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The word “artifact” can be confusing because it masks a number of unexamined assumptions. In academic parlance, “artifact” can refer to a physical object, a primary record, or a physical object that constitutes a primary record.3 For the purposes of this report, an artifact will be defined as an information resource in which the information is recorded on a physical medium, such as a photograph or a book, and in which the information value of the resource adheres not only in the text or content but also in the object itself. In other words, artifacts are things that have intrinsic value as objects, independent of their informational content.

In recent years, scholars have identified an increasing number of library items that have research value as physical objects, above and beyond the information recorded in them. The Modern Language Association (MLA) has been concerned that the technologies of reproduction, such as photocopying, microfilming, and digital scanning, are becoming so good, so readily available, and so serviceable for many research and teaching purposes, that the importance of the underlying original might be devalued. To call attention to the dangers inherent in ignoring the fate of physical collections, the association created a committee to consider the issue. This group defined an artifact or primary record as “a physical object produced or used at the particular past time that one is concerned with in a given instance” (MLA 1996). Members asserted that for practical purposes, all historical publications, even those produced by mass-production techniques designed to minimize deviations from a norm, have unique physical qualities that may have value as a carrier of (physical) evidence in a given research project.4 Although careful to note it is not possible to save all copies of printed materials from destruction and the ravages of time, the committee’s statement nonetheless provoked some anxiety among librarians. This is because, while asserting the importance of preserving as many artifacts as possible and acknowledging the need to set priorities for preservation, the statement gave no guidance about how to make such priorities. Nicholson Baker recently alleged that libraries’ poor stewardship of books and serials has resulted in the loss of many resources of artifactual value. He further asserted that it is the responsibility of libraries in general and of certain large libraries in particular to collect masses of primary source materials and preserve them in their artifactual form. Yet he, too, failed to address the crucial matters of who would bear the responsibility for setting priorities, who would assume the custodial burden of these comprehensive collections, and who would fund these activities (Baker 2001).

An increasing number of library collections are being promoted, as it were, to resources of artifactual, not just informational, value. Given the nature of contemporary scholarship and its wide-ranging interest in material and popular culture, this trend makes perfect sense. Regrettably, libraries have never had sufficient funds to collect and preserve everything of potential research value. Thus, for libraries, this expansive view of artifactual value presents problems that are not primarily theoretical, but eminently practical.

Given the task of identifying achievable, fundable preservation strategies and goals for libraries, the task force took seriously its charge to identify parameters of artifactual value and to do so in a way that, following the spirit of preservation principles, would accept some loss as inevitable. It sought, in other words, to manage the risks of unacceptable loss. By looking well beyond the traditional mainstay of research library holdings-books and serials-and seeing that in the not-too-distant future the demand for analog audiovisual sources and for digital materials of all types will be as great as or greater than is the demand for print resources, the task force had to grapple with the prospect that the present preservation problem will grow to a scale that will render current approaches to preservation and access obsolete or irrelevant.

2.1 Selection for Preservation of the Original

The library preservation community has agreed on certain cardinal features of physical objects that warrant preservation in their original formats. These features are

  • evidential value
  • aesthetic value
  • scarcity
  • associational value
  • market value
  • exhibition value

Objective criteria or established practice determine many of these features, and the criteria vary little among libraries. They are, in short, best practice. Several selection policies that are based largely on these features appear as examples in Appendix III.

The task force excluded from consideration those categories of artifacts that are always retained in the original. Such artifacts include, for example: books printed before 1801, which are usually segregated from general holdings in a rare-book collection and subject to different handling and preservation protocols; manuscripts and archival materials that exist only in few or single copies; and items with high market value. These items are often crucially important for research and teaching; at the same time, there is little debate about their value as physical objects. Moreover, their disposition after reformatting is not an issue. Despite their importance to research collections and their rightful demand on preservation resources, these types of artifacts are not discussed in detail in this report because their value is not seriously contested in the libraries that have responsibility for them.

The value of the artifact for research purposes-as opposed to its monetary value or exhibition value-is chiefly evidentiary. An artifact is of evidential value because it testifies to the extent the information in it is original, faithful, fixed, or stable.

Originality. An original manifestation of a book, photograph, or recorded performance is valuable because through it a scholar may come closer to uncovering the original intent of the creator or the publisher or both.5 When a copy yields insufficient information about that intent, access to the original may be needed. Reformatting and copying information are analogous to translation from one language to another. Depending on the source and the target language, as well as the skill, care, and cultural biases of the translator, something inalienable to the original is always lost. A good translation, like good recopying, is one that loses the least amount of original content and intent.

