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Planning and Prioritizing
1.2 Preservation Assessment and Planning

Designing a preservation program should not be viewed as an arcane process requiring technical expertise in paper chemistry or hands-on conservation skills. It is instead much like other management decision-making: a process for allocating available resources to activities and functions important to carrying out an institution's mission. Indeed, in order to demystify preservation decision-making, we should think about preservation as an aspect of collection management.

Like other institutional programs, the goals and priorities of a preservation program should be firmly rooted in the institutional mission statement. They should also be based on a coherent, well defined collection policy. If either the mission statement or the collection policy is too general and vague to serve as the basis for planning, it should be rewritten so that it reflects the actual goals of the repository and shows clearly how the collections support these goals.

Preservation of a repository's holdings can be divided into two categories. The first is preventive preservation, which usually focuses on preventing deterioration of the collections as a whole. The second is remedial preservation measures to correct physical or chemical deterioration. Remedial preservation is labor intensive and often requires highly trained professionals to carry it out. Consequently it is expensive and so is often limited to selected portions of the total collection. Any planning process must be structured to produce a program that will incorporate both categories of activity.

Planning Methodologies

A standard strategic planning methodology can be applied to preservation planning. Also, a number of specialized tools have been developed to help librarians, archivists, and curators assess their preservation needs and decide on priorities for addressing them. The Northeast Document Conservation Center's workbook Preservation Planning: Guidelines for Writing a Long-Range Plan is intended to assist institutions that have completed needs assessments in drafting a long-range planning document. The Association of Research Libraries offers a Preservation Planning Program that, although targeted at large research libraries and intended to be carried out with the assistance of an experienced preservation administrator as a consultant, can provide a useful outline of and information for evaluating the issues that must be considered by any repository. CALIPR is a computer software package that assists all types of California repositories to carry out a simple preservation needs assessment. These tools, as well as others in the field, help the administrator evaluate basic components of preservation planning: the extent to which the collections are at risk from a number of factors; the portions of collections of greatest enduring value; the availability of resources in terms of staff time, technical expertise, and financial resources; and the political feasibility of particular actions. The results of these assessments must be combined to produce a list of priorities.

Calculating Risk

Reliable data on the dimensions of the preservation problem within the repository are needed in order to begin to set institutional preservation priorities. Information should be collected on the extent and kinds of deterioration present, on the environmental conditions in which materials are stored and used, and on systems and policies, such as fire detection and suppression and security measures, that protect the collections from damage or loss.

Types of Surveys

Condition Surveys
Many major research libraries have conducted intensive condition surveys of their holdings during the past 15 years. These have produced reliable data on the proportion of acidic paper, the extent of embrittlement and of incomplete textblocks, deterioration of the text or image, and the percentage of damaged bindings or the lack of protective enclosures. There is a considerable literature available on the topic. Most of these surveys show much the same pattern of deterioration, so that it is probably no longer necessary for any institution to do an intensive quantitative survey unless it has idiosyncratic holdings or has housed them in exceptionally poor environments. It is, however, useful to have at least a small sampling of one's own collections both to verify that they conform to national patterns and to use as illustrative material in making a budget case or preparing a grant proposal.

Environmental Surveys
To obtain data for planning purposes on the environment in which the collections are stored and used, one must measure and record temperature and relative humidity in order to obtain a profile of their fluctuations around the clock and throughout the year. Assistance in setting up a monitoring program can be obtained from regional preservation field service programs, from state libraries with a preservation program, or from a helpful, nearby university library with a preservation administrator. Assistance from a consultant is often needed to interpret accurately the data collected and to identify options for remedial action.

How extensively to monitor the variety of climates that may exist within a repository is a management issue that depends on local conditions and on the extent of the resources available to the repository to conduct such a survey. In a survey of a repository's environmental conditions, attention should be paid to sources of potential damage from exposure to light from windows or light fixtures. Ideally, pollution levels would also be evaluated, but realistically most pollution problems must wait for a comprehensive renovation or replacement of an HVAC system.

Surveys of Protective Systems and Practices
In addition, effective planning for a preservation program requires a repository to review the various systems and policies intended to prevent damage to the collections from storage, use, and handling as well as from disasters, vandalism, and theft. Ascertaining the extent to which protective procedures, systems, and policies are in place allows an assessment of the degree to which collections are exposed to future deterioration and sudden damage or loss.

The building fabric should be surveyed to identify possible problems such as leaks or fire hazards. Fire detection and suppression systems should also be assessed. Security systems, both mechanical and procedural, and disaster planning should be evaluated. It is also essential to examine staff and user training in the care and handling of collections, and to evaluate storage furniture, binding and preservation microfilm contracts, and the storage enclosures and materials used to protect or repair collections. It may be helpful to track a number of items or collections from acquisition through binding or boxing and foldering, cataloging, shelving, circulation, and inter-library loan in order to identify all the points at which existing procedures and practices might endanger an item. Such an exercise will point up the potentially damaging effects of common practices.

