The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 22, Number 3

Why Library Preservation Should Plan for a Digital Future

by Eleanore Stewart

This paper was originally given to students of the Preservation and Conservation Studies Program, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, University of Texas, Austin, at a seminar entitled "Preservation Leadership: What Do We Need and Who Will it Come From?" held on April 17-18, 1998.

As an ex-rare book conservator who now manages the preservation of electronic and magnetic resources, I have been asked to reflect upon the changes in preservation brought about by new technologies and by the changing research library. I have outlined the prevailing issues and what I see as the need to extend the philosophical and educational boundaries of the profession to take these new conditions into account.

Digitization: Is It Preservation? Does It Matter?

The field of preservation has, until now, been less affected by computer technology than any other area of the library world. But this is changing rapidly. How does this technology affect the field? Responsibility for the future of digital collections is a clear preservation mandate. The digital conversion of paper collections is not such a clear mandate, yet many preservation units are charged with responsibility for conversion projects.

Below are outlined some of the reasons libraries are undertaking ambitious conversion projects and some thoughts about why preservation units might legitimately undertake this work.

Why are Libraries Digitizing?

Some bad reasons:

Space. It may take less space to store collections electronically, but the costs are high. Unlike off-site storage, you can't walk away and come back in thirty years and expect to be able to read your converted books. The infrastructure to migrate electronic documents reliably is not in place and the costs and risks are high.

Because everyone else is. In an attempt to be able to say they are creating digital collections some libraries are undertaking conversion projects without understanding the resources it takes and without careful analysis in their choice of collections. Developing internal expertise by carrying out exploratory conversion projects can bring definite benefits to a library, but if this is done without fairly broad-based institutional consideration and buy-in on the decision of what collections to digitize, the drain of money and professional time in such projects could easily derail other important programs.

Some better reasons:

Electronic access is a big part of our future. The internet is remaking higher education, as well as scholarly culture and communication. Libraries are uniquely placed to participate in shaping that future so that it serves in the best interests of research and instruction.

Access. Electronic access is in many ways an improvement. Virtual collections can pull together disparate and large collections that couldn't be physically viewed at one time and place. The ability to tap image databases and to integrate text and images will enrich scholarship. Electronic journals with links to citations offer efficiency. Conventional scholarly research will be enhanced by electronic access to media collections. These materials, which have always been difficult to access, can now be incorporated in research publications and easily exchanged between scholars.

Preservation. Digital surrogates minimize handling of fragile materials, but the imaging process is demanding and must be done with oversight by preservation staff and with a high enough level of quality to ensure the reusability of the archival electronic file for as long as possible.

New scholarly tools. While full text databases are not new, image databases are an exciting application of electronic access. They draw together images of different formats: objects, models, plans, in addition to conventional images such as photographs and drawings, allowing scholars to reference a broad spectrum of visual materials.

New experiences. The ability to combine multimedia sources with print creates a different aesthetic and intellectual experience. We are still in the infancy of electronic delivery, but as the quantity and quality of electronic resources grow, we can expect to see innovative applications and new ways of utilizing research materials.

Who Should Be Doing It

There are currently many library departments with an interest in managing digital conversion projects: systems departments, academic computing units, special collections, and preservation departments. Each brings a different and relevant form of expertise.

We often hear that preservation shouldn't be doing imaging because electronic files are not sufficiently archival to warrant inclusion in the arsenal of preservation techniques. And this is currently the case. In limited instances, however, it may be legitimate to think of digital conversion as preservation. One such instance might be a black and white photo collection of a non-unique nature, which is rapidly deteriorating and for which sufficient funds for traditional film duplication do not exist. In this case, the choice is between some loss of information, plus the risk of uncertain future maintenance, vs. certain loss. Far more frequently offered as a reason for preservation staff's involvement is the belief that creating a digital surrogate will relieve use on the original. Yet we have reason to believe that the increased awareness of the items from their presence on the web will lead to increased serious scholarly interest and a need to handle the original.

