Number 3 May/June 1998
Preservation in the Future Tense
–by Abby Smith
the Transformation of Academic Information Resources
Preservation in the Future Tense
–by Abby Smith
WHILE PRESERVING RECORDED information and ensuring the transmission of knowledge from one generation to another is an ancient cultural activity, as a field within library and archival science, preservation is only a few decades old. It began primarily as item-level repair and conservation, deriving its original professional traditions and physical techniques in large part from the museum world. To the importance in that world of the repair and conservation of individual pieces deemed to be of special value as artifacts, preservation in libraries has added the significance of the archival value of the object as bearer of historical evidence. In a very short time, preservation has developed into a critically important part of managing a library’s most precious assets, its collections. Paradoxically, dedicated as it is to mitigating the deleterious effects of aging, preservation has rapidly become, along with computer applications, one of the most forward-looking fields in the library and archival profession.
The goal of any preservation program is to ensure long-term, ready access to the information resources of an institution. As those resources grow and change, so does the expertise needed to manage them. Given the rate of change in both the growth and the use of most library and archival collections, the primary characteristic of any preservation strategy today must be to adapt quickly to the unknown, a curious challenge to a profession that has drawn many of its best people because of their attraction to the past and its artifacts. Trusted for their skills in assessing retrospectively what age, handling, and adverse environmental conditions have done to hamper access to information resources in the present, preservation specialists are now frequently called upon to think prospectively about what time will do to the exceedingly fragile media of the twentieth century—nitrate and acetate film, 78s and LPs, Betamax and VHS videotapes, and, of course, the even more evanescent computer files created in formats that may be superseded within 24 months. How can we help prepare those in training today for long-term careers in a profession undergoing such dramatic and continual shifts? How can we help prepare future preservation experts for an entirely unpredictable future?
One of the hurdles preservation specialists must leap successfully into the next century, where we want them to land on their feet, is conceptual. Traditional repair and conservation duties aside, preservation librarians and administrators are forced increasingly to look beyond individual objects in peril, and indeed beyond objects themselves, to information that is stored on fragile media, like magnetic tape, or is not stored on media at all but exists as disaggregated bits of data on computer hard drives. In the short span of time that preservation and conservation have existed as a separate department in most research libraries, specialists have made tremendous advances in the care and security of a library’s chief assets, its collections, by focusing on collections care and on preventive care. Preservation administrators have conceptualized and put into place global strategies for ensuring long-term access to collections. Collections-care programs, binding services, preservation reformatting, paper deacidification, the improvement of environmental conditions, the instruction of staff and users about the proper care and handling of items, the non-invasive tagging of items for security purposes, disaster preparedness and recovery planning—these are among the core elements of any basic comprehensive preservation program, and they exist in a truly impressive number of research libraries already.
But as new means of creating and recording information proliferate at the end of this century, custodians of major collections face increasingly difficult questions of how much information to preserve, and how best to ensure ready access to the fraction of all recorded information that will survive for several more centuries. The skills and judgment developed in preservation professionals—the ability to discover the original form of an object and the intent of its creator, and to prolong the life of the object or return the object as nearly as possible to its state at the time of its creation—are precisely the same skill sets that are needed for the future, albeit practiced in a radically different context.
Just as book conservators should learn as much as possible over the course of their careers about how books have been produced and consumed over the centuries, and as film archivists need to know as much as possible about the original production and exhibition of films, so must preservation experts of the present and future master the creation and dissemination of digital information. In the future, a fully staffed preservation department will reflect the hybrid nature of a library’ss holdings, with staff having, or having access to, the necessary expertise to handle a variety of media. This means that we need to be training both experts in specific media—moving-image and recorded-sound archivists as well as book conservators—and experts in managing a flexible staff and changing technologies. Over time, this will lead inevitably to a convergence of the library and archival preservation communities, as more and more libraries will hold non-print materials on a routine basis, and audio-visual items will be so omnipresent that one can no longer speak of them in a meaningful way as “special collections.”
