The Library of Congress >> To Preserve and Protect

Publications (The Library of Congress)

Winston Tabb

At the Library of Congress, we celebrated our bicentennial throughout the year 2000 with parties, gifts, and projects that will enrich our national research collections. But no part of the bicentennial celebration was more important than our trio of symposia focusing on various aspects of our past and future contributions in working with the library community to advance the core challenges of librarianship.

In October 2000, we were fortunate to have with us national librarians from thirty-one national libraries, along with an international array of library historians, who joined in our symposium "National Libraries of the World: Interpreting the Past, Shaping the Future." That symposium was immediately followed by "To Preserve and Protect: The Strategic Stewardship of Cultural Resource," which in turn was followed by a final bicentennial symposium devoted to the role of bibliographic control for the new millennium. It is not an accident that we chose to make this cluster of three symposia the culmination of our birthday party. For once the parties and gift-giving and celebrating were over, we knew that we must turn our full attention to maintaining this national library's vibrance and leadership in the twenty-first century. This is our true calling. And there seemed no better way to do that than by inviting our professional colleagues from various realms of librarianship to join us at the close of our birthday year to chart our collective course for the beginning of the new century.

In developing the symposium "To Preserve and Protect," we sought to engage directors, administrators, and key individuals responsible for safeguarding cultural collections in libraries, museums, and archives in a dialogue on critical issues of preserving and securing collections. Our goal was to explore concerns that lend themselves to solutions in multiple, complementary settings. Our time together provided us with a wonderful opportunity to share expertise, to discuss common issues, and to network. But most important, our chief purpose was to precipitate action, to build from our shared concerns a commitment to developing concerted programs for preserving and securing our collections.

"To Preserve and Protect" drew more than two hundred participants and included library, archive, and museum directors, preservation officers, security professionals, curators, archivists, conservators, and other decision makers from a wide variety of cultural institutions, including not just libraries, museums, and archives but also historical societies and other repositories of cultural materials. Participants came from large and small cultural institutions that are parts of universities, governments, or the private sector. Some came from professional organizations, including funding agencies. Some work independently, providing expertise and services to institutions on a project basis. Participants came from across the United States and around the globe, including Brazil, Canada, Jamaica, Malaysia, Portugal, Russia, and South Africa.

The idea and the development of the theme for this symposium came out of the Library of Congress's own recent experience. One of James H. Billington's first bold acts as Librarian of Congress was to request a thorough audit of the Library of Congress by the General Accounting Office. This audit has had many favorable outcomes for the Library, but one of the troubling recommendations from the auditors was that we should put a precise monetary value on our collections. We successfully argued that this task was both impossible—given the size of our collections and the increasing volatility of the auction market—and unnecessary, because we do not deaccession or plan to sell off our collections! But being forced to think about the collections as "assets" in this rather coarse dollars-and-cents way turned out to be useful preparation for a requirement placed on us by subsequent auditors, that we prepare an annual "stewardship report." For several years now, the Library has made a formal certification to our auditors annually about our success in safeguarding our "heritage assets," preparing just such a "stewardship report."

Determining what this lofty phrase—safeguarding our heritage assets—meant in practice turned out to be a fascinating intellectual exercise, as it led us to see, and conceptualize, some of the things that librarians do in a very different way. We determined that safeguarding our heritage assets comprised four key tasks: physical security (protecting the physical object from theft, mutilation, damage by water, fire, and so on); preservation (protecting the artifact from deterioration through conservation or reformatting); bibliographic control (knowing what collections the Library has); and inventory control (knowing where these collections are). Without any one of these legs of our four-legged stool, we could not assert that we had reasonable control over our collections.

Year by year, as thinking about protecting our assets in this holistic context has evolved, buy-in and cooperation across the institution have grown substantially. We have seen broadening ties among security, preservation, acquisitions, facilities, cataloging, and curatorial staffs as each group has needed to articulate for the others its issues, risks, concerns, and goals for safeguarding the collections. This dialogue has led us to see preservation and security as so intertwined that it would have been impossible to think of addressing one topic in this symposium without the other.

Over the last few years at the Library of Congress, we have had to face some serious issues concerning the security of the Library's collections. We experienced thefts and mutilation of the collections, subsequent inquiries from Congress, and related bad publicity. These problems were not unique to the Library of Congress, of course; but in this arena, there is little comfort in knowing you are not alone. In addressing our security problems, we had to look hard at what we were doing. We sought ways to make speedy and effective changes. We needed to invent methods for documenting success—the huge challenge of proving a negative. It was critical to convince funders that they should appropriate funds to make sure nothing happened—when what funders normally want to see is something happening—and to plot a coherent course for the future. We are confident that we are on the right track, but by no means at the end of it. In fact, we believe that there really is no end—"eternal vigilance" being not just the price of liberty, but the unending mandate for guardians of our cultural heritage.

At the Library of Congress, securing the collections has been and continues to be a process in which we learn with each step. We relied heavily on external consultants at first, while moving as rapidly as possible to create a professionally staffed Office of Security. We have worked hard to educate staff about the importance of securing our irreplaceable collections, even when it sometimes makes our work life inconvenient. We have tried to make every Library employee understand that he or she has a role to play and that this effort requires much more than just a competent police force.

