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Preservation Strategies in Context

8. Taking CareAn Informed Approach to Library Preservation
Jan Merrill-Oldham

The burgeoning of information resources in electronic form, created and distributed worldwide, has had a profound methodological, organizational, and financial impact on the research enterprise. Today, the users of any large academic library expect organized access to vast numbers of electronic journals, books, works of art, and databases, as well as the equipment required for viewing, printing, downloading, and manipulating them. The cost of licensing and purchasing electronic publications of enduring value, and of the hardware, software, and technical expertise required to deliver them, is steep. And even as communications technologies are transformed by leaps and bounds, the flow of paper, film, magnetic tape, and discs into traditional library collections continues unceasingly

The dawn of a new and volatile information environment—an environment that will surely change in ways that cannot yet be predicted—raises questions about the ability of institutions to embrace and manage an ever-broadening range of services and stewardship responsibilities As a growing body of information is distributed over networks, concerns are inevitably raised regarding the bibliographic, reference, and instructional attention being deflected from collections of books, papers, and other materials amassed over the course of centuries. It is not clear how we will fund the costly systems that will be required to provide sustained access to electronic resources and simultaneously find the means to do the same for traditional collections. There is nothing new about complexity and competition for dollars in libraries, but the stakes are being raised.

In order to be effective advocates for the care and long-term preservation of library collections, we must cultivate a stronger and more focused message regarding the role of preservation programs in a modern information environment. We are well equipped to do so. Over the course of the past thirty years, we have learned and confirmed much about the physical nature and aging characteristics of library materials, what strategies are most effective for extending their useful lives, and how to apply these in cost-effective ways. Following is a review of the preservation tools with which we must continue to work effectively: environmental control, emergency preparedness and response, collections care and handling, conservation, commercial binding, and reformatting. What strategies have been successful and are well worth championing in a new information age that also carries with it most of the technologies of the past?

We have been hearing for decades that controlling environmental conditions is the single most important action that a library can take to ensure a long life for collections of all types The aging of books, papers, photographs, film, magnetic tape, and discs is inextricably linked to the conditions under which they are stored. In general, an environment that promotes the longevity of organic materials is characterized by cold, dry air that is free from gaseous and particulate pollutants. Light is filtered to screen out ultraviolet radiation and is controlled for intensity and duration. Furnishings and surface finishes are composed of materials that are free from harmful gas emissions.

In recent years, many of the world's oldest and largest libraries have upgraded environmental systems in existing buildings and have constructed new libraries and storage facilities designed to promote the preservation of their collections. The development and maintenance of hospitable environmental conditions is a truly strategic act, affecting materials collectively rather than selectively. Also strategic are such building routines as rigorous testing, maintenance, and replacement of pumps, motors, and fans; changing of air filters; integrated pest management; regular cleaning of floors and other surfaces; and skilled vacuuming of collections.

Alongside requests for expanded technical capabilities and increased collections purchasing power, funds for environmental management must appear predictably and persistently in every annual budget proposal. We cannot allow the need for ongoing maintenance and physical improvements to slip off the radar screen as pressure to offer distance learning and other important new services mounts. Paper- and plastics-based collections will not disappear as electronic sources become more prominent, nor will our responsibility to provide safe housing for them.

If a high-quality off-site storage facility is part of the library's strategy for managing ever-expanding holdings, take full advantage of the options that cool, orderly, secure storage presents for establishing truly rational preservation priorities. Never before have we had so good an opportunity to invest typically lean preservation resources in those holdings that are at greatest risk of being lost if they are not conserved or copied promptly. Storage at fifty degrees Fahrenheit and 35 percent relative humidity slows down the aging process enough to truly legitimize long-range preservation planning. The power of integrated library systems can also be brought to bear on the highly systematic development and implementation of preservation priorities. If the incidence of damage and embrittlement can be recorded, for example, either as materials are transferred to storage or are circulated from it, it will be possible to address preservation problems in a meaningful sequence, however slowly.