A more promising basis for preservation's immediate involvement is "Hybrid Preservation," the intertwining of traditional microfilming with digitizing. There is still active debate in the professional community concerning whether to scan or film first but the technique allows for the best of both worlds. We can continue to use microfilm as a long-lasting, low-maintenance archival format that can be converted to digital format as needed, by either the institution or a scholar onsite.

Digitizing is systematically related to microfilming, involving similar skills and workflow structures. Preservation professionals have done an excellent job of developing the field of microfilm to a preservation standard. They have imported and developed standards and guidelines to produce a well documented process, and they are beginning to do the same with digitizing.

Digitizing obviously involves many legitimate preservation issues:

decision-making for repair and the actual repair prior to scanning,

handling and transport to and through the scanning operation,

the environmental concerns of the digital capture location and process, and

the specifications and handling of the electronic surrogates to minimize the need for future scanning.

Digitizing creates both managerial and ethical choices. If it is not balanced with needs introduced by use, brittle collections, and exhibition, it may consume resources intended for conservation treatment. How much treatment should you give something before imaging? How much effort should you expend in editing an image as opposed to treating the original?

So far, we have focused primarily on conversion of paper-based collections to electronic forms. Soon the archiving of electronic documents and collections will become a preservation concern. Running digital conversion programs is an excellent way to become familiar with the technology and issues.

A final, and not the least significant, reason to involve preservation in digital conversion is the changing nature of research libraries and their priorities. If, as a field, we are not actively involved in the central issues of libraries, we risk becoming irrelevant. This has immediate and personal repercussions on job security, but it also has implications for scholarship, because our profession's central concern is the preservation of scholarly resources. We are trained to evaluate the ways in which scholars use materials and to ensure that the necessities of collecting, arranging, and describing those materials do not damage or destroy the qualities that scholars find critical to their work. Increasingly those research materials will be electronic.

The remainder of this paper explores some of the forces and issues facing our profession.

Realities of Libraries Today

Downsizing. Changes in government funding of universities dictates that in many institutions all new initiatives (for everyone, not just libraries) must be funded from current budgets. It's not that many libraries are doing things which are unrelated to their mission, it's that we have to say which of these perfectly legitimate things we are not going to do anymore, or will do less of, so that we can add new services and programs to meet the needs of researchers.

Outsourcing. This is not completely new to libraries (for example, think of commercial binding), but all traditional services are being systematically considered for contracting out.

Operational efficiency. Library processes are increasingly being reevaluated and traditional work flows are being altered to streamline activity and reduce the number of people who need to "touch" an item. As a result, staff must become familiar with related areas of technical processing outside their own department or specialty.

Enterprise. As universities look to replace the funding no longer available from governmental sources and since endowments and tuition revenues are not adequate to close the gap, university officials are looking at programs to produce income. Library directors will be subject to this pressure as well. Money secured by a unit will not necessarily benefit the unit or even the libraries, but may simply fill a gap or deficit in a lowered operating budget.

Changes in priorities. In the last thirty years each decade has seen a different area of librarianship capture interest and available funding: cataloging, then preservation, then digitization. It is unlikely that preservation will regain the support it enjoyed in the eighties.

Change as a given. The rapid pace of change means the most important professional skill to acquire is learning how to learn.

Lack of resources. Along with decreased funding, libraries must cope with increased serial costs, digital conversion costs, and acquisition of both traditional and new electronic collections. All library functions will be continuously evaluated for cost savings and relevance to service.

Shedding stereotypes. Libraries are working very hard to shed their traditional image of conservatism. While it is important to maintain our reputation of reliability, there is pressure to be seen as innovative by the university community. Increasingly, willingness to meet the needs of the community and a "can-do" attitude are seen as more important than the traditional concerns of the library profession. Traditional cataloging is one area that has been in conflict with the need to increase efficiencies in cataloging, giving rise to simplified catalog records.

Directions for the Future--So Where Now?

Digital issues have had, and will continue to have, an impact upon the field of preservation. The following issues are key to transforming our profession and maintaining its viability.

