Can We Preserve Everything? What about $$?:
Paper for the Los Angeles Preservation Network
May 18, 2004
The organizers of this event have asked me to offer some provocative remarks in order to start a discussion about the issues affecting the future of preservation. So with apologies to Jonathan Swift, I offer:
A Modest Proposal
Subtitled: For preventing the past issues of newspapers and journals in libraries from being a burden to their owners or institutions, and for making them beneficial to the public.
It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great library or visit other institutions, when they see the floors, the stacks, and shelves, crowded with bound volumes of journals, filled with page after page after page, all crumbling and crying out for preservation. These volumes, instead of sitting quietly and unmolested, are forced to endanger their very existence by providing information for insistent researchers: who as they mature either become instructors who send others to pester these same pages or produce more published research, forcing more competition for scarce library space.
I think it is agreed by all parties that this prodigious number of volumes on the floors, or in the stacks, or on the shelves of their libraries, and frequently of their remote storage facilities, is in the present deplorable state of the information environment a very great additional grievance; and, therefore, whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy method of making these volumes sound, useful members of the institution, would deserve so well of the public as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the field.
I shall now therefore humbly propose my own thoughts, which I hope will not be liable to the least objection.
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a substantial scholarly journal well bound is at any age a most attractive, energy-efficient, and cost-effective insulation whether shredded, pulped, or compressed, and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in an institutional building or a home....
Why not recycle past issues of journals into insulation? After all, they've already been microfilmed, or the publishers have kept archival copies, or someone has scanned them and made them available online. Cash-strapped libraries can raise desperately needed funds by selling off old issues that no one looks at any more, more space will become available for newly acquired items, and buildings using the insulation will become highly energy efficient, reducing our reliance on scarce natural resources for heating and cooling. It's a win-win situation. Let's end this event right now – we've solved the problem, so let's end the discussion and move on to dinner.
What? You're telling me that there are problems with this approach? Microfilm isn't permanent? Publishing companies don't keep copies, or go out of business without making provisions for their archives? Online versions need to be stored somewhere, and have to be protected from hackers?
That's too bad, but it's not my problem. I've got enough things to worry about, with the state's budget problems, and the rapidly escalating costs of scholarly journals, and users demanding online journals rather than print. I really don't have time to worry about this – let someone else deal with it.
That's not as absurd as it sounds, at least not the last line. With all of the problems facing libraries today, concerns about preservation tend to fall lower and lower and lower on the list of priorities. And like most of those items well down on the list, we may find ourselves forced to take a serious look at the situation and to come up with solutions only when it's too late – when there's no copy to be found anywhere, in print, on microfilm, or online, of Swift's A Modest Proposal, or of 19th-century issues of The New York Times, or of Web sites created by candidates for the gubernatorial recall election last fall, or of countless other items that together constitute our cultural and intellectual heritage.
But, you're no doubt thinking, look at all the people here this afternoon – we all care about preserving these materials! It's not at the bottom of our list of priorities! To which I say – tell me about one of your preservation projects and, more importantly, tell me how you got the money to fund it. And those of you who are here are the dedicated staff that cares. Where are the decision-makers who must set the priorities and allocate the funds to get the job done?
Because that's one of the bottom-line issues facing us, isn't it? We need money: money to microfilm or scan or convert from one format to another, money to build permanent storage facilities for the original items themselves as well as for their reformatted surrogates, money to investigate new models of preservation, money to survey all libraries and archives to find out what preservation work each is doing, money to create and maintain an organization that coordinates all of these preservation activities so that efforts aren't duplicated and so that no materials are lost.
And where is this money going to come from? Unless we can attract the immediate attention of a Bill Gates or a David Geffen, chances are that it's going to come from our already overextended budgets or from piecemeal fundraising efforts. Which leaves us back where we started – why not just microfilm or scan the texts, turn the original materials into landfill or recyclables, and let our future selves worry about a long-term solution later?
After all, there are preservation projects going on everywhere. There's JSTOR. There's the Early English Books Online. There's the UCLA Library's own digital projects unit and recently established endowment to fund ongoing conservation and preservation activities. There are projects of varying size, complexity, and focus at almost every library or archive.
As California state librarian and as head of the Queens Borough Public Library, I've been involved with preservation projects in two widely different settings.
The California Preservation Program has been one of the state's library success stories. Who would have known that the Preservation Task Force, on which many of you served, would have resulted in the state-wide plan, parts of which have become operational in 2002?
The preservation librarians from UCR and UCSD, active in their local disaster response networks, have been taking the disaster response workshops to under-served parts of the state. The funding for this comes from grants administered by the California State Library. Information and answers to preservation questions are provided via that part of the program known as the California Preservation Clearinghouse.
