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Session 9: Building a Preservation Program


Selection for preservation

 1 Selection for Library Collections | 2 Selection for Archival Collections


As you have seen, preservation refers to all the activities undertaken by an institution to ensure that its collections survive in usable condition for as long as they are needed. While this sounds relatively simple, the process of deciding what to preserve and how to preserve it can be complicated and challenging. Which materials will be important in the future? What items or collections should be preserved, and how?

Cultural institutions have increasingly realized that it is not possible to preserve -- or digitize -- every endangered item. As a result, various strategies have been developed for selecting collections for preservation.

This section will explore the various criteria that you should consider when selecting collections for preservation action. Once you have decided what materials merit preservation, the choice of preservation method will depend on the intellectual content, the physical characteristics, and the condition of the materials.

The key to making effective selection decisions is to realize that:

  • you cannot save everything (even with cooperative projects);
  • priorities must be set among collections (e.g., you must define your collection's strengths and concentrate on them); and
  • every item may not need to be preserved (e.g., will a representative sample of certain materials be acceptable?).

1 Selection for Library Collections

The selection process for preservation has been discussed and analyzed extensively within the library and museum community. Institutions must develop strategies for selecting collections for treatment, reformatting or digitization, replacement — and even withdrawal.

Identification of damaged or deteriorated materials often occurs in the course of other projects or duties, although it may also happen as part of a special project. Consistent procedures for the identification of damaged items are necessary. When an item is identified for possible in-house or offsite preservation action, the librarian should indicate in the catalog record that the item has been temporarily removed from circulation and complete a form indicating what preservation action is needed. This form will accompany the item, which should be routed for further review or preservation action. Separated items should be placed in a particular area and sorted for further review or treatment.

In her article "Selection for Preservation" in Preservation Issues and Planning (cited in Additional Resources) Carolyn Harris summarizes the most common methods librarians use to identify collections whose importance and condition justify preservation action. Some of these methods are appropriate in the archival context as well:

  • Condition and Use: Deteriorated items in need of attention are identified as they are returned after circulation or pointed out to staff by users or stack maintenance staff.

  • Condition and Library Processing: Items in need of attention are identified during acquisition, cataloging, reformatting/digitization, or other processing activities.

  • Condition at the Shelf: Special projects that require inspection of materials at the shelf (e.g., barcoding, shelf reading) can also identify deteriorated collections. For historical or special collections, a conservator may be needed for further review.

  • Collection and Condition: An entire collection is identified as important for preservation (see the discussion of collection-level selection below), and individual items within that collection are reviewed to identify materials in need of preservation attention.

  • Scholarly Review: Faculty, researchers, or scholars identify deteriorated items with particular research value. This may be on an individual basis or part of a special project.

  • Vulnerability to Loss or Deterioration: Materials that are particularly subject to deterioration, such as newspapers or items to be exhibited, are identified for attention.

  • Value or Uniqueness: Items that are particularly unique or valuable (in monetary or other senses) are identified for attention.

Decision Making on the Collection Level
While it is easy to identify materials already in special collections as important, a research library may hold other collections of importance as well. In many cases, libraries have chosen to preserve only those collections that are circulated and used. But the library community has also realized that research libraries have a responsibility to preserve collections that may be important for research in the future, even if they are not currently used. Thus, strategies have been developed to select collections for preservation according to their quality and importance.

The criteria used to identify important collections include size of the collection; subject strength (e.g., the depth and extent of the collection as compared to other collections on that subject); past, current, or projected future use; quality and extent of bibliographic control of the materials; available funding for preservation of the collection; media contained in the collection; cooperative responsibilities of the institution; and scholarly interest in the collection.

Decision Making on the Item Level
Before any item is preserved, it must be reviewed to make sure that preservation is the proper action to be taken. How is the item related to others in the collection? Are there additional copies or other items by the same author? Does the item fit the collecting policy? Are there other copies that are easily accessible in a close geographic area? Has the item been preserved (e.g., digitized or treated) elsewhere? Is a replacement (e.g., reprint, facsimile, microfilm) commercially available, or is the title digitized and fully viewable online through Google Books, Hathitrust, or another digital library?