More important, however, from the conceptual point of view is the need for preservation experts to develop a keen understanding of the context in which non-object based information is used, in order to ensure capture of all the vital data necessary to meaningful retrieval. When all data are recorded as 0’s and 1’s, there is, essentially, no object that exists outside of the act of retrieval. The demand for access creates the “object,” that is, the act of retrieval precipitates the temporary reassembling of 0’s and 1’s into a meaningful sequence that can be decoded by software and hardware. A digital art-exhibition catalog, digital comic books, or digital pornography all present themselves as the same, all are literally indistinguishable one from another during storage, unlike, say, a book on a shelf.
Our traditional understanding of preservation and access to texts (an understanding that is, of course, as yet only a few decades old) breaks down under this new form of recording and retrieving. Time and temporality assume new roles in this world, and there are few professionals in libraries and archives better equipped to think creatively and productively about what that means than preservation experts, whose job it is to ensure continuity and integrity over time and in the face of time.
Preservation is, as yet, a small but capacious profession that encompasses experts in a bewildering variety of media, which carry an increasingly diverse load of information. The challenge of the future tense for preservation professionals is to continue to look beyond the object to the medium, and beyond the medium to the creator and the user, and embrace responsibility for long-term custody of all forms of recorded information to ensure continued access to them. The challenge for library and archival managers is to understand the changing nature of their institutions’ assets and provide the appropriate training and support for the staff who are charged with the survival of those assets. This means consulting with preservation staff before making decisions about, for example, acquiring collections that have long-term storage and retrieval implications or selecting and handling collections slated for digital reformatting. It means integrating preservation considerations into the selection of computer hardware and software throughout the information infrastructure of an institution. And it means, above all, ensuring that this group of asset managers will have opportunities for the continuing education, including travel to professional conferences, that is essential to keep abreast of changing technologies and their applications.
Given the financial investment that information resources represent in libraries and archives, and the critical role that preservation experts play in ensuring their continuing robustness and productivity, to do less would be to place those assets at unacceptable risk.
New Report Profiles Library Management Systems
CLIR HAS JUST published Library Systems: Current Developments and Future Directions, a new report by Leigh Watson Healy that explores how library systems vendors are meeting the needs of librarians in the emerging digital environment. CLIR commissioned the report in response to concerns expressed by librarians about the gap between institutional digital library initiatives and the products offered by the vendors of library systems.
Leigh Watson Healy spent half a year gathering data for the report and was guided throughout the process by an advisory group composed of Malcolm Getz (Department of Economics, Vanderbilt University), Roy Heinz (Director of Information Systems, University of Pennsylvania Libraries), Michael Keller (University Librarian, Stanford University), Marilyn Gell Mason (Director, Cleveland Public Library), and Dan Tonkery (President and COO, Dawson Subscription Group). She began by speaking with more than 30 directors and managers from 17 college, research, and public libraries to learn about their plans for using technology and to get a precise sense of the role of the library system in today’s libraries. These interviews, which focused specifically on what libraries need from library system vendors, helped to frame the questions Healy then went on to ask of the vendors themselves during the next phase of the project. She interviewed the presidents or other senior executives of 12 vendors that have recently introduced client/server-based library systems and are actively marketing them in North America.
Healy was necessarily selective in her choice of vendors, because a review of all available library systems was beyond the scope of the study. (The inclusion of any product or business in the study is not intended as an endorsement.) She supplemented the interviews with additional information gathered from the Web and from the vendors in response to follow-up questions. What she learned about the vendors’ products, strategies, and plans became the basis of twelve vendor profiles included in the report. These profiles explore the strategic goals each company has set for itself and the primary characteristics of the system it is marketing. Through the profiles, Healy provides some basis that may be used by librarians for differentiating among the vendors and their products.
From the Introduction to Library Systems:
|As libraries develop digital library projects, they are choosing and implementing an array of technologies to achieve seamless access and delivery of traditional and electronic information resources. This study looks at institutions that are building digital libraries. It explores how library management systems (LMS) fit into this new framework.
During the last two years, competition in the library systems marketplace has increased. Traditional vendors have launched new or next-generation library systems and new players have entered the North American library market. Today, more than a dozen vendors offer library management systems based on client/server architecture, with the benefits of scalability and open design. Most of these new library systems use current programming languages and technologies like Java, ActiveX, and CORBA. These systems have achieved varying levels of maturity, robustness, essential functionality, and support for core and emerging standards important to libraries.
