The Library of Congress >> To Preserve and Protect

Publications (The Library of Congress)

Preservation Strategies in Context

6. Building a National Preservation ProgramNational Endowment for the Humanities Support for Preservation
Jeffrey M. Field

In a recent overview of preservation programs in the United States, Margaret Child described the development of a wide range of activities that might be called "a national preservation program." Child observed, however, that "the preservation movement . . . has been neither centralized nor systematically organized, but has instead been spontaneous, opportunistic, flexible, and multifaceted." She concluded that "if there is something that deserves to be called a 'national preservation program,' it is the totality of all the distinct and distinctive preservation activities that have developed from grassroots efforts across the country." [1] In contrast to this view, I would like to show that the framework for a national preservation program has been in place for a long time and that there has been systematic progress toward achieving two major, national goals, namely, the preservation of significant collections of source materials and the development of an infrastructure for preservation. That infrastructure must have, in turn, two components, the provision of education, training, and information services and the pursuit of research and demonstration leading to the creation of standards, best practices, and a new preservation technology.

The desire to preserve endangered books and serials has, since the 1960s, been an impetus for the formation of a national preservation plan. With support from the Council on Library Resources in 1962, Gordon Williams proposed the creation of a central preservation agency that would save an original copy of significant books. [2] The Williams Report, endorsed by the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) in 1965, was adopted as an action plan by the Library of Congress, but the Library soon found that technical, administrative, and fiscal problems inhibited its attempts to implement the plan. [3] In the early 1970s, the ARL proposed that instead of a single, national preservation collection, it would be more practical to approach the problem through the coordinated action of a number of individual research libraries. [4] Progress on this idea was delayed until the mid-1980s, when bibliographic and preservation microfilm standards and procedures had been further developed. In 1985, the Council on Library Resources issued a report that demonstrated the feasibility of undertaking a national brittle-books preservation microfilming program—a "divide and conquer" strategy that lacked only the fiscal resources necessary to undertake a national brittle-books campaign. In that same year, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) established an Office of Preservation, which was charged with supporting a "sustained and coherent attack on the preservation problem."

As Margaret Child acknowledged in the examples cited in her overview, the Endowment has been, since 1979, the nation's chief source of federal support for preservation projects that have strengthened the capacity of institutions to care for their collections and preserved the content of significant humanities collections. The National Endowment for the Humanities has successfully implemented programs initially proposed in the national interest by scholarly and professional organizations, and there has been a continual broadening of the Endowment's national preservation goals to encompass the full range of the nation's cultural and research institutions in the national preservation program.

The guidelines published in 1986 for the Office of Preservation articulated the first NEH preservation mission statement: "The ability to study our cultural and intellectual heritage depends upon the availability of primary and secondary sources documenting that heritage. Vast numbers of these source documents are in imminent danger of destruction due to the disintegration of the paper on which they were printed or written or, in the case of nonprint resources, the deterioration of the medium. To ensure that the information contained in the most significant of these documents will be preserved and made available for the continuing work of scholarship in the humanities, the Endowment has established an Office of Preservation." [5]

In fact, the Endowment had provided support for brittle-books microfilming projects for several years before the formation of a special preservation office. In 1983, an NEH grant to the Research Libraries Group initiated a cooperative preservation microfilming project that became a model for the nationally coordinated brittle-books preservation microfilming program, launched by the Endowment in 1989, with the receipt of increased congressional appropriations. [6] From 1989 to the present, NEH brittle-books preservation microfilming grants have involved eighty-two institutions in projects that have preserved the intellectual content of approximately 1 million embrittled volumes, which include a large range of subjects pertaining to United States history and culture.

The United States Newspaper Program (USNP) is a second example of a systematic national effort to preserve humanities source materials. The idea for the program originated in a report on scholarly needs presented to the Endowment in 1972 by the American Council on Learned Societies. During the 1970s, NEH grants to the Organization of American Historians led to the formation of a national plan to preserve and provide bibliographic access to newspaper collections throughout the country. Launched by the Endowment in 1982, the USNP effort has now involved all the states, the District of Columbia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands in projects that have created nearly 150,000 bibliographic records for unique newspaper titles and microfilmed more than sixty million pages of deteriorating newsprint.

A third collections-focused component of the national program has involved support for the preservation of individual archival and special collections. In this area, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Department of Education (through the former Title II-C program), the Institute of Museum and Library Services, and the National Historical Publications and Records Commission have provided discretionary federal grants for projects that have preserved hundreds of collections of textual and nontextual materials. Moreover, since 1990, NEH grants to stabilize the storage environments for material culture collections have protected twenty-nine million objects in the nation's museums and historical organizations. The inclusion of museums within its national purview further broadened the reach of the Endowment's support for preservation.