Fidelity. The physical artifact is useful, and at times essential, in establishing the authenticity of an item. In other words, it has forensic value. How does one know that the item in one’s hands is what it purports to be? There are internal clues in a document that give evidence of authenticity. Among these are the accuracy and appropriateness of the content. A newspaper dated 1901 that contains listings of television broadcasts, for example, is unlikely to be authentic. In addition, the external information contained in a physical manifestation provides clues of authenticity and integrity. Erasure marks on a sheet of paper, splices in a film, dried white erasure fluid on property maps-all these are physical clues to the integrity of the object and, hence, the authenticity of the information recorded in it.

Fixity. The content of the artifact when it was first produced constitutes the text (in the case of textual materials) or the document (in the case of a photograph or an opera performance). If one is holding a fifteenth-generation fax, one cannot guarantee that the full content of the original is conveyed except by comparing it with the original, which has fixed the content by recording it at one instant in time. One of the wonders of mass reproduction of text is the way in which replication by machine en masse tended to stabilize texts that had previously been somewhat fluid. Recent humanities scholarship, however, has done much to undermine the notion of even mass printings producing a stable version or versions of various texts, and the digital realm is eroding further the concept of the fixed content of a published item.

Stability. The persistence of an object over time leads to the stable and continuous accessibility of the information contained in it. Documents whose physical substrate changes over time themselves change. Film that gets spliced and repaired loses content; digital files that get reformatted into a newer version of a software program change; photographic images printed or displayed in various manners shift tone. When one looks at a 30-year-old image of a woman in a red coat that has been printed on paper that fades and at a contemporary image made from the same negative that has been made into a slide and is being projected on a screen, chances are that the coat will appear as a different shade of red in each image. The content or value of that red is not stable, and it is difficult to efface mentally the effects of age and reformatting and to determine whether the original color of the coat was scarlet or crimson.

Some artifacts are valuable for research because the format itself is the subject of investigation. Original bindings carry evidence of print history, just as original daguerreotypes carry evidence of an early imaging technology. Bindings can also testify to the economic status of the intended reader (inexpensive as opposed to expensive presentations, for example). In these cases, the object itself is the primary source of interest.

Also of value to the research process is the physical encounter between the researcher and the object-an encounter that can help prime the scholar’s imaginative and analytical skills. While this factor is highly subjective and difficult to quantify, many scholars claim it has had, at least at some stage of their careers, an irreplaceable heuristic value. A medievalist who has never worked directly from manuscripts is at a disadvantage, just as a biographer of Thomas Jefferson who has worked exclusively from the printed editions of his letters may be said to work at one critical remove from his or her subject. Nevertheless, given the toll that physical handling takes on all types of materials, the task force considered that surrogates can be judiciously used by those who have a familiarity with original source materials and that, from the perspectives of preservation and convenience of access, surrogates are often preferable.6

2.2 Frameworks for Determining Value

Questions about the nature of the artifact have caused scholars and library professionals to realize that, even for the early part of the nineteenth century, much more information of potential research value exists in traditional formats such as paper and image than had previously been recognized. Consequently, the process of redefining what constitutes an artifact must be done not only for new media but also for a considerable body of information from the 1800s. The fragility of paper-based materials printed since 1850, especially newspapers, has been a concern for some time (Baker 2000, Cox 2000, Marley 1975, Smith 1995). Because newsprint is so fragile, preserving one or more instances of all imprints of newspapers poses enormous technical as well as financial challenges. More recently, there has been a growing awareness of other kinds of artifacts from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that also require the attention of preservationists. These include materials that serve as primary evidence of popular culture, ranging from baseball cards to ladies’ magazines to dime novels to political posters. All were produced for a mass market using cheap and readily available materials.

The examples from popular culture raised the most difficult matter the task force considered: How to weigh the relative merits of various claims on scarce preservation resources. The need to consider merit is nothing new. Scholars, archivists, and librarians have always assumed a hierarchy in collections. The artifact or original document was the item initially collected and accessioned. When it was prized for some unique aspect of its material or historical existence (e.g., a first edition, a holograph manuscript, a signed author’s copy, or a presentation copy of a work), the artifact was given priority for preservation. Absent that uniqueness, a lower level of care might be given, and a lost or damaged copy might be replaced by one whose physical manifestations were quite different (e.g., a photocopy or a reprint). The value of the unique artifact could be defined variously as “historically important,” “rare,” “associational,” and so on. In each instance, however, there was an individual material object that someone had once defined as valuable enough to retain.