Like environmental control, emergency preparedness and response support and legitimize all other preservation activity. Although many institutions have put disaster preparedness plans into place, few go far enough in their efforts to prepare for incidents that could result in major loss. We must be more organized in our efforts to train an adequate number of staff to respond to collections emergencies large and small in a deliberate and informed way. Responsibilities should be built into job descriptions rather than left to personal preference and chance. Staff with diverse skills and experience must be involved in emergency readiness to ensure that a range of talents can be mobilized when they are needed. Too much homogeneity strips the library of its ability to manage an emergency skillfully when a conference calls away too many members of the disaster team.

Well-stocked emergency supply closets that include such tools as water vacuums, dehumidifiers, fans, and extension cords are a high priority. Experience has shown that access to the tools needed in a library emergency must be restricted. Flashlights, plastic sheeting, and other supplies are mysteriously attractive and can dwindle if they are not kept under lock and key, hampering the first hours of a cleanup effort. Emergency power-generating capacity should be reviewed throughout the library system and improved where necessary, even if it takes time and a concerted effort to analyze systemwide needs, set priorities, and move adequate funding into place.

Be certain that the emergency support systems needed at 2:00 A.M, on a Saturday morning can really be mobilized and that every important vendor is called periodically to ensure that companies are still in business and telephone numbers are still working. Be sure that there are multiple options available for securing freezer space for wet library materials, and plan to use a disaster recovery vendor for freezing rather than a firm whose main job it is to store and distribute the public food supply.

Finally, staff must have time to read the library emergency preparedness and response literature, to assign roles and responsibilities, to create documentation specific to the local situation, and to organize and participate in emergency training programs and exercises. While no degree of preparation suffices in certain situations, many collections emergencies involving water can result in minimal loss if they are managed by a trained response team.

Cultivating an environment for library collections care and handling that promotes longevity requires observation, analysis, planning, and a commitment of resources. Guidelines for storing and using library collections have appeared repeatedly in the literature, and although such prescriptions may be shopworn, they remain important blueprints for action. The job of communicating good care and handling practices to library staff and users is difficult to manage convincingly. Signs, exhibits, news articles, and Web sites can trivialize the issues or be effective consciousness-raising tools, depending on how ideas are expressed. Seek tough criticism when creating educational products for staff and users. Remember that messages gradually become invisible in a familiar landscape and must be refreshed. Goals for an education program are various because of the many material types that a research library collects and preserves, but the overarching one is to get as many users as possible to buy into the principle of the public good. Library resources must be cared for and protected by the entire user community on behalf of the community.

The way that collections are treated in public areas suggests their ultimate fate. We can choose to let books and journals pile up on floors around copy machines, or we can provide book trucks for materials awaiting return to the stacks. We can opt for the convenience of book drops, or take the extra care required for human intervention. The politics of closing book drops is dicey, but the argument against them can be made in compelling ways. Over-the-counter returns coupled with good staff training can have significant long-term benefits.

We must communicate regularly with vendors and manufacturers to ensure that fast-disappearing right-angle book copiers are carried forward into the digital age, and we must continue to encourage people to copy pages one at a time, at least when to do otherwise would be to ruin a volume. Microfilm readers, videocassette recorders, and other readers and playback equipment should be kept as clean as possible to avoid the transfer of dirt from machine to medium. Budgets may not support an optimal level of care, but it is important to allocate reasonable resources to machine maintenance to help minimize the damage that media can sustain during reading and playback. We must reconsider once again the ways in which the stacks are managed, and whether they might be kept cleaner. Cyclical vacuuming is an effective way to reduce abrasive dirt and grit and the damaging moisture that can be trapped around books and papers by blankets of dust. While a full collections vacuuming cycle may not be completed for years, it ensures that there is continual improvement in the condition of the stacks and that there is a mechanism in place for dealing with trouble spots.

Regarding processing, it is important to foster an environment in which all materials are handled consistently, according to an established protocol, from the time they enter the acquisitions workflow. Materials check-in, temporary storage, cataloging, and end-processing are among the junctures at which handling decisions can affect permanently the condition of a library collection. Procedures that promote longevity are often as straightforward as ensuring that books do not lean on shelves and that compact discs are rehoused in jewel cases. Regarding processing supplies, care must be exercised in making selections. Acidic pamphlet binders, for example, can still be purchased through standard library supply catalogs and obviously should be avoided.