This report is an overview of the state of the art for those who are concerned with the development of digital libraries and the role of library management systems in libraries today. The audience for this report will likely include: library administrators who are choosing and incorporating new library management systems into the institution’s technology infrastructure, library managers who are involved in selecting systems, and systems librarians who support library technology daily.
This review will be useful to those managing companies that develop and supply technology and systems to libraries. It offers insight into issues that concern librarians as they integrate digital libraries and traditional library services. We have tried to identify key issues and to point readers to sources for further exploration.
Surveys elsewhere in the literature examine and compare system features. This report contrasts librarians’ visions and strategies with the development philosophies of the systems vendors that serve them. By summarizing the state of the art from a strategic perspective and raising questions for further examination, we are providing additional context for librarians to evaluate their choices.
CLIR Will Study Information Costs at Universities
WHAT DOES IT really cost universities these days to provide information to faculty members, students, and staff? What constitutes the full panoply of items and services, grouped under the contemporary rubric of “information resources,” that are used for the production of knowledge on a large campus? There was a time when the library budget at an institution might reasonably have been identified with the budget for information. But in an age of distributed access to information from multiple wired locations, that is no longer the case. To help universities understand in detail the full extent of their investment in information resources, CLIR intends to develop an assessment model that should be of use to many institutions.
In the early stages of shaping the project, a steering committee for CLIR — Jerry Campbell (University of Southern California), Stanley Chodorow (University of Pennsylvania), Charles Phelps (University of Rochester), Elaine Sloan (Columbia University)—identified three important aspects of the problem of determining a university’s investment in information sources. These aspects are access, permanence, and collection creation costs, and, in conjunction with each, members of the committee have begun to ask some preliminary questions. Thus:
Access: Is access to a particular category of information open to all members of the academic community, or is it restricted to certain categories of users? How should the university deal with information sources to which members of the community gain access individually or through institutes or departments? When the university library provides the access, the university is in control of the situation and brings to it certain assurances: for example, that information about how to gain access will be available through the library’s homepage or catalog, that all members of the community will have access, and that the access will be for the long term. But when the provision of access to an online source comes through a department or an institute, what is the university’s—or the department’s—responsibility to the whole community (and to the providers of information)? Is that provision of resources something of concern to the university as a whole? Should the university count as expenditures for information those costs for which it takes no responsibility?
Permanence: Is the information in question added to the library as a permanent asset, or is it meant to serve the needs of specific individuals, to the point of being portable if those individuals move to other institutions? Is an information source ever to be treated as if it were research equipment? If so, then the university would take only temporary and restricted responsibility for it. And if the faculty members using the source were to leave the university, the institution would not continue to provide access to it. Should the provision of information sources of this kind, for which the university has a limited responsibility analogous to its responsibility for research equipment bought with grant funds, be counted as information costs to the institution when tallying up the bill for comprehensive provision?
Collection creation costs: What are the costs—of both people and equipment—associated with the creation of knowledge databases, either in academic departments or in the library?
The committee is proposing that three distinct universities figure in the pilot study, two private and one public, and that one of the private institutions have a highly centralized budgetary process and the other a decentralized process. The committee has also determined that the project must consider the following units of the universities: libraries, the various schools and their departments, institutes, centers, and academic administration. Within the libraries unit, the committee identified these types of costs as significant: collection expenses, including the costs of acquiring serials, monographs, and databases; space costs; cataloging and maintenance costs; and access costs (i.e, the percentage of the network costs that should be attributed to the information budget).
The steering committee will frame the project for consideration by the CLIR Board before discussing it with a group of provosts and making such changes in the conceptualization as may then be warranted. CLIR will subsequently distribute an RFP document to a group of financial consultants with experience in higher education and, on the basis of their responses, choose one group to manage the pilot study. The eventual results are to form a kind of template that many universities can use to conduct their own studies of how they invest in information resources.
CLIR and AAU to Publish Book on the Transformation of Academic Information Resources
IN PARTNERSHIP WITH the Association of American Universities, CLIR will publish a volume of essays this summer on the need to come to grips with the profound, and indeed transforming, changes technology is bringing to the way the nation’s campuses will provide information resources in the future. The volume, entitled The Mirage of Continuity: Reconfiguring Academic Information Resources for the Twenty-first Century, has been edited by Brian L. Hawkins, currently Senior Vice President for Academic Planning and Administrative Affairs at Brown University and, as of July1, the first CEO of EDUCAUSE, and Patricia Battin, former President of the Commission on Preservation and Access.