If these questions do not establish that the item should be discarded or replaced, additional analysis will be needed to determine the item's priority for preservation action and how it should be preserved. For a discussion of intrinsic/artifactual value in library collections, see Conserve O Gram 19/1, What Makes a Book Rare? (PDF).

2 Selection for Archival Collections

As in libraries, selection for preservation in archives often happens as part of other activities, such as acquisition, appraisal, arrangement, and description. The process of selection for preservation is closely related to archival appraisal, since it involves identifying the value and importance of collections. (Note that this use of the term has little to do with the work of a professional appraiser, who would place a monetary value on historical books or other items.)

Criteria used by libraries to review collections for preservation may also be relevant for archives and museums, but historic collections may require additional considerations specific to their age, format, or organization. Archivists consider multiple aspects of a collection to evaluate its value and importance.

Types of Value for Archival/Historical Collections
Most archivists follow, at least in a general sense, the guidelines for value established at the National Archives in the mid-1950s. (The article, "The Appraisal of Modern Public Records," by T.R. Schellenberg is referenced in Additional Resources.) On the most basic level, Schellenberg distinguished between primary value and secondary value. The primary value of records is their ongoing business value for the organization that created them, to assist in carrying out its administrative, financial, legal, and operating activities; this is referred to as administrative, fiscal, or legal value. Secondary value refers to the value records may have to external organizations and/or private researchers. Schellenberg defined two types of secondary value: evidential value and informational value. Note that these two types of value are not mutually exclusive: a record may be valuable for both evidential and informational purposes.

Evidential value refers to the value of records in documenting the organizational structure and functions of the institution. Who created the records? Do they accurately reflect the activities of the organization or person? Do the records provide evidence of the structure and policies of the organization or institution or evidence of the changing interests of the person? In the case of an organization, are these records also maintained (in a similar or different form) elsewhere within the organization? Do the records reflect policymaking or implementation of functions?

Informational value refers to the subject content of the collection (e.g., information contained in the records about persons, events, places, etc., with which the institution or person dealt). Types of informational value include:

  • Uniqueness: The information in the records must be more complete and useful than can be found in other existing sources, whether public or private. The records should also not be duplicated elsewhere, an occurrence that is fairly common in modern public records.

  • Form: Records that provide concentrated information (e.g., some information about many people, as in census records; or in-depth information about a few people, as in case files) are the best candidates for retention. The form of the record is also important: can it be accessed and understood easily by researchers?

  • Importance: Value for long-term scholarly and public research is difficult to determine. Archivists generally try to document those subjects, people, and events that are considered important by the society within which the records were created.

Other types of value commonly encountered are:

  • Intrinsic Value: This refers to records with characteristics that require them to be retained in their original form. They may be valuable because of their age (in general, older records have more significance, but this is not always the case), because the records have a unique physical form or aesthetic quality, because the records are directly associated with people or events of historical significance, or because they might be useful for exhibition.

  • Historical Value: This term is used in many different ways; it might refer to materials that are valuable because of their age or association, or it might encompass both evidential and informational value.

Both value and condition must be considered in selecting archival and other historical collections for preservation. Additional considerations include whether the records are duplicated or maintained in another form elsewhere; whether they are complete (fragmentary materials can be frustrating for research); whether they need to be retained in their original form, or whether they can be reformatted (e.g., digitized); and whether there are donor or other restrictions on the use of the records.

For information on determining whether or not archival materials have intrinsic value (e.g., whether they should be retained in their original form), see Intrinsic Value in Archival Material.

For more information on determining the value of archival and other historical records, refer to the publication Selecting and Appraising Archives and Manuscripts by Frank Boles cited in Additional Resources.


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