloquently set forth by Paul Whitmore in his keynote address. He referred to the "myopia of preservation research" and explained that most research activity is built upon the premise that to understand the subtle details one must investigate so closely that the overall perspective may be lost. Conservation research, said Whit more, is afflicted with the limitation that it can only see details when objects are brought very close. ". . .Only it is the object distinct in time, rather than in space, that is difficult to resolve in any detail." Since direct observation of the future is not possible, heavy reliance must be placed on oblique approaches to the problem, such as accelerated aging.

On the subject of accelerated aging, William K. Wilson, retired NIST and currently guest worker at the National Archives, quipped: "To say accelerated aging is an exact science is like evaluating the shelf life of eggs by dropping them in boiling water for five minutes." Natural aging comparisons are necessary to properly interpret the results of accelerated tests; however, comparisons can't be made for new materials because aged examples do not exist. Preservation science must be concerned with modern materials as well as traditional materials.

The fact that both preservation scientists and preservation administrators must work with limited resources influences what and how work is done. In the scientific community, replication of experiments would normally be expected and a variation in opinions would be encouraged. But effective scientific study modes may have to be put aside when resources are tight, as in preservation research, where "sharing of expertise, agreement on test methods and their interpretation, and exchange of results have become necessary," said Klaus Hendriks, National Archives of Canada. "Science resources need to be pooled and shared," said Hendriks, "and used for the public good that these [research] institutions represent." In addition, because of limited resources, "it is clear that archives and libraries can no longer afford to pursue separate paths in their preservation efforts."

Similarly, library and archives administrators cannot afford to operate preservation treatment and reformatting programs without regard to cost. Economic modelling, said Scott Bennett, Johns Hopkins University, should be used to answer questions about how to most rationally enlist limited preservation resources in choosing appropriate techniques and programs. "At heart, preservation is an investment activity," said Bennett. Therefore, one must design economically efficient and effective programs of investment.

The round table participants, major players in the preservation arena, recognized that there is still much work that needs to be done to establish a coherent national or international preservation research agenda. Continuing, active, inter-institutional collaboration is clearly necessary.

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