“Information resources” is now an umbrella term beneath which huddle uncomfortably the traditional campus concepts of library, computer center, media services, and instructional technology, jostling one another a bit to stay protected. But Hawkins and Battin believe that these conceptions will no longer serve institutions, and may even be debilitating to them. They speak of “the deadly embrace of past, present, and future in libraries and information technology divisions” and argue for a new and broadly conceived enterprise that redefines how instruction, learning, research, management, and finances are conducted on campuses in the global digital society of the twenty-first century. The transformative powers of the technology cannot be confined to the library but invite—in fact, demand—fundamental reorganization of their host institutions.
Hawkins and Battin argue that higher education has no choice but to respond decisively and imaginatively now that the basic performance of daily activities can no longer be as it was. Why then, they ask, is the process of transformation ‘so slow, so disorderly, so expensive, and so resisted?? Why are universities clinging, at their peril, to the present and the past? Their response: because when simple change becomes transforming change, as is now occurring, a lingering and persistent desire for continuity takes on the character of a mirage that induces disfunction. “The mirage of continuity encourages well-meaning efforts to modify or reform discrete units rather than to recognize the need for fundamental reorganization of the enterprise.”
The instructional and research methodologies, the governance structures, and the financial formulas of the contemporary higher education enterprise have been shaped by the characteristics of print-on-paper technology. It is hardly surprising that universities are reluctant to forgo what is established and familiar in favor of the strange, less stable, and potentially subversive characteristics of digital technologies. The technologies do not fit comfortably into the existing infrastructure. They demand unprecedented and often unwelcome collaboration, invite unrelenting change, threaten to introduce unmanageable costs, and make time and place irrelevant. The disorientation they bring is virtually complete.
The Mirage of Continuity consists of 18 essays divided among four sections. The first section, with an essay by Hawkins and Battin and one by Donald Kennedy, provides the historical context for the changes. The authors insist on the need for urgent action and for having faculty members, librarians, information technology specialists, and administrators think with both rigor and imagination about how they will adapt traditional values and missions to the digital environment. The essays in the second section (by John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, Stanley Chodorow and Peter Lyman, Samuel R. Williamson, Douglas Greenberg, and Susan Hockey) consider how the technology—and the great advantages it may confer—can be used to extend the longstanding strengths of universities. How does the technology at once change and support our concept of liberal education? How will the digital university affect the nature of scholarly communication? And how will institutions pay for the new information resources and manage them to meet the requirements of scholars?
The third section (with contributions by Hawkins, Richard Katz, Paula Kaufman, Donald J. Waters, Michael Lesk, and José-Marie Griffiths) considers why the revolution is not occurring as quickly or as simply as many predicted it would. What fundamental institutional changes are necessary if the powers of the technology are to be turned to the benefit of institutions? Do we lack the will to change? Do the research needs of scholars and the realities of differential markets create new uncertainties for institutional budgets? What are the technical limits to the digital library?
The essays in the final section (by Hawkins, Battin, Deanna B. Marcum, and Susan Rosenblatt) turn to what is perhaps the most critical need institutions will face during this transitional period, and much beyond it: they must nurture a new generation with the leadership skills to negotiate and manage the changes. These leaders must be drawn from previously compartmentalized professions—librarians, technologists, and faculty members—and their expertise harnessed to the well-being of institutions.
Mirage is, at heart, a call to arms for developing that new cadre of leaders. Hawkins and Battin want to stir, at the appropriate levels of universities, the will to confront the technology’s transforming presence and all its unsettling implications. Once the will is bent to the purpose of mastering the changes, the capacity to do so will follow. “The single most important message underlying the series of essays,” they write, “from the wide range of individual perspectives, is a shared conviction that, to flourish in the 21st century, the higher education community must accept the challenge of a fundamental restructuring.”
Watch these pages and the CLIR website for details on how to order The Mirage of Continuity when it is available.
