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Planning and Prioritizing
1.4 Considerations for Prioritizing

Most institutions have many preservation needs that require a variety of actions to meet. Resources in an institution are always limited and every action cannot be accomplished. It is crucial to determine which actions are the most important so that those receive consideration first.

Prioritizing is the process of deciding which actions will have the most significant impact, which are the most important, and which are the most feasible.

Systems of risk assessment and management are being developed.1 These offer a highly pragmatic approach as is required by the large and diverse natural history collections for which they were first developed. These are geared toward setting collections care priorities and, when coupled with the complementary systems of collection profiles and categories of specimens, show promise for prioritizing actions.2 Training in this methodology is available from the Canadian Museum of Nature in the form of interactive one- and two-day workshops for institutions, groups of institutions, and organizations.3

Presently the easiest way for staff of most institutions, especially smaller ones, to prioritize preservation actions is by carefully considering specific criteria, weighing appropriate collections-related factors, and making informed value judgments before reaching a decision.

Criteria for Prioritizing

It is helpful to consider three criteria when prioritizing preservation actions.

  • The first is impact, the extent to which an action will improve the preservation of the institution's collections. In her manual on preservation planning for libraries, Pamela Darling describes high impact actions as…those that will result in dramatic improvement in the present condition of materials, substantial decrease in the rate of deterioration, substantial increase in efficiency of current preservation activities, or considerable savings of time, energy or money."4 To evaluate impact, consider the following questions. To what extent will implementing a specific action improve preservation of the collections? How great is the immediate impact and what is the potential impact of implementing this action? The greater the impact of an action, the higher its priority.
  • The feasibility of implementing an action should also be considered. Actions vary in the amount of time and resources required to implement them. Some are easy to implement, while others are impossible. Factors to look at include staffing levels and expertise (availability of technical and management capability), financial implications (capital outlays, expenditures for materials and services, ongoing operating costs, fundraising potential), and policy and procedural changes (if these are required and who can make them). The political feasibility of various actions must also be realistically evaluated. If it is not likely that you can implement an action, it may be given a low priority even if its impact is high.
  • Another criterion to consider is urgency of an action. Darling explains that an action can be regarded as urgent if waiting to implement it would cause further problems or would mean bypassing an opportunity.5 All other factors being equal, those actions requiring immediate implementation would be given highest priority.

Factors Influential in Prioritizing

The use, storage, condition, and value of the materials in the collections are influential in prioritizing actions and are important to consider.

  • The amount and type of use items receive is significant. Items on permanent exhibition have different needs from those in storage. Items that are used frequently for research purposes have different needs from those that are consulted only infrequently. Items that are used heavily or in a damaging way are at higher risk and in more urgent need of attention.
  • Housing of collections is important. Materials that are stored under poor environmental conditions or in harmful containers, or are susceptible to theft, vandalism, fire, or other disasters, also are at higher risk.
  • Those problems are particularly threatening to materials in poor or fragile condition, making the risk factor even greater for those vulnerable items. Actions that would mitigate those risks may be a high priority for implementation.
  • Yet another factor to consider is the value of the materials. The nature of the value of items (monetary, intrinsic, associational, bibliographic), their rarity, their provenance, and their significance to the institution need to be considered.
  • For how long materials need to be preserved and in what form they need to be preserved are additional important considerations.

Implementation Priorities

The implementation priorities for an institution are the most important priorities. They are the high-priority actions that are achievable. To determine these, it is helpful to consider the criteria of impact and feasibility together for each action. A device that is useful for this is a grid developed by Pamela Darling, which is shown here in a modified form. The impact and feasibility of each action are plotted on the grid shown on the following page.

Darling explains that those actions that are of high impact and can be implemented with little difficulty are placed in Box #1. Those actions that have high impact but are difficult to implement go into Box #3.

Those actions that are not difficult to implement but will have little impact go into Box #2. Those actions that are difficult to implement and have little impact go into Box #4.

Darling goes on to explain that those actions in box #1 probably deserve highest priority, since they can be easily accomplished and will have significant impact. Those in Box #4 can often be postponed or even disregarded because they achieve little while requiring great effort. Many of those in Box #2 can also be eliminated because they accomplish little, though some may be worthwhile because they are easy to do. Box #3 items need careful consideration: despite their difficulty, they deserve implementation because of their high impact.6


One of the most difficult aspects of preservation planning is prioritizing. Planning requires significant people skills and an understanding of the organizational dynamics of the institution. Nowhere is this more evident than in prioritizing. You need to bring all your interpersonal skills to bear on discussions of priorities with your colleagues. You need to listen to what the issues of other departments are and be able to focus on what best serves the needs of the institution as a whole rather than just on the needs of your particular department or area of expertise. In the long run, this will best serve your needs as well. At the same time, you need to be a skillful negotiator and a good sales person. As with most other dealings with people, a good sense of humor will ease the process.


The grid was adapted and reproduced with the kind permission of the Association of Research Libraries. This preservation leaflet is from Preservation Planning: Guidelines for Writing a Long-Range Plan, by Sherelyn Ogden, produced by NEDCC with the assistance of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It is available from the American Association of Museums.


Written by Sherelyn Ogden


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