CLIRinghouse Number 4

Quick insight into information-investment issues for presidents, CAOs, and other
campus leaders from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR)

Number 4, December 2001

The Issue for Presidents and CAOs:

When the Library is Digitized, What Should Become of the Books?

How exciting when a computer-using student or scholar discovers that the campus library is providing online access to needed books, documents, photos, maps, or even films and sound recordings. And how easy to forget that the materials digitized remain in the originating library.

What to do with them? Should books and other original source documents, once digitized, go back to the stacks for physical use, or to secondary storage for preservation while their digital surrogates meet access needs? Can the institution afford to continue preserving them while also preserving many library materials not digitized?

Preservation decisions matter to higher-education executives because their institution’s intellectual assets for teaching and research are at stake.Without preservation, many items may not survive to be digitized. Some already are so fragile that only copies circulate. All library resources deteriorate, some relatively rapidly, and preservation requires more than storage in the stacks.

The Challenges:

Budget Pressures May Join Natural Forces in Destruction

Wood-pulp paper in books and other printed materials becomes destructively acidic over time. Photographs, films, videotapes, and sound recordings deteriorate considerably faster, or become unusable because they depend on obsolescent equipment. Librarians meet such threats with two strategies:

  • undertaking preventive maintenance by controlling storage and deacidifying books
  • creating surrogates by transferring images to safety film, sound recordings to durable tape, printed works to microfilm, and many such materials to digital formats, which keep fragile sources accessible but themselves need preservation attention.

Digitization has intensified another challenge to preservation: competition for funds. Since 1994, budgets for preservation in research libraries overall have stayed flat. The benefits of digital library development are so clear, the demands for online access so strong, and the indispensability of preservation so little understood that preservation loses out in academic budgets.

The Options:

New Report Identifies
Cost-Containing Alternatives

Libraries continue to circulate holdings physically and preserve them as budgets allow. Preservation priority goes to items most heavily used or highly valued for age, rarity, association, or status as authentic, unaltered evidence. But beyond these points, criteria for priority may be as numerous as fields of scholarship, and as shifting as research interests.

Options more promising for preservation in the digital era appear in a just-published report from the Task Force on the Artifact in Library Collections (artifact meaning an item in its original format). Academic officers, scholars, librarians, and archivists convened by the Council on Library and Information Resources see a way for universities to contain preservation costs by working together. The Task Force recommends that universities

  • develop networks of libraries to divide responsibilities for preserving books, thus reducing expensively redundant care.
  • establish regional repositories for low-use monographs and journals now taking up valuable space in academic institutions.
  • designate archives to retain a “last, best copy” of valuable American imprints.

Library groups are working on such recommendations, but administrative leadership is needed to effect collaborations among institutions and to bring faculty, information technologists, and librarians together on individual campuses to consider these questions:

  • What is our policy on retaining artifacts for scholarly use?
  • Who determines the disposition of artifacts after we create surrogates for use?
  • Can we lower costs by participating in consortial arrangements to preserve artifacts?

Answers will vary with the needs and circumstances of each institution. But as the Task Force concluded, “The preservation challenge cannot be deferred or deflected, for what is lost by the present generation cannot be retrieved by the next.”

For more, please see The Evidence in Hand: Report of the Task Force on the Artifact in Library Collections, at www.clir.org, or order a printed copy through the Web site.