Close this search box.
Close this search box.

The last two decades of the twentieth century witnessed a nationwide movement to preserve endangered library and archival material. This activity was spurred by concerns surrounding the at-risk state of printed materials from the past 150 years and by the ready availability of resources for preservation from government and private foundations. In the 1980s, the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) launched its nationally coordinated programs to preserve the intellectual content of U.S. newspapers and brittle books through preservation microfilming. Organizations such as the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), the American Library Association, the Commission on Preservation and Access, the Council on Library Resources, the Library of Congress, and the Research Libraries Group exerted national preservation leadership. They articulated both a vision and an advocacy campaign to promote preservation awareness through such measures as the adoption of acid-free paper by the publishing industry and the annual gathering of preservation statistics. By the early 1990s, most academic libraries were supporting some forms of preservation activities, and many research libraries had established preservation programs distinct from other library functions, with their own managers.

By the turn of the century, however, it was evident that emphasis on one program was not a complete answer. NEH had already expanded its programs to include education and training, research and development, and initiatives aimed at special collections. The library community, faced with new opportunities created by digital technology, realized it could not maintain concentration on a single approach. In addition to microfilming brittle books, deacidification and digitization became important approaches to consider. Data from ARL, which conducts annual surveys of preservation activities, suggested that the microfilming of brittle books had declined and that number of preservation staff had also dropped. The Brittle Books program, which provided the focal point for a national preservation agenda in the 1980s and 1990s, had lost momentum.

Such trends can be documented in part though the statistics on the largest North American research libraries that are readily available from ARL. Much less is known about the state of preservation in libraries that are smaller, by some criteria, than ARL member institutions, but that hold important research material.

This research report represents a first attempt to set up a methodology for assessing these non-ARL libraries and to establish benchmark data for subsequent longitudinal comparisons. The report builds on information currently available by focusing on what library staff members identify as key concerns and strategies that would not be reflected in statistical surveys.

II. Executive Summary

With funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR), ARL, the University Libraries Group (ULG), and the Regional Alliance for Preservation (RAP) conducted a joint study in 2001 to examine the state of preservation programs in American academic libraries.1 The study was conducted in two phases and relied on qualitative as well as quantitative data gathering.

In Phase I, statistical information and other quantitative data relevant to preservation activity were collected in a survey (“IMLS survey”) of 116 libraries from the University Libraries Group (ULG), major non-ARL land grant institutions (LG), and leading liberal arts colleges in what is informally known as the Oberlin Group (OG).2 These data were compared with information that had been published in ARL Preservation Statistics for 2000-2001 (ARL 2002).

Phase II focused on obtaining qualitative data to complement the statistical data. Qualitative data were gathered by means of 20 site visits to institutions that represented the three surveyed groups plus the ARL.

Key Findings from Phase I

Institution Size

Library size was defined in terms of expenditures, volume count, and staff size. With respect to these measures, institutions in the four groups studied fall consistently along a continuum, with ARL libraries emerging as largest. ULG and LG libraries fall at points near one another, and OG libraries are notably smaller than those in any of the other three groups. (Specific data are found in Section V.) In all three categories of measure, ARL libraries are more than six times larger than OG libraries and three times larger than ULG and LG libraries. With respect to preservation activity, ARL libraries are by far the most active per institution; ULG libraries follow them, in some cases quite closely. LG and OG libraries pair naturally in several categories, especially where the relationships of data touch on size of preservation staff. In some instances, LG statistics suggest the least amount of activity.3

Preservation Expenditures

Preservation expenditures as a percentage of the library’s total budget are below 3 percent for all institutional groups and below 2 percent for the LG and OG institutions. Table 1 presents staffing patterns for preservation activities library-wide. ARL data are derived from the ARL Preservation Statistics 2000-2001, which present data for four size groupings of ARL libraries. These are institutions with collections of more than five million volumes (Group 1); three to five million volumes (Group 2); two to three million volumes (Group 3); and less than two million volumes (Group 4). ARL data are presented as medians; data for the other groups represent the means, unless otherwise noted. Because the average collection size for both ULG and LG libraries is under two million volumes, the most useful basis of comparison may be the ARL Group 4 institutions. The OG libraries are significantly smaller, with average collections of less than half a million.

A notable pattern emerging from this analysis is that the number of professional staff members devoted to preservation activities in Group 4 ARL libraries is nearly three times greater than that in the ULG and LG institutions and more than four times that in the OG libraries. Conversely, these latter groups rely more on student assistance than do the ARL Group 4 institutions. In total full-time equivalents (FTE), the four groups fall into two pairings: ARL Group 4 is similar to ULG, and the LG and OG resemble each other.


The IMLS survey included a set of questions on preservation policies and practices that do not appear in the ARL Preservation Statistics. The responses to these questions provide another useful way to measure the state of preservation activity at these institutions.