End-processing is a point at which the library's security program can get a big boost. Although bookplates are an elegant vehicle for acknowledging ownership, edge stamping is a more aggressive way to mark an object as library property and therein to make it a less desirable object of theft. Edge stamps are easily seen signs of ownership and are hard to eradicate. They lower the value of an object, often significantly, thus providing some protection against resale.

Regarding the decades-long debate over whether to mark items in special collections, the guidelines that have been developed by the Rare Book and Manuscript Section of the American Library Association's Association of College and Research Libraries provide a structure within which a variety of approaches can be considered. In general, libraries must navigate conflicting needs and goals, caught between the desire to preserve value and aesthetic characteristics and the need to prevent accidental and intentional loss. For general collections, electronic library security systems, while not foolproof, are effective deterrents to theft, particularly when security devices are inserted in all circulating materials.

Despite our best efforts, damage to library materials is unavoidable and likely to be widespread, and thus conservation must be a priority. A great deal of attention was devoted during the 1980s and 1990s to the development of methods and work flows for carrying out high-quality book repair for circulating collections. Likewise, the conservation of materials in special collections has evolved considerably in recent decades, with conservation treatments tending to be less invasive and more likely to retain evidence of original intention whenever possible. Methods and mending materials are chosen for their chemical, mechanical, and structural advantages; and in the case of general collections, work is done in batches to increase productivity. Custom-fitted boxes are constructed to protect library materials from light, dust, and handling and to substitute for treatment when the workload is overwhelming.

Significant space is required to manage an effective collections conservation program for research library materials. The larger the collection, the more tending—and therefore the more square footage—its care will require. Ideally, every item that circulates and is returned to the library in damaged condition will be repaired before it is sent back to the shelf. Programs must be balanced so that the more important bindings are saved through conservation and other materials are commercially rebound. There is an inevitable gap, however, between the amount of repair and rebinding required for a circulating collection and the work to which a library can afford to commit. Setting priorities is no easy task, even if a library chooses to concentrate almost exclusively on the treatment of materials that are heavily used.

Certain classes of damaged materials must be earmarked for rapid turnaround, and in such cases, the repair team must deliver services that demand skill and speed. When a damaged reference book leaves the shelf one day and is repaired and put back in use the next, the conservation program can be judged a success. For all but the most pressing needs, however, repair problems in most institutions often go unaddressed, and the condition of collections tends to worsen significantly as the collections age.We have not yet made the case successfully to funders that library holdings require significant upkeep. As a result, resources for collections maintenance are lean. If salaries for skilled conservation staff and a suitable work space are beyond reach, commercial binding is an option. Although instructions for carrying out basic treatment procedures are documented in several important publications, it nonetheless makes little sense to proceed with an in-house treatment program if the program cannot be staffed adequately. It is easy for the preservation unit to become a black hole into which damaged materials pour and from which little emerges.

This is not to paint a gloomy picture of the state and practice of conservation in libraries. Today we understand the nature and behavior of the kinds of materials that we collect even better than we did only a decade ago, and research in conservation science is ongoing. More staff members in research libraries are dedicated to collections treatment than ever before, and more practitioners recognize the need to expand and strengthen these efforts. More conservation positions are migrating to the permanent ranks, and more are recognized as part the professional workforce.

For general collections, goals are generally similar across institutions. In special collections, however, to treat the letters and poems of Emily Dickinson, the page proofs of James Joyce's Ulysses, or the globes of Gerardus Mercator requires consummate skill. We know that objects ultimately deteriorate, but uninformed conservation treatment can do far more damage to library materials than time and wear. We must ensure that the conservators of rare books, manuscripts, photographs, and other unique and important objects have at their command years of training, ample technology, established channels of communication with knowledgeable curators, the time to research unknown objects, and generous opportunities for continuing education.

In the absence of access to trained conservators, in-house treatment of special collections begins and ends with proper housing. If resources allow, conservation treatments are contracted out. Neither a sizable professional staff, however, nor a generous budget for contract work eases the difficulty of setting conservation priorities. The gap between need and capacity is simply overwhelming.