Determining Value

Repository staff attempting to develop a strategic plan for a preservation program must also assess the breadth and depth of various portions of the collection in order to determine their intellectual value. In libraries, the Research Libraries Group Conspectus has proved to be a useful tool for this purpose. CALIPR, mentioned earlier, offers four simple questions intended to estimate book collection value within the context of a state's total library resources.

If the repository chooses not to use one of the tools cited above, these following questions will help to establish the enduring research or educational value of a collection or a publication in terms of institutional priorities and the overall documentation available on the topic covered:

  1. What is the importance of the topic documented by this collection or this publication? Is its primary significance local, statewide, regional, national, or international?
  2. How does this collection or this publication relate to other holdings at your repository that document the same topic?
  3. How does it relate to materials on the same topic held by other repositories?
  4. Is the information it contains unique or does it duplicate information contained in records, publications, or other sources held by other repositories?
  5. Is the repository committed to continuing to document this topic?
  6. Why would it be better to spend funds on the preservation of this material than to acquire new material?
  7. What impact would the destruction of this material have on the documentation and understanding of the topic?

In going through this process, it is helpful to recognize that for most repositories, the great majority of their holdings are not of enduring value. These holdings are, however, of current interest and should therefore be protected against deterioration and damage so that they can be used for as long as possible.

The evaluator should also establish whether or not the collection or item has intrinsic value by determining its artifactual, monetary, associational, or symbolic value. Intrinsic value will affect priority for preservation. It will often also determine whether or not it is acceptable to reformat materials or to choose among the appropriate conservation treatments.

Available Resources

The information gathered on the condition of the collections, environmental conditions, other factors related to their housing, and estimates of their value all eventually have to be weighed against the resources that can be mobilized by the institution and the technical abilities of the staff available to address the needs identified. At this point the planning process moves into the realm of practice and must identify those actions that it may actually be possible to undertake.

Planners should be aware that some initiatives that will contribute significantly to extending the life of collections can be undertaken without adding new budget lines or substantially increasing existing ones. For example, training staff and users in care and handling, revising the binding contract to follow recommendations of the Library Binding Institute Standard for Library Binding, carrying out systematic holdings and stack maintenance, preparing a disaster plan, following preservation criteria when buying storage furniture and supplies, working with plant managers to stabilize temperature and humidity, and incorporating preservation considerations into all policies and procedures can often be accomplished with existing personnel and budget allocations. This is not a comprehensive list, but a sample of improvements that can be achieved by changing existing practice to respect preservation concerns.

In contrast, budget increases are usually required for such options as replacing significant quantities of storage furniture or preservation enclosures, upgrading poor environmental conditions by renovating a building or installing a new climate control system, setting up a systematic reformatting program, and providing conservation treatment either in-house or on contract. Moreover, the last three activities demand a level of staff expertise in preservation management and conservation issues over and beyond that which can be obtained from a workshop or other short training course, even if the work is ultimately contracted out.

Political Issues

Any planning process must take into account the political environment within which the program it hopes to implement will be carried out. It is therefore necessary to be as alert to possible political obstacles as to technical deficiencies or lack of resources. Much of the success of a preservation program will depend on the willingness of the repository's administration to support the changes recommended. That support should be clearly evident from the start of the planning process and should be continually nourished by regular reports on progress and checks that emerging recommendations will be approved. It is also important to make sure on a continuing basis that at least some of the resources that will be needed, be it staff time or the ability to redirect certain budget lines or even new money, will be forthcoming. This may mean keeping senior or parent institution administrators involved in and supportive of the process.

Much also depends on the cooperation of other staff in the repository. To the greatest extent possible, planning should forestall turf wars by involving all staff whose functions may eventually be affected and convincing them of the importance of any changes recommended. Similarly, parts of an effective preservation program may necessitate working with staff outside the repository such as building managers or plant engineers. Again, it is important to educate them about the importance of upgrading building systems or making repairs to the survival of the collections.

In all instances, it is wise to come armed with reliable data about the effects of failing to change, including if possible the dollar costs of remedying damage and deterioration, as well as solid estimates of the costs of the changes being sought. It is also wise to present the program as a series of goals to be accomplished in stages so that each problem is clearly defined rather than limitless, and so that the various resources needed can be sought over a period of several years or stages.

Approaches to Preservation

Preventive Preservation
In the move from collecting information and planning for a preservation program to setting priorities and implementation, it is helpful to keep in mind that an administrator's first responsibility is to ensure the longest possible useful life for the entire collection. This is true if for no other reason than to protect the institution's capital investment in those materials. It is also important to recognize that the most cost-effective method of extending longevity is to prevent deterioration to the greatest extent possible. Preventive preservation plays much the same role with respect to library and archival materials as do public health and preventive medicine for people. Most of the activities that can be grouped under the heading of preventive preservation are things that the institution does normally: acquisitions, binding, processing non-print materials, shelving, circulation, cleaning both library facilities and the collections, photocopying, minor repair, and deaccessioning. However, as components in an integrated preservation program, they will now be done with a new awareness of their effect on the long-term survival of the collections and in accordance with current preservation standards and guidelines. Thus, a preventive preservation program should not be viewed as an add-on but rather as an integral component of the day-to-day operations and responsibilities of the repository.