Testimony to Congress on Behalf of the National Endowment for the Humanities
The following excerpts are from testimony given by Deanna Marcum, President of the Council on Library and Information Resources, to the Interior and Related Agencies Subcommittee of the House Committee on Appropriations on March 4, 1998. In expressing support for the value and importance of the preservation and access activities of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Dr. Marcum represented the Association of Research Libraries, the Council on Library and Information Resources, and the National Humanities Alliance.
Since 1989, the National Endowment for the Humanities has been implementing a coordinated national plan to save the intellectual content of books, serials, and other research materials that are deteriorating in the libraries and archives of the United States because of the high acidic content of their paper. The plan was drawn to preserve the contents of some 3,000,000 embrittled books over a period of twenty years, through reformatting. The method chosen to reformat the materials was microfilming, because it was at the time the method that promised to achieve the goal of capturing the contents of the books safely and economically. What is more, filming has allowed the option of converting to electronic formats when they are sufficiently developed to warrant their adoption as preservation media.
In response to the brittle-books crisis, research libraries, which hold the largest number of endangered volumes, have taken a leadership role and built a capacity to deal with the widespread deterioration. Importantly, they have acted in the national interest in support of preservation activities. What has been clear from the start of the initiative, however, is that no one library has the resources to cope with the problem in its full dimensions. That is why the leadership of the National Endowment for the Humanities has been so essential. The NEH is perhaps the only organization in the country with the persuasive authority to engage institutions all across America in this massive rescue effort and to coordinate their labor. Eighty libraries and consortia of libraries have participated in the preservation initiative, and the consequences of their united action have been formidable. Further, in the years between 1988 and 1995, the nation’s major research libraries increased their preservation programs from 76 to 92, and the number of staff members committed to preservation activities rose from just over 1400 to approximately 1900.
When the preservation filming projects currently funded by the NEH have been completed, some 773,000 embrittled volumes—across fields of the humanities and the humanistic social sciences—will have been saved. These are works significant not just to American history and culture but to the cultures of other regions of the world, and their preservation is an accomplishment in which the nation’s libraries and archives can take great pride. And yet, when the figure is soberly assessed, it inspires mixed feelings. The NEH initiative has been in operation for eight years—40% of the duration of the originally drawn 20-year plan. Were the plan on schedule, more than a million volumes would have been saved by now. Not only is the initiative well behind that number in absolute terms, but the number of volumes filmed annually has diminished in recent years, to a level much below what was achieved in the early years. The reason for the lost momentum is plain: the amount of money available from the NEH for microfilming projects at the participating institutions has had to be reduced as the Division strives to maintain the full breadth of its program.
Despite this reduced funding, the institutions in the program have developed a superb in-house capacity to cope with the filming needs. The coordinated action of dozens of partners of varied size and character is now a daily reality in America. Institutions have purchased the requisite equipment, and they have hired and trained staff members to perform highly technical, detailed work. The work is efficient and cost-effective, and of an importance we can only begin to estimate. The NEH initiative made possible the building of this infrastructure, which was able to function close to its capacity when sufficient NEH funds were available. The reduction in the amount of Federal money for the brittle-books initiative has compromised the goals of the rescue effort. Although some institutions are ready to double their amount of filming, they simply cannot afford to increase their efforts without additional funding.
The crusade to save 3,000,000 embrittled books has lost some of the momentum that greeted its launching, because the extraordinary commitment has taken on the character of a workaday effort and may even seem old-fashioned at a time when digitization and high-tech capacities are being developed so rapidly. Those developments are bringing new attention to preservation requirements. But digital formats have not yet established themselves as trustworthy preservation media, and digitized systems at their current levels of development will not solve the brittle-books problem, though digitization may one day transform the ease of access to materials that have been saved through filming. So microfilming must continue uninterrupted, in accordance with the twin purposes that have guided the 20-year plan from the beginning: a) to film the books and keep their contents for future generations, and b) to assure scholars and the general public broad access to the filmed materials.