One viable approach to setting conservation priorities for special collections is to focus on minor treatment, with the goal of maximizing the number of items restored to good condition. Another is to treat damaged materials that scholars are slated to use in the coming year. Planned classroom use can be an important criterion upon which to base treatment priorities, as can exhibition requirements. Although the conservation of materials for the purpose of display is sometimes viewed as a deterrent to accomplishing more systematic goals, scholarly exhibits naturally highlight significant works and can be as good a strategy as any for establishing goals. Yet another approach is to focus on major treatment of a few great treasures each year—objects of indisputable and enduring importance.

Institutions can sometimes pursue multiple treatment strategies, but every choice requires careful consideration, and every treatment will be undertaken at the expense of another. Special collections conservation is a compelling enterprise, however, and its potential for attracting new funds should not be overlooked.

Few institutions can keep up with the need to repair books in circulating collections in particular, and the importance of commercial binding services for modern general collections is widely recognized. Managing a binding program is not as straightforward as it may appear to those who have never been involved in the decision making and preparation process. The way a volume is bound dictates to a great extent whether it will open well, will be able to withstand repeated photocopying, and will retain most of its original features after binding. Bindery preparation staff must also be able to assess book structure, the condition of paper, and the way that these features influence the development of a binding specification. Staff members should have the opportunity not only to develop basic skills but also to master the more sophisticated aspects of binding that result in a better outcome.

Often discussed are methods for dealing with paperback volumes when the budget is not adequate to fund comprehensive binding. It may be better to commercially bind paperbacks selectively based on patterns of use than to employ in-house binding techniques that work in the short term but cause damage and failure in the long term. If budgets will not stretch to accommodate needs, journals must take first priority and monographs that have truly become unusable, second. The efficacy of early intervention, and the difficulty and cost of delayed binding, argue for a prompt response to binding needs.

Among the most daunting of challenges for research libraries is the mandate to retain a large part of their collections "permanently," a challenge that can be met through reformatting. Although the job of managing materials while they are being processed is a logistical puzzle, it pales beside the difficulty of monitoring and managing ongoing preservation needs once materials are absorbed into the collections. Looking across rows of deteriorating nineteenth-century books, or boxes of important nineteenth-century papers that have become brittle, it is hard to imagine how we will grapple with physical problems that are too massive to solve exhaustively. Certain modern materials decay so rapidly that we have not yet formulated a response to their physical problems, let alone resolved them.

By way of example, many of the papers that record the work of great thinkers can no longer be manipulated without damaging them each time they are handled. Some collections are huge, and most are made up of items that have considerably more value in the aggregate than as discrete objects. Preservation surrogates allow us to depend less on failing paper. They ensure that intellectual access persists and, in the case of microfilm, serve as a platform for making new microform, paper, or electronic copies on demand. Microfilm can be exploited as a source for new versions, and at the same time it promises hundreds of years of reliable access to the master copy There have never been large budgets for copying deteriorated materials, and with every passing year preservation resources must stretch further. Nonetheless, libraries continue to identify and copy aging collections of significance, and a segment of our holdings could potentially survive for a very long time.

Fundamental to the microfilming process are both strict adherence to national standards and unrelenting quality control. These goals apply whether film has been created in-house or by a commercial service. Image capture must be of consistently high quality if it is to serve as a permanent record of the original work or as a platform for making digital copies. Unless paper is so brittle that it fractures with gentle handling, we can retain original copies of reformatted materials for consultation until they are no longer able to serve a useful purpose.

When making film, the printing negative is all-important. In addition to protecting the master negative from damage, it is the source from which the use copy is produced. That copy can be created on film, paper, or as an electronic resource. Regarding bibliographic control, there is no point in expending resources to reproduce a text if readers cannot discover it easily There are untold numbers of aging pamphlets in the stacks of some of our oldest libraries, for example, that will become known to scholars for the first time as we clean up or create cataloging records during reformatting projects. Our international system for preserving and distributing fragile and rarely held titles depends upon identifying and describing materials accurately and noting missing issues and other anomalies.

Modern materials such as videotapes, many types of sound recordings, nitrate negatives, and CD-ROMs (compact discs with read-only memory) have begun to present us with an overwhelming array of physical and management challenges. Sound and video recordings, for example, have an unpredictable shelf life, are costly to copy and, unlike a microfilmed book, will need to be copied repeatedly over the years if they are to survive. Currently the average cost to remaster one hour of video play time is approximately two hundred dollars plus materials.

