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Session 1: Introduction to Preservation

 

WHAT IS PRESERVATION?


1 Definitions | 2 Historical Context: Libraries | 3 Historical Context: Archives | 4 Preservation and the Digital Frontier | 5 Elements of a Preservation Program

 

What does the term "preservation" mean for libraries, archives, historical societies, and other institutions that hold historic collections? Can it be used interchangeably with "conservation," and if not, how are they different? What activities make up a preservation program? How should preservation be implemented in different types of institutions with different types of collections? Does the advent of new technologies mean that traditional methods of preservation are no longer needed?

This section will provide you with some answers to these questions. You will learn how libraries and archives have traditionally defined preservation; how the meaning of preservation and other related terms has changed over the years; and what activities constitute a systematic preservation program.

1 Definitions

The distinction between the terms "preservation" and "conservation" is somewhat unclear, as the use of these terms (along with "restoration") has varied over time, depending in part on their context.

Since the 1980s, the library and archival communities have used "preservation" as an umbrella term for activities that reduce or prevent damage to extend the life expectancy of collections, while "conservation" refers more specifically to the physical treatment of individual damaged items. "Preventive conservation" is another term that is used to describe broad collections care activities that support the longevity of artifacts and records, such as environmental monitoring. The term "restoration" is used mostly in the context of museum objects or motion picture films. It generally refers to the process of returning an object to its original state, or what is thought to have been its original state.

The American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) Definitions of Conservation defines these three terms as follows:

  • Preservation—The protection of cultural property through activities that minimize chemical and physical deterioration and damage and that prevent loss of informational content. The primary goal of preservation is to prolong the existence of cultural property.

  • Conservation—The profession devoted to the preservation of cultural property for the future. Conservation activities include examination, documentation, treatment, and preventive care, supported by research and education.

  • Restoration—Treatment procedures intended to return cultural property to a known or assumed state, often through the addition of non-original material.

In the widest sense, preservation encompasses

  • activities that prevent damage to paper-based and audiovisual collections, such as proper housing, environmental control, and disaster planning; and
  • activities such as treatment, replacement, or reformatting that address existing damage.

Preservation involves keeping a balance between collection-level activities such as environmental control, which can be difficult and/or costly to manage but provide the greatest long-term benefit for the most materials, and item-level activities such as conservation treatment, which are often more easily understood and managed but can have limited effect, especially if the items are returned to a damaging environment.

2 Historical Context: Libraries

While activities designed to keep collections in usable condition -- including binding, repair, and reformatting -- have always taken place in libraries, the evolution of systematic preservation practices for paper-based collections began during the 1950s and '60s. By the early '70s, the convergence of an obvious need for preservation and the development of infrastructure to carry out preservation activities resulted in the growing recognition of preservation as a separate library specialty.

Greater attention to the need for preservation in libraries and archives was driven by several catalytic events that occurred during the '50s and '60s. These fall into two general categories: the problem of brittle books and paper, and the recognition of the dangers disaster poses to collections. At the same time, preservation organizations began to spring up, and information and funding for preservation activities became more readily accessible.

The Brittle Book Problem
The 1950s and '60s were a time of rapid growth of collections in research libraries, and librarians could not help but notice that materials in their collections were becoming yellowed and brittle. William J. Barrow, a pioneer in the research of the deterioration of paper collections, carried out the first major study of the condition of book paper in the late '50s. He found that only three percent of the volumes studied (items published between 1900 and 1949) would last more than 50 years.

In 1962, the Association of Research Libraries commissioned a survey of book deterioration in ARL libraries, conducted by Gordon Williams, which confirmed Barrow's findings. Late in the 1970s and into the '80s, additional studies were conducted at specific libraries, including Stanford University, the Library of Congress, and Yale University, which consistently showed that up to a third of collections were already dangerously embrittled.

The Dangers of Disaster
Several prominent disasters involving library and archival collections occurred during the 1960s and '70s, emphasizing the danger of disaster and culminating in the development of systematic techniques for disaster planning and response.

In 1966, the Arno River flooded Florence, Italy, damaging or destroying many valuable library and museum collections. Conservators from around the world joined in the salvage efforts and learned much about the effectiveness of various disaster response techniques. Flooding from Hurricane Agnes in Corning, New York, in 1972 and a water main break at Stanford University's Meyer Library in 1978, in which 50,000 volumes were damaged, drew additional attention to disaster planning and response in the United States. In both cases, wet library collections were frozen and drying techniques were tested, with vacuum-freeze drying emerging as the most effective strategy.

Development of Infrastructure for Preservation
For preservation action to occur, information, organizational support, and financial resources must exist, not merely the awareness of a problem. The Council on Library Resources (CLR), founded in 1956, and the Association of Research Libraries (ARL) both played a prominent part in early efforts to study and combat the brittle paper problem.