The Achilles’ heel of traditional definitions of the artifact lay in the value judgment that determined artifactual status in the first instance. What were the grounds for deciding in favor of one object and against another? How can libraries cope with the fact that the value of the artifact is never quite the same to different researchers? While one scholar will seek certain information from the item, scholars from other disciplines will require different kinds of data that may involve a wholly different way of handling the object.7 Can one say that these users are even seeing the same object?8

Scholars and others who use artifacts may think of them in the aggregate as unified objects; however, when they interrogate the artifact for their research, they tend to focus on parts rather than the whole. One may define the artifact as a series of multiple discrete components-handwriting, watermarks, marginalia, splices, evidence of use-each potentially a focal point for scholars and others, depending on what they are studying. From the standpoint of usage, people normally analyze discrete sets of information contained within an artifact. The fact that artifacts are complex and that they lend themselves to a variety of intellectual endeavors means that one must think of them in terms of their parts, and not just as wholes. One way to think of the artifact, then, would be as a multiplicity of informational sets, including the material form of the object and its contextual history, where known. (The relationship of part to whole is also crucially important.)

One element of the artifact’s complexity is the fact that scholars from different fields will perceive and use it in different ways. A first edition of a novel by Charles Dickens will be used very differently by a historian of Victorian England researching the economics of the book trade, a literary scholar concerned with different versions of the work, an art historian interested in Victorian book illustration, a textual historian interested in layout, and a historian of bookmaking. Each will consult the same artifact for a different kind of information, and none may notice the information sought by the others. Similarly, photographs of the Civil War by Alexander Gardner can be used to study the battles; the public’s reception of the war in the North; the history of clothing, medicine, or gender; or even the medium of photography. Which subject interest and methodology would require use of the original? Which could make do with copy prints? Which could make use only of the original photographs in their original presentation portfolios? Which would be enhanced by access to the images through digital delivery, which could then be manipulated to magnify details?

The preceding observations suggest the possibility of proposing a contextual definition of the artifact as follows:

An artifact is a physical object produced at some time in the past, and attesting to a given set of practices, thinking, and ways of viewing the world, and whose importance will be defined by present and future needs and use. The value of the artifact is strongly influenced, but not completely determined, by its rare or unique features.

The artifact conveys historical consciousness in different ways, depending on who studies it and for what purpose. Much of the information conveyed by an artifact does not require the presence of the physical object. Surrogates of the object (e.g., photographs, photocopies, and digital versions) may convey much of the information stored by the artifact. Indeed, for many purposes, a high-quality surrogate may convey this information better than does the original. The surrogate may enable access and use that would otherwise be impossible; for example, it allows a user to view an object that is physically distant, to enhance images, or to perform full-text searches. Surrogates do not obviate some scholars’ need to consult the object itself; however, in many instances, a surrogate can serve scholarly needs as well as, or better than, does the artifact itself.

The artifact matters. It matters very much. Nevertheless, in a time when artifacts are abundant and resources scarce, the scholarly and library communities are called to rethink the status of the artifact in terms of its content and material form. Acknowledging that every aspect of an artifact yields information that will be of use to some scholar or other, we nonetheless need to assess the relative importance of the different aspects of an artifact pragmatically. Scholars and library professionals jointly face issues such as the following.

First, within the timeframe of the last 200 years, what constitutes an artifact worth retaining? The answer is not obvious in the case of nineteenth-century material artifacts: baseball manuals or railway timetables have not traditionally been viewed as important cultural documents, although they probably would be today. The question becomes truly perplexing in the case of media that are dependent on playback equipment, from recorded sound to moving images, in which the concepts of original or unique, stable or fixed, may not even apply.

A second question concerns resources and priorities. This imperative may be spelled out as the “how, who, and when” of artifact preservation. In other words, accepting the reality that resources for preservation are limited, and assuming some common, gross-level understanding of the value of artifacts, how (in what form) are they to be preserved, by whom, and when (or how often)? Are all libraries or archives to be held responsible for collecting and preserving the same categories of artifacts? How much redundancy of preservation is necessary? How much can libraries afford? Redundant collections serve as insurance policies for preserving and making accessible information in a physical format. This is even true for digital information, which can be cloned and shipped around the globe almost instantaneously, yet is highly fragile if no one assumes archiving responsibility for the data. In the case of digital information, given the high costs of building and maintaining information technological infrastructures, the same degrees of redundancy that we see for print may be neither desirable nor feasible. If and when digital files become the default mode for access-even for materials such as journal articles or encyclopedias, which were originally physical artifacts-what are the implications for duplicative collections of physical artifacts?