Copyright permissions present vexing issues in preservation, for we must be able to migrate short-lived forms of information long before they are in the public domain. To preserve some materials will require that we secure preservation privileges that we currently do not have. Furthermore, preservation reformatting promises to be expensive, and we are unlikely to be able to do very much of it. It is hard to imagine that we will find the means to support conversion and maintenance of any significant percentage of our nonprint resources if current costs and the legal environment remain unchanged. And it will be many decades before we begin to realize the impact of the resulting losses on our intellectual life.

The electronic environment promises to provide new and sometimes better ways to preserve information, provided that we are able to devise strategies that guarantee the persistence of electronic files into the indefinite future. Digital copying, if executed expertly eliminates the gradual degradation of text, images, and sound that characterizes analog reproductions. New frontiers are opening before us that only a short time ago seemed remote and improbable. Consider, by way of example, the revisiting of history through early photographs. The daguerreotypes held in fourteen repositories at Harvard are a useful case in point. These images are among the earliest ever captured by photographic means and are of great value to scholars and researchers in many fields. Until recently they could be accessed only by the Harvard community and visitors to the collections in Harvard's libraries and museums. Because of their delicacy fragility, and uniqueness, the daguerreotypes could be consulted only a few at a time and could not be borrowed for research purposes, however compelling. Repeated handling threatened glass and seals and generally increased the exposure of the unique, silver-coated copper plates to risk.

Comprehensive photographing and subsequent digitizing of every known daguerreotype in Harvard's libraries and museums have addressed the problem of access and created unprecedented opportunities for study and research. Copying and online display are creating new audiences for Harvard's early photographs, making images widely available for examination, comparison, and use in new ways.

Electronic reproductions are no substitute for the real thing when it comes to experiencing history firsthand, but they fulfill most purposes admirably and open up brand new avenues for exploration. The conversion of traditional library resources to more convenient, and sometimes more functional, electronic files is an attractive option for everything from movies and news broadcasts to newspapers and science treatises. It is practical, however, only in cases where materials merit the cost of creating, maintaining, and migrating digital files to ever newer forms, and where adequate funds are available to do so.

The delivery of searchable texts over networks is rapidly becoming a mainstream approach to publishing, much to the satisfaction of those readers who are fortunate enough to have access to fast networks and unlimited printing. The convenience and power of electronic texts and images prompt us to wonder what place paper, film, discs, and other physical instances of information resources will have in tomorrow's publishing world, what will replace them, and to what extent we will backtrack to capture existing resources in new forms. In the preservation arena, to make, store, and deliver microfilm costs a small fraction of what it costs to scan and process an electronic text. It seems likely that we will proceed on multiple tracks, taking advantage of existing copying techniques for some classes of material and pursuing more expensive, more flexible forms of access for others. The beauty of film is that it addresses preservation problems relatively inexpensively and can serve as source material for creating digital access should that prove desirable at any time.

Over the coming decades, digital table of contents projects will rescue unindexed serial runs from neglect. Existing finding aids will be converted from paper to machine-readable form, and new and important indexes and finding aids will be created. Large numbers of visual resources will be made available electronically and used as never before. Historic scores, essays, and logbooks will blend with modern demographic and economic data to create altogether new relationships. And as texts and indexes are recycled for new uses, some will at the same time also be preserved.

We have difficult choices before us regarding what information to gather and what to save for the long term, as has been the case since we first began to collect, organize, and store information, and these choices will be greatly complicated by the fact that modern documents need never be finished—no version need be finalized. Despite logistical, financial, and legal issues, however, we will build digital collections that are critical for teaching and research, and we will use them in harmony with information resources in many other forms. We will preserve materials at great risk of being lost forever and imbue them with new power. We will rescue films and databases, ephemera, and great works.

In contemplating these possibilities, libraries, library users, and society at large must come to grips with major financial needs and how they might better be met. We must do more to raise awareness regarding the fragile nature of library resources, ancient and modern, and to stimulate public interest in their survival. We must build on our successes to make a stronger case to federal and state governments, to major funding sources, and to the community at large for ongoing support. The forging of connections between the past and the present, and between our accomplishments and our aspirations, is, after all, a large part of what it means to be human.

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