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CLIR’s Mission in the Era of Climate Disruption

—Charles Henry

Several months ago, I wrote a blog on two areas of emerging interest to CLIR: human rights and climate disruption. This post addresses the reasons for our focusing on climate disruption as a natural extension of CLIR’s decades-long mission to preserve and make accessible our cultural heritage.

A Commitment to Preservation
When the Council on Library Resources (CLR) and the Commission in Preservation and Access (CPA) merged in 1998, two complementary organizational missions became blended. CLR was chartered in the 1950s in response to a proliferation of information in research libraries, the expensive redundancy of collecting these materials across hundreds of institutions, and the attendant need to make these burgeoning academic resources coherent and productively usable. CPA’s mission, as its name declared, was specific to preserving and making accessible academic information that was at risk. One of the more famous campaigns of the CPA was Slow Fires, a documentary that identified the astonishing loss of our cultural record to acidic paper, the consequence of protracted cellulose deterioration from the acid pulp typically not neutralized during the cheaper methods of paper making.

A second major focus of CPA was the emerging phenomenon of digital information: the appearance of email, other forms of electronic correspondence, various word processing tools for academic book and article writing, and the prescient extrapolation that digital academic information would explode and be extremely difficult to manage and make coherent. In addition to acknowledging the startling florescence of technologies in service to research and teaching across disciplines, Pat Battin, president of CPA, declared in her 1991-92 annual report, “Our technological explorations are further driven by the conviction that technology continues to change both scholarly research methodologies and information needs and habits. It is essential that the knowledge from the past that we preserve today meets the needs of future scholars.”

These framing concepts continue to inform CLIR: the need for coherence across academic information sources in multiple media; the ongoing quest for greater cost efficiencies among our constituents, which increasingly entails collaboration; the imperative to preserve and make accessible culture under threat; and the mindset that we must understand that the means and methods of cultural transmission will instigate new models of inquiry and scholarly habits of communication. We must always try to imagine what future generations might need in the way of tools, infrastructure, knowledge organization, and discovery, be it analog or digital—a sophisticated framework of temporal integrity that bridges the past, present, and what might come after us.

What We Can Do
In this respect, CLIR’s development of platforms and infrastructure to address climate disruption is intuitive. There has not been a more intensive, encompassing, and pervasive threat to human culture than the predicted hazarding of climate over the coming decades. The research is unambiguous. Recent reports paint a more dire exacerbation of loss and disorder than previous reports [1]. In the biosphere, we can expect the extinction of a million species. Sea levels are expected to rapidly rise, and the risk of droughts and wildfires will intensify. Even moderate hikes in average temperatures will allow for invasive plant and insect species that will further disrupt our traditional patterns of life. A telling study overlaid maps of projected climate changes onto maps that identify current archival institutions in the United States to estimate the percentage of those institutions at risk. The report concluded that using current predictive methods, 98.8% of archives in the United States are likely to be affected by at least one climate risk factor by the year 2100 [2].

As a research organization, CLIR is appalled at the politicization of science in general and climate science in particular, a volitional ignorance that may speed our own extinction [3]. As an independent nonprofit with a longstanding commitment to global preservation, CLIR has a responsibility to both acknowledge and actively respond to the climate crisis. Effectively addressing these unprecedented preservation challenges will require mass government and community mobilization, and multifaceted, holistic approaches. At CLIR, we are dedicated to making our work part of this broader solution.

We are making a long-term commitment and our contributions will inevitably grow and evolve over time. For now, our focus will be on developing open digital platforms that can federate surrogates of our cultural heritage that is at risk. We call one of these platforms Pangia (subsequent blogs and essays will further define Pangia; we have also just released a brief explainer video). The means of capturing, preserving, and making coherently accessible our tangible (plastic arts, the written word, the built environment) and embodied culture (dance, ritual, language, performative arts) is an enormous task and will require a global coalition of institutional partners.

Pangia and related efforts are not simply repositories of threatened culture, but also instruments of teaching and active engagement. Climate change will have a staggering effect on the lives of individuals and communities. Often the people with the fewest resources are the most vulnerable to its effects. We are of this earth: its grand variety of elements combine in blood and breath and thought to make us. To distance ourselves literally or figuratively from the challenges to come shirks our better nature. Sea currents and patterns of wind, the regional soil, the confluence of tectonic plates have all determined and defined our culture and its expressions for millennia [4]. We have also responded to past environmental calamities with new ideas, new forms of governance, and inventive methods of trade and amelioration of loss [5]. While there is assuredly a funereal tenor to the still, sad exhalation of unnumbered fauna, a shrinking habitat of starkly attenuated variety and sound, the potential for responding to and evolving from the roiling of our planet will spur us in the construction of alternate virtual environments, making the past accessible through contemporary rigor and acuity, seeing as best we can through borrowed eyes.


[1] Some recent, relevant examples of research include: The New Climate Economy, Fourth National Climate Assessment, Global Environment Outlook (GEO 6), Global Warming of 1.5 Degree C, and US Environmental Protection Agency.

[2] See article “American archives and climate change: Risks and adaptation” in Climate Risk Management by Tara Mazurczyk, Nathan Piekelek, Eira Tansey, and Ben Goldman.

[3] See as examples: Learning to Die in the Anthropocene. Reflections on the End of A Civilization, by Roy Scranton; The Sixth Extinction. An Unnatural History, by Elizabeth Kolbert; Falter. Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben; and The Uninhabitable Earth. Life After Warming, by David Wallace-Wells.

[4] Origins. How the Earth Made Us, by Lewis Dartnell.

[5] Nature’s Mutiny. How the Little Ice Age of the Long Seventeenth Century Transformed the West and Shaped the Present, by Philipp Blom.

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