This is not to say that implementing a preservation program will be cost free. Indeed, its most important component, a climate-control system that can provide a stable environment day and night and throughout the year within the fairly narrow ranges prescribed by national standards for various types of media, can be very expensive. As a preservation plan is developed, the costs of providing an optimum environment for all or part of a repository's collections must therefore be carefully balanced against the costs of failing to do so. In particular, in setting priorities, it should be understood that appropriate environmental control is the foundation on which all other preservation and conservation activities rest. Everything else that a repository may do to prevent deterioration of its holdings or to repair the effects of physical or chemical damage will be undermined if the materials continue to be housed under poor environmental conditions. It is therefore extremely important that every repository holding documentary resources of enduring value integrate preservation into its entire range of operations. It is equally important to achieve the best environments with existing systems while making the highest preservation priority the effort to upgrade the environments for collections storage to conform to national standards.

Remedial Preservation
At present, there are limited options available to custodians of documentary resources who wish to extend the life of portions of their collections. If they are dealing with acidic paper, it can be deacidified either item-by-item or by sending it to a vendor of a mass deacidification treatment. Mass deacidification has yet to materialize as a practical option. It may still become an effective treatment that will substantially slow the chemical deterioration of paper. It should, however, be remembered that mass deacidification is not a strengthening process, and that is it does not restore flexibility or strength to paper that is already seriously brittle. It is most effective when applied to relatively new acidic paper before the process of embrittlement has begun.

Another option is to reformat a document or book to capture as much as possible of the information that it contains. This is most often done by microfilming or photocopying onto alkaline paper. There also is an increasing number of model projects experimenting with digitization. Several caveats must be kept in mind regarding all such projects. Generally accepted technical standards govern archival photocopying, and any repository embarking on such a project should follow the standards carefully. Filming must also be done in accordance with existing national standards and the archival negative must be stored under carefully controlled environmental conditions if the product is to be considered a true preservation microfilm. It takes a substantial amount of knowledge to manage a preservation filming project, and it is advisable to seek the assistance of a knowledgeable consultant when setting up and monitoring such a project. Finally, it is premature for any except the most sophisticated repositories with highly trained personnel to consider digitization. While much has been learned by several projects embarked upon, too little is known about archiving costs, transferability of data, and other factors to make it a practicable option for the ordinary repository.

Finally, there is conservation treatment. This encompasses a variety of procedures that should be carried out only by a professional conservator. A few large research libraries and museums have a conservation laboratory and trained conservators in-house. Most repositories contract for conservation treatment with either a regional laboratory or a conservator in private practice.

In general, when considering preservation treatments of any kind, the preservation manager should first of all be sufficiently informed about the nature of the deterioration to be remedied and the character of the material to be treated to know what cannot be done with the level of expertise available locally. To put it another way, it is important to recognize that volunteers trained by a skilled preservation professional to do basic repairs on a circulating collection should not be allowed to work on materials of enduring value. In addition, a preservation manager should be sufficiently knowledgeable to choose the appropriate option for treatment, that is, to know when an item should be photocopied rather than filmed or when reformatting should not be used because it will result in a loss of information.

Designing a preservation program requires a great deal of decision making. The decisions are often not easy to make, and it may be necessary to seek professional assistance from a consultant. It may help to bear in mind that by sound preservation planning you are providing the endangered portions of your collections of enduring value with the best medical advice available in order to try to keep them alive.

Further Reading

Cloonan, Michele. "Organizing Preservation Activities." Association of Research Libraries Resource Guide. Washington, DC: Association of Research Libraries, 1993, 98 pp.

Motylewski, Karen."What an Institution Can Do to Survey Its Own Preservation Needs." In Collection Maintenance and Improvement. Sherry Byrne, ed. Washington, DC: Association of Research Libraries, 1993.

Ogden, Barclay, and Maralyn Jones. CALIPR. Sacramento, CA: The California State Library, 1997. [An automated tool to assess preservation needs. Available from the California State Library Foundation, P.O. Box 942837, Sacramento, CA 94237-0001.],

Ogden, Sherelyn. Preservation Planning: Guidelines for Writing a Long-Range Plan. Washington, DC.: American Association of Museums and Northeast Document Conservation Center, 1997.

Parisi, Paul A., and Jan Merrill-Oldham, eds. Standard for Library Binding. 8th ed. Rochester, NY: Library Binding Institute, 1990, 17 pp.

Paskoff, Beth, and Anna H. Perrault. "A Tool for Comparative Collection Analysis: Conducting a Shelflist Sample to Construct a Collection Profile." Library Resources & Technical Services 34 (April 1990): 199-215.

Waters, Peter. "Phased Preservation: A Philosophical Concept and Practical Approach to Preservation." Special Libraries (Winter 1990): 35-43.


Written by Dr. Margaret Child


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