NEH is to be commended for its careful and well-reasoned approach to preserving the information recorded on acidic and brittle paper. It is to be commended as well for its growing commitment to the preservation of information on the equally fragile and ubiquitous formats new to the late nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries’photographs, film, television, video, and a large number of recorded sound media, including broadcast radio, cassette tapes, and vinyl disks. We strongly support this commitment to save the nation’s audio-visual record. A massive amount of information about the way we lived, the way we looked, and the way we sounded is recorded on some of the most fragile media yet invented—wax and wire recordings, nitrate and diacetate film, daguerreotypes and glass plate negatives, acetate disks, 78s and LPs, magnetic tape, and compact disks. Some people would argue that on these media are the greatest expressive forms that America has created in her short life?blues and jazz and rock-and-roll music, animation, and feature films. And there is much more, all of it imperiled: the literally irreplaceable documentary record of Native Americans’ languages and rituals, captured on fragile wax cylinders; the past ecology of the West, captured on thousands of fragile glass-plate negatives; the attitude and voices of Depression-era America, captured on newsreels and radio broadcasts. NEH is addressing the preservation and access needs of this incomparably rich non-textual record of America through grants earmarked for their conservation and reformatting.
The Library of Congress, in two landmark studies of the state of preservation of film and of television and video, has documented the need for immediate action to rescue significant, if still incomplete, portions of these cultural and information resources for generations to come. The Library’s survey of the needs of various collections and its development of a national plan to preserve this legacy, done in collaboration with a network of national experts from the private and public sectors, confirm that NEH’s commitment to help non-Federal repositories around the nation keep their audio-visual holdings for future generations is, indeed, exceptionally far-sighted.
NEH’s mission to preserve the intellectual and cultural record of America must be expanded through additional support if it is to adapt to the new challenges of the information revolution. Even as the preservation of print-based and audio-visual resources proceeds, an ever-expanding body of knowledge is being created in digital form. The challenge to the library and archival community, the traditional bodies charged with retaining cultural information of enduring significance, is that digitized information is being recorded on hardware and software that guarantee rapid and inevitable obsolescence. Anyone who has a computer knows only too well that, unless great time and care are taken to migrate files from one system to another, vital documents can be lost or corrupted in the constant shuffle to upgrade systems. Imagine that threat on a massive scale, and the challenge now facing information repositories across the country becomes vividly clear. NEH helped to fund a film, Into the Future, that explains clearly the perils to both the general public and the scholarly community of having information exist solely in digital form?for example, the location of toxic-waste dumping sites, medical records, or data from NASA explorations. The information might well become impossible to retrieve because of software obsolescence or the unreliability of a storage medium such as magnetic tape. The film, which aired nationwide this past winter, alerted Americans to the critical need for more research into the requirements for the long-term preservation and accessibility of digital information.
Despite the uncertainty that attends the continued development of digital technology, it clearly offers unprecedented opportunities for reformatting historical materials and making them widely available. Some of the most significant records from the American past?for example, the Brady and Gardner daguerreotypes taken at the time of the Civil War, or documentary evidence of the California Gold Rush?are unique and fragile. In the past, scholars had to travel to sites where these primary materials are kept to use them, and every time a researcher handled an original item, no matter how carefully, there was a risk of contributing to its deterioration. Reformatting these items and making them available through digital surrogates on the Internet has the potential to transform both scholarship at the highest level and the education of children throughout their school years.
Moreover, the additional funds NEH is requesting in fiscal ’99 to be earmarked for reformatting special-collections materials such as manuscripts, photographs, rare maps, and books will significantly increase access to many items that have already been physically preserved with NEH funds. Digital technology, then, becomes an important strategic partner in the mission not simply to ensure preservation but to guarantee an unprecedented breadth of access. But if the additional funds are not forthcoming, NEH will be unable to embrace the new technological opportunities without reducing its current commitment to other preservation and access activities that remain as essential as ever.
The library community and the humanities scholarly community applaud NEH’s partnership with the National Science Foundation (NSF) in its second round of digital library project grants. Scientific and technical materials are generally created in electronic form and find their way quickly to the World Wide Web. But historical humanities materials, so rich in content for many different research purposes, must be converted to digital form to be widely available on the Web.
Thanks to this collaboration between the NSF and the NEH, scholars, librarians, archivists, and computer scientists will be able to work together on research and demonstration projects directly related to preserving and creating access to humanities collections in electronic form. The goal is to bring the extraordinary advances in computer science we have seen in the past decades to bear on dissemination of the kinds of materials previously accessible only on-site in libraries, archives, museums, and historical societies. Through this new grants program, NEH will contribute significantly to the growing national resources of digital libraries’resources to be shared by all citizens.