The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 25, Number 1
Jun 2001


CLIR Readies Report on Role of the Artifact in Libraries

by Abby Smith

For 18 months, a task force of scholars and librarians sponsored by CLIR (Council on Library and Information Resources) has been investigating the issues surrounding the preservation of and access to artifactual collections. Artifacts—that is, information recorded on physical media—form the bedrock of evidence upon which scholarship and teaching are built. The task force has produced a draft report, The Evidence in Hand: Report of the Task Force on the Artifact in Library Collections, which members of the research community have commented on, to help shape the recommendations and outcomes of its work.

The task force hosted five public-review sessions this past spring to engage librarians and scholars in developing recommendations that meet the needs of all who share an interest in this issue. The report is designed to advise academic officers, funders, library administrators, government funding agencies, and scholars on what is at stake as library and archival collections age and as demands to build digital services and collections threaten to eclipse the continuing need for investment in preservation.

While preparing the draft report, the task force consulted extensively with experts from libraries and archives. Task force members confirmed what is well-known to many librarians: As the volume of information collected by libraries grows, and with it the demand for electronic resources, so do scholars' demands for access to original, unreformatted resources. Libraries are caught between building digital collections and infrastructures, and increasing their efforts to preserve many print and audiovisual resources in dire condition—caught because their preservation budgets are flat and the pressures to "go digital" are great. As long as the claim on preservation resources exceeds the available funds, it will be necessary to choose carefully which materials get treatment.

CLIR charged the task force with developing a framework for making or evaluating institutional policies for the preservation and retention of original materials—from printed materials to photographs and sound recordings—and with articulating the value of the artifact for research and teaching. The task force gave special consideration to how a library and its home institution should make sound intellectual and fiscal decisions about what to preserve, when, for whom, and at what price.

Given the types of collections that research libraries hold—largely printed matter—and the extensive use of retrospective resources by humanists and social scientists, most task force members were familiar with the problems of print on wood-pulp paper. Librarians and preservationists know how to treat these materials; the problem is that funds are often insufficient.

The situation is different for audiovisual materials. There is far less awareness of their vulnerability, and fewer treatments are available to save them. Many audiovisual resources created during the last 150 years—prints, photographs, maps, broadsides, posters, films, and sound recordings—are reaching the limits of their usable life span. The task force identified an urgent need to address this problem. If we do not act now, we risk losing a great deal of material. For example, by the time we understood the cultural and intellectual value of moving images, we had lost more than 80% of all silent films and more than half of the films made before World War II. We now face a similar crisis in recorded sound. At risk is everything from ethnographic records of native languages facing extinction to early radio, the "race records" of the pre-World War II era, and speeches by Teddy Roosevelt—the list goes on.

Scholars can play an important role in preventing the future loss of valuable resources by articulating clearly the full range of contemporary formats and genres that have and will have potential research value. The report acknowledges that the availability of digital surrogates is changing the way some scholars value access to original, unreformatted materials. While there is an increasing number of items that scholars identify as valuable to preserve for research, there is also a growing preference among scholars for electronic delivery of secondary sources and, in some cases, of primary sources as well. The task force report considers the matter of digital surrogacy at some length, articulating its advantages and disadvantages and identifying those parts of the information infrastructure that need to be in place to maximize its benefits.

Reprinted from CLIR Issues, no. 21, May/June 2001. The 85-page draft report is available on the CLIR website at http://www.clir.org/activities/details/artifact-docs.html and can be downloaded free. The final report will be available in print and online in July.

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