Building the infrastructure to enhance preservation practice has long been articulated as a national need. National preservation plans promoted during the 1970s stressed the need to train preservation personnel. In 1979, Paul Banks proposed the creation of a graduate program for conservators and preservation administrators. With assistance from an NEH grant, the program was initiated in 1981 at Columbia University. Its graduates have joined (or created) preservation departments at many of the nation's research libraries, and they fill other important preservation posts. With sustained NEH support since 1981, the program, now hosted by the University of Texas at Austin, continues to produce well-trained preservation professionals—a fitting memorial to its originator, who died in 2000. Through the Campbell Center for Historic Preservation Studies, George Washington University, New York University, the State University of New York at Buffalo, and the University of Delaware, NEH grants have also supported training programs for museum conservators and collections care staff.

Serving the preservation needs of research libraries has been but one aspect of the Endowment's support for preservation. In fact, that support has extended quite broadly across the country. Since 1980, when an NEH grant to the Northeast Document Conservation Center established the nation's first preservation field service program, there has been a steady increase in the geographic reach of preservation service programs. A grant in 1980 also provided support for workshops conducted by the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts in Philadelphia. In 1984, with NEH support, the Southeastern Library Network initiated a preservation service program for its eleven-state region. In 1990, the AMIGOS Bibliographic Service established a similar program for an additional five states. In 1997, the Upper Midwest Conservation Association, based in Minneapolis, established a preservation field service program, which provides surveys, workshops, disaster assistance, and information services to museums, historical organizations, libraries, and archives in the region. A sixth, Endowment-supported preservation field service program was begun in 2000 It the Balboa Art Conservation Center in San Diego, and discussions have begun regarding the formation of a program for the Pacific Northwest. These projects have reached thousands of individuals, as the following statistics from the AMIGOS program demonstrate: in the ten years from its inception in 1990 to 2000, AMIGOS staff answered 9,420 telephone reference calls and, from 1996 to 2000, responded to 3,588 e-mail messages; 5,126 persons attended state, regional, and national information presentation, and, from 1993 to 2000, 3,636 persons participated in preservation and imaging workshops. In addition, fifty-three institutions benefitted from on-site surveys and preservation management consultations.

That NEH support for preservation would encompass a wide range of institutions and activities was reconfirmed in fiscal 1989, when Congress provided the Endowment with a large increase in appropriations for the Office of Preservation. Congressional interest in the national preservation program had been sparked by testimony about the brittle-books crisis presented in March 1988 by the Commission on Preservation and Access. In response, Representative Sidney Yates, chair of the Endowment's appropriations committee, asked the Endowment's chairman how much money NEH would need to solve the brittle-books problem. The chairman replied: "Your primary interest seems to be in preserving brittle books. I want to emphasize, however, that brittle books are only a part of the preservation problem. As you know, the Endowment makes awards for many other types of preservation projects . . . Any additional funds that are made available in fiscal 1989 should be used to advance the entire range of preservation activities, not just the microfilming of brittle books." [7] This statement successfully articulated the need for a broadly conceived, national preservation program, and Congress concurred.

Regional preservation service programs supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities carry out an aspect of the national preservation program that extends the reach of preservation knowledge and training to individuals in a wide variety of institutions that hold materials important for understanding local and regional history and culture. To make an even deeper impact on the ability of local institutions to care for their collections, in 2000 the Endowment initiated a new category of support for Preservation Assistance Grants (PAG), which provide up to $5,000 for training, on-site consultations, and the purchase of basic preservation supplies and equipment. In July 2000, the Endowment made 132 PAG awards to institutions in forty-one states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico.

Reflecting the Endowment's service to the many audiences that benefit from the use of cultural and historical collections, NEH guidelines in use today refer to preserving resources that assist "research, education, and public programming in the humanities and that are of critical importance to our cultural heritage." During the 1990s, educators encouraged the use of primary source documents in K-12 curricula. Television documentaries, such as Ken Burns's Civil War series, have made highly visible use of manuscripts and historical photographs. Museums have a long history of interpreting primary sources for the public. Preserving humanities resources is integrally connected with enhancing teaching and learning, inside and outside the classroom.