In 1961, CLR funded the creation of the Barrow Research Laboratory, headed by William J. Barrow, to study the permanence of the book. Other important research organizations include the Canadian Conservation Institute, founded in 1972, and the Image Permanence Institute, founded in 1985 to pursue scientific research on the preservation of visual materials and related collections. During the 1970s, two regional conservation centers were established—the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) and the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA)—which provided conservation treatment and preservation education services.

Professional organizations also played a large part in the advancement of preservation programs. The Research Libraries Group (RLG) was founded in 1974 by the New York Public Library and Columbia, Harvard, and Yale Universities. It played an important role in conducting cooperative microfilming projects and devising guidelines for preservation microfilming, and in 2006 joined with OCLC to become the OCLC Research Library Partnership. The American Library Association (ALA) established its first subcommittees on library preservation in 1970 and has continued to play an active role though the Preservation and Reformatting Section (PARS). The Book and Paper Group (BPG) of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC) was established in 1980, and approximately ten years later two discussion groups (the Library Collections Conservation Discussion Group (LCCDG) and the Archives Conservation Discussion Group(ACDG)) evolved. The result of all these developments has been increased cooperation among libraries, archives, historical societies, museums and conservators.

Federal organizations—in particular the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) Office of Preservation, later reorganized into the Division of Preservation and Access—have played a leading role in providing funding for preservation activities in individual libraries and on the national level over the past 25 years. The independent Commission on Preservation and Access (CPA) was created in 1987 with a mandate to raise awareness of the brittle book problem and to encourage national efforts to address it. In 1995, CPA and CLR merged to become the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). With the support of the NEH over the past two decades, a successful cooperative microfilming program for brittle books and newspapers has grown. Local preservation programs continued to develop as well, with the number of full-time preservation administrators in ARL libraries growing from three or four in 1971 to 48 in 2007.

See The Future of the Past: Preservation in American Research Libraries for more information on the brittle book initiative and a discussion of some of the challenges libraries currently face in selecting collections for preservation and dealing with the increasing amount of new media and formats in their collections.

3 Historical Context: Archives

All archival records might in some sense be considered permanent, or they would not be collected. But does that mean they all can or should be preserved? And if so, how should they be preserved? Early American archival repositories strongly emphasized the importance of ensuring the permanence of their collections. During the 19th century, there was a great impetus, partly as a result of the loss of some prominent collections to fire, to disseminate the information found in records by publishing them. As early microfilming technology was developed, archivists began to embrace this as well.

By the mid-20th century, however, archivists increasingly focused on the preservation of original documents that were clearly deteriorating. Archivists adopted many of the techniques for conservation of individual documents set forth by William J. Barrow, among them deacidification and lamination, a process later found to be damaging. In the middle of the 1960s, the acid-free box was developed, with partial support from CLR.

Faced with ever-larger collections of modern records, archivists began to see how severe the problem of physical deterioration was—and how little time and money was available to address it. As a result, they began to consider how to choose those records that deserved preservation in their original form, and those that should be dealt with in other ways, such as reformatting. Like librarians, archivists have increasingly focused on improving environmental control and storage facilities to ensure that their collections of enduring value have as long a life as possible.

Deciding What to Preserve
In libraries, it is relatively easy to identify important deteriorated collections in a particular subject category. Library collections are, by and large, well-cataloged, and there are tools available (such as the RLG Conspectus) to assess the subject strengths and weaknesses of any particular library's collection. Assuming funding and other resources are available, librarians can determine what materials would make up a "comprehensive" collection in a subject, identify the libraries that hold those materials, and initiate a cooperative preservation program for them.

Due to the nature of archival collections, archivists face more difficulty in ensuring that a particular subject or an area of society (e.g., dance, scientific materials) has been fully documented and the appropriate records preserved. The archival community has not yet developed a systematic program for identifying collections in need of preservation that parallels the national brittle book initiative in libraries, although some steps have been taken. In the early 1990s the Commission on Preservation and Access supported the work of the Task Forces on Archival Selection, which began to address key issues in identifying and selecting collections for preservation.

For the report of the Task Forces on Archival Selection, see The Preservation of Archival Materials. See Securing Our Dance Heritage: Issues in the Documentation and Preservation of Dance for a discussion of selection and preservation issues in the context of dance collections, which often include various types of media and are dispersed throughout other types of archival collections. See James O'Toole's "On the Idea of Permanence" (referenced in Additional Resources) for a general discussion of approaches to the preservation of archival materials.

4 Preservation and the Digital Frontier

Preservation in cultural institutions over the past 30 to 40 years has been seen as fairly straightforward, involving specific activities such as environmental control, proper storage, disaster planning, reformatting, and conservation treatment. The increasing presence, however, of digitization, digital resources, and digital preservation within cultural institutions in recent years has changed the way institutions perceive preservation. Digitization increases the complexity of the relationship between the medium (the physical artifact) and the message (the information contained therein).