The point is not to determine whether baseball manuals and railway timetables from the nineteenth century, for example, are of sufficient artifactual value to justify the expense of collecting and preserving them. Rather, it is to set priorities in the face of financial constraints that too often mean, practically speaking, that if one decides to collect and preserve one kind of artifact, resources for other kinds will be insufficient.

The issue is not to evaluate the artifact per se to determine what survives and what does not. The scholarly community has no more of a claim to the wisdom of the ages than does the library community. The issue is to identify productive methods for interrogating the individual artifact that would, in a climate of finite resources, inform decisions about whether and how to preserve it. Such methods would help ensure survival of the greatest number of artifacts by intelligent analysis and careful consideration among knowledgeable and committed communities.

There is no single method of engaging primary sources, nor is there one overriding set of priorities-text over image, manuscript over map, English language over non-English-that will meet the needs of present or future research. But how do scholars, librarians, and archivists work together to prevent the kinds of losses that we can now regret in leisure-local newspapers, silent films, early television broadcasts, among others? Some past initiatives have brought together the scholarly, archival, and libraries communities to propose preservation and collection guidelines. The Commission on Preservation and Access convened scholars in the 1980s to identify brittle books to microfilm (George 1995). In the 1990s, the American Historical Association, the ARL, and the MLA created a task force on the preservation of the artifact to document preservation challenges and inform scholars about the need to collaborate with libraries to address them (Reed-Scott 1999). These efforts have effectively addressed specific problems. However, most of the collaborations between scholars and librarians have been either locally based or designed to address only specific areas of concern, and they have focused largely on print materials. One goal of the task force was to propose strategies for collaboration that are realistic and sustainable, that balance the needs of present and future users, and that address the proliferation of nonprint materials in the information landscape.

American scholarship has historically relied on a decentralized network of libraries, archives, historical societies, and museums to collect, preserve, and make accessible the intellectual and cultural resources that form the basis of academic inquiry. This decentralized and largely uncoordinated approach is unlikely to change, despite the resulting losses of artifacts that have occurred. However, new preservation and information technologies promise to offer cost-effective means to prevent or slow physical deterioration and to keep the research community well informed about what others in the community are doing to preserve their holdings. These technologies will be successful to the extent that the research community is committed to identifying preservation challenges and to lobbying for financial resources-from provosts and foundations to federal agencies-to address them. Strategies for collaboration will depend onthe use of new information technologies to share crucial information about the status of various collections. They will also depend on the continued engagement of scholars, librarians, and archivists to deploy those technologies in meeting their responsibilities to the well-being of the intellectual and cultural assets whose benefits they enjoy.


3 In scientific laboratories, “artifact” also denotes a phenomenon or substance that is a by-product of some external action or agent.

4 The statement addresses only text-based sources. If this standard of value were extended to visual and sound resources, the universe of primary records would grow exponentially.

5 The instances of published versions differing from the presumed intent of the creator are legion in books, films, and other materials. In those cases, the sources that contain information about the work in prepublication form (e.g., drafts, outtakes, and proof sheets) are also required to reconstruct original intent.

6 See, for example, the case of the international editorial team working on the James Boswell Papers at the Beinecke Library (Bouché 1999). The editors came to prefer using digital scans of the original manuscripts to working from the originals in New Haven. In part this was a matter of convenience-the work could be done wherever the editors were located and obviated the need for repeated trips to New Haven; however, the editors also recognized that the scans were more legible than were the originals.

7 Research disciplines train scholars to attend to the materiality of their objects of study in very different ways. Historians, literary scholars, philosophers, art historians, historians of science, linguists, and text editors examine quite different aspects of an object of study, which, in the case of artifactual objects, will be complex. Sometimes there may be overlap, but more often there is not. The needs of all serious users are legitimate, and preservation should serve them as effectively and equitably as possible.

8 Artifacts derive their value from how they are viewed and used in a given culture at a particular moment. As cultural variables, they will be viewed and studied differently in different periods. A holograph copy of a speech by Robespierre would have a different value for a royalist in Louis XVIII’s government in 1816 than for a socialist historian in France in the 1990s.

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