At Queens Library I found myself fighting to introduce the concept of preserving our local historical resources in the face of keeping pace with the demand on popular materials wanted by our customers. But we initiated programs of microfilming of local newspapers and digitization of our photographic collections. As important was our initiative to archive the digital versions of all of our exhibitions.
All of these efforts are invaluable and necessary. But what about the big picture, the big questions? Who's preserving what? How are they preserving it? How do we know what the best preservation method is? What's falling through the cracks that we're going to find out about only when it's too late? Thinking through these questions, even without answers, can at least get us started, help us focus.
First, there's the issue of coordination. What is each institution doing? If you're preserving nineteenth-century photos of San Francisco, then maybe I don't have to. If I'm preserving American sheet music, then maybe Indiana University doesn't have to. If Indiana is preserving Midwestern newspapers, then maybe the Chicago Public Library can focus on materials from the Mayors Daley administrations. If we're all doing something, then none of us will have to do everything. This is already happening in a more limited manner. In fact, we had originally conceived that the Preservation Clearinghouse would gather and maintain these cooperative agreements. The most successful might be California's participation in the U.S. Newspapers Project and the Online Archive of California.
Then there's the issue of how to preserve materials. Treat the original item? Microfilm? Digitize? Is either really a preservation method, or merely an access method? If you've microfilmed or digitized it, do you save the original? Save multiple originals? Store them how and where? And what about items that are born digital, like Web sites – does the operation of the site need to preserved, along with its design and content? How do you do that, when the background programming is not longer supported? If you and I share our expertise, knowledge, experiences, and resources, we have a better chance of developing best practices and using our limited space, time, and money most effectively.
As state librarian I initiated the microfilming of thousands of pages of California newspapers, selling off the originals (or often giving them away) to make room in the crowded stacks of the State Library. Baker came after us when he discovered the storehouse of newspapers that Blackbeard had kept in San Francisco. He attacked our methods, the microfilm, and the institutions we were trying to salvage. But decisions like this must be made with the needs of our users, present and future, foremost in our mind, not out of fear of criticism.
As we work within UC to create shared-print archives and dim and dark archives, we are entering a new era of conservation and preservation. As we eliminate print subscriptions in favor of online versions of scientific and medical journals, how do we ensure there is perpetual access to the content that is no longer on our library shelves and is controlled by a third party (actually in many cases a third party that is on foreign soil)?
Now for the most difficult question: what do we preserve? Even in the best of all possible worlds, choices will have to be made; not everything can be preserved. If the building is on fire, do you grab the most valuable items, or the most meaningful? Do you save an illuminated manuscript because it's beautiful or a set of census data because it's heavily used? Do you save the dissertations of your graduates, or the publications of your faculty?
Do you save just the content and design of born digital materials, or their operation as well? Does preservation go hand-in-hand with access – meaning, if you have digital files of print materials, do you keep them available online forever? Or do you keep highly used files online but store unused ones until some future date when they might be needed? Or destroy digital files when they're not longer used, then redigitize the original item when needed again? How do you evaluate what will have the most enduring value in the future?
I often think of the dilemma that Adolph Sutro's daughter faced the morning of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. What should she grab into her hands from her father's extensive collection to save as she ran to save herself? It was Shakespeare's First Folio that she carried with her to protect. But hundreds of incunabula and other valuable volumes were lost in that one natural disaster.
And what do you do when the decision isn't up to the library? At the recent California State Government Documents conference, the agenda focused on depository libraries' responsibility to acquire and preserve both paper texts and digital files of state documents. But some state departments don't know they're supposed to be depositing documents, and some born digital documents are disappearing before they can be archived. Whose responsibility is it to inform the departments and enforce the law? How do depository libraries prioritize this activity, in light of limited preservation services and space?
Finally, there's the issue of money. What do you do when you have a funder willing to provide a substantial amount of money for a project that preserves materials not at the top of your priority list – do you take the money and preserve the items? Take the money and try to squeeze a few dollars out of it for some more worthy items? Try to convince the funder that their money would be better spent on preserving other items?
I realize that I'm offering many difficult questions, and no easy answers. But don't think we're wasting our time by asking questions – if we can all agree upon the questions to be asked, the problems to be addressed, then at least we have a common ground from which to start the process of finding a solution, or multiple solutions.
Jonathan Swift ended his modest proposal by noting that he had no personal interest in promoting it and that he stood nothing to gain by its adoption. Here, Swift and I part company. I share with you a deep personal and professional interest in addressing preservation issues, and I don't think it's immodest to say that the future of civilization will benefit from our adopting an approach that preserves our intellectual and cultural heritage for future generations.
© 2004. Gary E. Strong