I know I am not alone in regretting that security has come to play such a major role in our daily lives. We all regret that the resources that must be devoted to security continue to grow. When young librarians at the Library of Congress ask me which changes I most love and which I most regret during my twenty-eight years here, I have no hesitation in pointing—as a cause of deep regret—to the elaborate and off-putting entrance and exit security measures our visitors now face. But I also support these measures, as documented incidents of danger to staff, collections, and facilities leave no room for sentimental yearning for the "good old days."

From the early 1990s, when collections security moved front and center as a major institutional priority for us, it has been our intention to share what we have learned, and to learn from others, by focusing a brighter light in this dark corner of library and archives management. This is why protecting collections played a major role in this symposium.

Still, protecting and preserving the collections are not separate activities but an integrated process. One or even a number of actions do not solve all the collections security issues. If we are really going to be effective, we must have key preventive elements in place. We constantly need to identify and reassess priorities, particularly in these times of shrinking or level funding. Unfortunately, it is generally easier to secure funding to cope with a disaster—whether it is to conserve a rare manuscript that is in tatters or to purchase locks and cameras for the storage room that has suffered a theft—than it is to obtain funding to maintain an ongoing program that prevents damage or loss. Although preventive programs are not generally considered to be dramatic, they are the most cost-effective, efficient, and smart. By putting into place controls and programs that prevent loss, we are doing our best to fulfill our responsibility of maintaining the collections for future generations. Prevention is thus another key theme of the symposium.

For the most part, theft and collections deterioration are both silent dangers. How can we draw attention to these problems? It is usually the spectacular theft or defacement, or the devastation that comes with flooding or fire, that captures the public's attention. It is obviously important to be as prepared as possible to react to emergencies effectively when they do happen. Most security problems, however, such as the theft of a rare book from its storage location, remain undetected for a long time. In the case of chemical and physical deterioration, such as embrittlement or damage resulting from poor handling and storage, the change is very slow indeed; and when discovered, such loss is often costly or even impossible to mitigate. Which brings us back to the importance of having ongoing programs in place to safeguard our collections through prevention and to minimize our reliance on bad news and dramatic incidents to capture the attention of our funders.

It is important that cultural institutions share understandings up front so that their funders and benefactors share expectations with them with regard to preserving and securing the cultural assets that are entrusted to them. How do funders and cultural institutions come together to move forward on a common agenda? What is the impact of publicized failures on the development of preservation and security programs?

Traditionally, when institutions suffered security or preservation problems, the approach was to try to keep the information quiet, for fear of public embarrassment. The tendency was to whisper and hope the problem would go away—or at least never again happen in our own backyards. In recent years, though, the cultural community has significantly matured in its thinking, dealing with these threats in a more forthright and collaborative manner, from which we all benefit. By making losses public, institutions have helped each other become more aware of potential risks we all share. We can take advantage of new technologies to spread such alerts more rapidly and broadly than ever before.

Throughout the planning process for the symposium, we looked for innovative approaches to the challenges facing us—challenges not only in developing programs to address preservation and security concerns, but also in them to our administrations and funders. How can we show that preservation and security programs are effective or necessary? Should we try to measure in a practical way how many items have not been stolen? Can we prove how we have slowed collection deterioration? How do we document success and make it as clear and compelling as the sensational stories of our occasional failures? These questions were the focus of the session "Understanding Success: Measuring Effectiveness of Preservation and Security Programs."

The subsequent session, "Electronic Information and Digitization: Preservation and Security Challenges," addressed the new and highly complex concerns that arise in regard to the preservation and security of electronic and digital collections. How will the integrity of these collections be maintained over time? Our final session, "People, Buildings, and Collections: Innovations in Security and Preservation," looked at the tension between the need to make collections accessible and the mandate to safeguard them for the future. How do we assess risks and achieve the right balance in deciding how much security or preservation is too much or too little? How do we prioritize to meet our goals?

How do we decide which artifacts to conserve and retain in their original form? How do we determine what artifacts future scholars will need in order to undertake their research, and when is saving the content in surrogate form sufficient—when is it the only realistic option? If we agree that we need to be more thoughtful about retention of certain artifacts than we have been in the past, how do we allocate responsibilities for this costly commitment in an orderly and transparent manner?

As a community, we can respond to the issues of safeguarding cultural and intellectual collections. We know from past successes with the Brittle Books Project (begun in the 1960s as a joint effort of the Library of Congress, Association of Research Libraries, and Council on Library Resources) and with the U. S. Newspaper Program (begun in 1982 by the National Endowment for the Humanities and joined two years later by the Library of Congress as a joint program) how much we can accomplish when we agree on a few national priorities and then clearly divide the labor so that each player focuses on what it does best. As we consider the future, we must share ideas on national needs, priorities, options, and the potential for cooperation among us, with a view toward developing a few action plans that could make a difference in the safeguarding of our intellectual heritage. We must both learn from each other and establish means of working with each other to "preserve and protect" our cultural resources in ways that surpass even the most effective cooperative programs of the past. Let us make that happen.

Associate Librarian for Library Services

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   September 15, 2008
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