Training of preservation technicians

We need new and expanded skills in preservation support staff, even for staff who have primary responsibility for paper-based materials. In most research libraries, technicians need some experience in bibliographic control and knowledge of the issues and concerns of the wider library (specifically special collections, cataloging, and shelving). They need computer skills: the ability to work not only with word processing applications but with databases, spreadsheets, and online administrative systems. There will be an increasing need for technicians familiar with magnetic and electronic media to assist with media conversion projects. We have recognized that as professional conservators we need these skills, but that's no longer enough. In order for preservation programs to be effective we need support staff well-trained in these areas.

Developing a peer network

Peers for digital imaging, electronic data, and media preservation are spread over a wide number of professional organizations: academic computing organizations, collection development in ALA (RBMS and Area Studies) and special library associations like the Art and Music Librarians, sound and moving image archives groups, electronic publishing, and the data management industry. Many of these people do not attend ALA, much less AIC (though the new Electronic Media specialty group is a most important addition to the AIC). We must look for ways to stay abreast of developments in these fields, to adapt their systems to solve library and archive preservation problems, and to inform them about activities in our field. And we must do this in an era of restricted travel budgets.

Developing new models of preservation selection

The model of curatorial/conservator interaction has always been a powerfully attractive one to the conservation field. Recognizing that we don't have the resources to treat everything, we've felt it critical to get input from curators. In actual practice this interaction is problematic. The interest level of curators varies and you can spend enormous amounts of time trying to schedule and hold these discussions. Even among curators who care and are willing to take the time, you find resistance. It is very difficult to choose what collections warrant care and what degree of care they should receive. People, understandably, just don't like to do it. Most efforts to involve scholars in drafting "preservation priority" lists for their discipline have also had limited success.

The selection of preservation candidates from electronic and media collections will be much more difficult than for the paper-based monographic and serials collections we've tackled so far. Selection is hampered by inadequate cataloging of these collections, by the difficulty of identifying the version of these electronic media, and by the fact that the records are not searchable by format. The costs of reformatting magnetic and electronic media are even higher than for paper-based materials. Consequently, the need for shared preservation activity will be even greater.

Finally, the biggest challenge:

Re-evaluating our professional philosophy.

Early efforts to find a professional identity for library and archival conservation highlighted its similarities with museum conservation, but it gave rise to a bias toward the rare and unique, to the detriment of the collection as a whole. This bias is being corrected somewhat by the focus on collection level treatment strategies, but we need to look systematically at our philosophies and evaluate their current utility.

We also need to expand conservation philosophy in its application to electronic/magnetic scholarly resources. We are uniquely positioned to do so, for three reasons:

We have extensive understanding of how scholars use research materials. We need to stay abreast of how scholarly methods change so that we can ensure that library programs and processes do not destroy the utility of collections to the scholars who use them.

We know how to take into account the relevant aspects of chemistry of materials, the processes of deterioration, and the impact of the storage environment.

Most fundamentally, we are trained to maintain a long term focus. It is our responsibility to understand and communicate to the larger library and academic community both the impact of use-related activities on materials for scholarly research and the long term stability of those materials.

One possible area for development is the issue of integrity of electronic materials content. In the world of traditional research materials the medium, artifactual evidence, and provenance were critical for scholars, and we learned organic chemistry and descriptive bibliography in order to ensure the preservation of this kind of integrity. These criteria do not address the integrity of electronic surrogates. We need to determine the authenticity of scholarly content in electronic resources and ensure that these qualities are preserved.

In order to accomplish this, we need to actively promote the field of preservation to such relevant disciplines as computer science and electrical engineering. It is increasingly evident that no single kind of preservation professional can fill all the needs facing libraries and archives. We must recruit young professionals from these fields into preservation.

Professional organizations or philosophies, like institutions and individuals, must evolve to meet the changing needs of the profession they serve. Preservation is no exception. We need to encourage our professional organizations to be flexible and responsive, to ensure their own long term preservation. We are best suited to devise ways for materials to serve the current trend of research needs, while striving to minimize the damage from that service. Now we must start adapting our principles and priorities to support our work toward those goals in today's library environment.

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