Since 1979, our collective capacity to preserve resources has been greatly enhanced by research and demonstration projects, such as those conducted by the Image Permanence Institute (IPI) at the Rochester Institute of Technology. With NEH support since 1980, IPI projects have resulted in national standards for photographic enclosures, new techniques for enhancing the longevity of microfilm, and scientifically sound approaches to establishing proper temperature and humidity conditions for the storage of museum and library collections. Recent work by the institute on environmental conditions has incorporated the isobar concept developed in the research laboratory of the Library of Congress by Don Sebera. The Library has also, through its pursuit of mass deacidification, stimulated the private sector's development of an effective process to deacidify books and manuscripts. After twenty years of promise, the nation's research institutions finally have a dependable way to arrest the acid deterioration of paper-based materials. It is unfortunate, however, that whereas research library organizations, such as ARL and the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), have persuaded the university press community to use acid-free paper in their publications, it would seem that the commercial press has not readily adopted permanent, durable paper for its out put.

The preservation community is also supported by a vast and continually growing corpus of published information. In a review of preservation publications produced between 1993 and 1998, Sophia Jordan remarked that preservation has "come of age," as witnessed by the spread of preservation departments and the diversity and depth of topics covered by preservation literature, Jordan also points out that in that period, "the greatest change in the publication and dissemination of preservation literature has been the advent of the World Wide Web." [8] Numerous preservation departments and regional preservation service organizations maintain information-rich, preservation Web sites. The Council on Library and Information Resources has also been instrumental in supporting and disseminating through the Internet studies and information regarding national preservation and access issues. Moreover, the general public has been alerted about national issues in these areas through two films—Slow Fires and Into the Future,—that have been broadcast on public television and widely circulated among research institutions.

Preservation is, however, but one aspect of a set of interrelated activities designed, ultimately, to increase the availability of resources for current and future use. When the Endowment made its first grants for preservation projects, it was through a program in its Research Division that also provided support to create access to collections. The creation of a separate Office of Preservation in 1985 was, at that time, a highly beneficial action that helped focus national attention on the preservation crisis. With the creation of the Division of Preservation and Access in 1992, the Endowment reintegrated these two closely related activities. In today's dynamically charged information society, the use of digital technology to enhance access to collections has become a paramount goal of research and cultural institutions, and a new set of challenges confronts the preservation community.

With skills and experience in the reformatting of fragile materials, preservation professionals are now called upon to direct digital production projects. But digitization is not yet a reliable preservation process. Advances in our capacity to ensure continuing access to digital collections will depend upon a collaboration among multiple federal agencies, the national research library organizations, and diverse knowledge domains to sustain a robust program of research and demonstration projects that will develop the standards and best practices required to certify the preservation worthiness of the new technology. Toward this end, the NEH has joined other federal agencies in support of the Digital Library Initiative—Phase II, conducted by the National Science Foundation. The Endowment's participation in the initiative ensures that projects designed to resolve the critical and distinctive issues posed by the digitization of humanities collections are included in this important national effort.

It is interesting to note that in characterizing the notion of "digital preservation," we speak or write about ensuring "continuing access to digital collections." In using this locution, we acknowledge that, with reference to digital technology, preservation and access are fused, because preservation becomes the ability over the long term to retrieve and reproduce digital information. This is why the creation of metadata standards for digital objects is such an integral part of developing a digital preservation program.

Digital technology is particularly well suited for the capture and dissemination of nontextual sources, such as photographs and audiovisual materials. As Janet Gertz has observed, "Instead of 'just' trying to solve the brittle paper problem, we now have the potential to convert other media we have avoided for many years, and to do it with a technology that users actively like." [9] But what are the best formats for audio or video longevity? Advances in these areas, particularly with respect to digital reformatting of audio and visual materials, are being developed by the Library of Congress for the operations of its new Culpeper facility.

To address the pressing need to preserve and provide access to audio recordings in the field of folklore and ethnomusicology, the American Folklife Society, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, convened a symposium on "Folklife Collections in Crisis" in cooperation with the American Folklife Center. The symposium took place at the Library of Congress in December 2000. We should not forget however, that there is more to learn about how best to preserve the books and serials that will continue to constitute the vast majority of holdings in research libraries. For example, when Nicholson Baker claimed that bound newspapers do not deteriorate, where was the research report to settle his claim? Abby Smith has cited a number of pressing research needs in these areas, including a study of the microclimate within a bound volume. [10]

Although drastic reductions in the Endowment's congressional appropriations since 1996 have slowed the progress of NEH-supported preservation programs, the future will see continued NEH support for core national preservation programs, and the Endowment will continue to serve as one of the primary sources of support for projects that implement the national preservation and access agenda.

<<< Previous <<< Contents>>> Next >>>

  The Library of Congress >> To Preserve and Protect
   September 15, 2008
Contact Us