The emerging digital frontier must be considered in three contexts:

  • Can digitization be used to preserve the content of existing collections, and if so, does that mean that the original item -- or even traditional preservation activities -- are not needed?

  • How should collections that are "born-digital" (emails, word processing documents, websites, online journals and more) be preserved? What does it mean to preserve a digital object that can be easily changed without leaving any trace that the change was made?

  • Do the major themes of traditional preservation -- thoughtful handling practices, stable environments, reversible treatment approaches, and long-term planning -- translate to emerging digital preservation practices?

Collection managers face difficult questions about technology's role in preserving collections. When is it sufficient to preserve just the information in an object, and when is it necessary to preserve the object itself? Is digitization of collections solely an access tool and a means of protecting collections from handling, or can it be considered a preservation strategy? Is digitization actually an effective means of protecting collections from handling, keeping in mind that the process to digitize those often fragile materials may require intensive handling? How does digital preservation fit into a traditional preservation program?

These issues are addressed in more detail in Session 7: Reformatting and Digitization, but it is crucial to understand that the current focus on digitization and digital preservation does not make traditional preservation unnecessary. Because of the difficulties inherent in preserving digital objects over the long term, digitization of collections is not a substitute for conservation treatment, environmental control, and proper storage; it is simply another option in the preservation tool box. New technology does, however, make it even more difficult to allocate already-scarce resources among preservation activities.

See Michèle Cloonan's article, "W(h)ither Preservation?" (referenced in Additional Resources) for a discussion of the influences of new technologies on preservation. See also Abby Smith's Why Digitize? for a discussion of digitization's impact on traditional library roles.

5 Elements of a Preservation Program

Although there is general consensus within the preservation community on the basic elements of a systematic preservation program, where the emphasis falls will depend on the type of institution, since institutional and user needs will vary. For example, the primary interest of a public library may be to keep materials in good repair so that they can be used until they become obsolete and are withdrawn, while a research library or an archives would emphasize preservation of intellectual content over the long term and/or preservation of original items with artifactual value.

The basic elements of a preservation program are as follows:

  • Environmental Control—providing a moderate and stable temperature and humidity level as well as controlling exposure to light and pollutants. This should be a priority for all institutions, although control will usually be less tight for general circulating collections than for rare books, special collections, or archival materials.

  • Disaster Planning—preventing and responding to damage from water, fire, or other emergency situations. Again, this should be a high priority in all institutions. The reasons are obvious for collections of enduring value, but even collections that are not meant to be retained over the long term represent a capital investment for an institution and as such must be protected from loss.

  • Security—protecting collections from theft and/or vandalism. This type of protection is needed for both special and general collections, since loss and vandalism of general collections results in unnecessary replacement and expense.

  • Storage and Handling—using non-damaging storage enclosures and proper storage furniture; cleaning storage areas; using care when handling, exhibiting, or reformatting collections and educating staff and users in proper handling techniques. Again, this should be a priority for all types of collections.

  • Reformatting—reproducing deteriorating collections onto stable media to preserve the informational content or in cases where the originals are fragile or valuable and handling is restricted. This category includes microfilming, production of preservation facsimiles, and duplication of audiovisual collections. These strategies are most appropriate for collections whose intellectual content needs to be preserved over the long term and/or where security copies are needed for unique items. Preservation microfilming is still an effective strategy for unique paper-based collections, but a low priority for institutions with general collections that are duplicated elsewhere.

  • Library Binding—rebinding of damaged volumes to provide sturdy use copies. This strategy is used by libraries with general collections in heavy use. It should not be used on any items that have artifactual value.

  • Conservation Treatment—treating individual objects using the services of a trained conservator. This may be appropriate for a wide range of institutions, provided they hold unique materials that are of sufficient value to justify treatment.

  • In-House Repair—repairing objects that do not have artifactual value using a trained collections conservator or trained in-house staff. In-house book repair is used by public and academic libraries to keep non-unique books in good condition for use, and some institutions use basic paper repair techniques (e.g., mending, encapsulation) for historical materials. For special collections libraries, archives, and historical societies, general preventive activities such as rehousing should be given a higher priority than in-house repair.

  • Digital Reformatting and Preservation—using digital imaging to provide access copies of deteriorated original collections; creating digital objects that will act as preservation copies of original items; and/or preserving objects that are "born-digital." Digital projects may be appropriate across a wide range of institutions; the key in undertaking such a project is for the institution to have a good understanding of the requirements and limitations of digital imaging.

Each of these activities will be discussed in more detail in later sessions of this course. It is helpful to keep in mind that the primary goal of preservation is to ensure that collections survive in good condition for as long as they are needed. Preservation should never be limited to the treatment of a few select items. The most cost-effective way to establish longevity is to prevent or retard deterioration.

 

 

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