Most libraries in the three groups surveyed report having a disaster plan. Most ULG and OG institutions report that they provide secure and environmentally controlled storage facilities, and that they regularly review items for preservation. Less than half of all reporting institutions have training programs for staff and users, environmental monitoring programs, and written preservation policies, or are involved in cooperative preservation activities. Very few have developed a preservation plan for digital resources.

Key Findings from Phase II

Commitment to Preservation

The 20 site visits confirmed that academic libraries of all types are deeply committed to protecting their collections for current and future use. Most libraries support some forms of preservation activity, although not all of these functions may be identified as part of a formal program. Almost all library staff members expressed interest in improving their skills and programs in this area. Many libraries, and especially smaller ones, need outside help for their preservation programs in the form of advice, instruction, opportunity for learning, contact with those active in the field, involvement in collaborative efforts, and funding.

Dominant Themes from Interviews

Drawing from interview data, project staff members identified several dominant themes that indicate the nature of preservation as it is conceived and practiced within the libraries under discussion. These themes represent, in the main, a summation of what interviewees told project staff members about the state of preservation in their institutions and their preservation needs. The conclusions do not necessarily represent an accurate picture of what is happening in the preservation field, nor are they a comprehensive presentation of all needs, stated and unstated. They are listed here in two categories: the state of presentation activity today and librarians’ stated needs.

1. The state of preservation activity today as indicated by the data
  • Awareness and enthusiasm: Assumptions about the nature and scope of preservation vary widely, even within a single library. Preservation staff members, understandably, and library administrators, to a large degree, support preservation, at least in principle. The enthusiasm of front-line staff members varies, sometimes reflecting the degree to which they feel their work is embraced by the concept. Interest in and awareness of preservation surges in response to outside stimuli, such as emergencies and disasters.
  • Library functions: Staff members indicate a full familiarity with functions traditionally associated with preservation (e.g., binding, housing, shelving), but the relationship of these functions to an overall preservation strategy is not always apparent to those engaged in this work.
  • Grasp of preservation issues: Library staff members indicate a general understanding of the basic issues of preservation (e.g., environment, space, care and handling, repair and treatment, reformatting, and digitizing). However, when speaking of preservation, library staff members sometimes assumed a narrow definition that includes only some of these processes.
  • Preservation and strategic planning: In library planning, staff members may demonstrate an awareness of preservation, but the concept is seldom central to the process of strategic planning. Preservation is often not fully developed in the strategic plans themselves.
  • Funding: Library staff members are energetic and inventive in developing strategies for using existing funding structures to obtain resources for preservation activity. Dedicated funding lines are still difficult to establish in some categories of libraries, and there is considerable ambiguity about how and to what degree preservation is funded within institutions.
  • Training: Strong interest and, at some institutions, considerable effort go into training library staff members in preservation through a variety of modes, even though resources for this activity are severely limited.
2. Needs identified by library staff members
  • Funding: Staff members identified the need to increase funding as critical to the success of preservation efforts (including expanding sources, improving accounting methods, planning, and engaging cooperatively with funding agencies to rethink assumptions about the utility of such programs).
  • Consciousness-raising: It is essential to raise awareness of preservation among those outside the library, including college and university administrators, custodial staff, the institutional community, and the wider public.
  • Degree to which preservation information is authoritative and reliable: Staff members would like help in clarifying and communicating authoritative opinion and reliable data relating to preservation.
  • Usability of information: The authoritative information that does exist needs to be processed and packaged into modes that are practical, efficient, and effective for local training and other applications.
  • Environmental concerns: Staff members would like to obtain information and training in all aspects of the environmental setting, with particular focus on HVAC systems, water damage, storage conditions, and the effects of deferred maintenance.
  • Care and handling of library materials: Effective training materials and services need to be developed, especially for staff members, to meet the overwhelming needs and strong interest in this area.
  • Non-book materials: Staff members expressed a strong need for the development of services, institutions, methods, standards, and cooperative projects for preserving non-book materials (e.g., legacy audiovisual formats and photographic materials).
  • Storage facilities: Recognizing the growing importance of off-site library facilities, staff members support the development of methods for preserving materials that reside in such facilities.
  • Training: Pragmatic, cost-effective preservation training programs and materials need to be developed for staff members and users in structured teaching situations as well as in one-on-one situations (“teachable moments”).


1 Information about these organizations may be found at their respective Web sites: CLIR (, ARL (, ULG (, and RAP (

2 The list of land grant institutions includes those that were not members of ARL, did not represent university systems, and had total annual expenditures of $2 million or more. The one exception was Tuskegee, which had a total library budget of just over $1 million in 1998.

3 As ARL notes in its statistical reports, interpreting preservation information can be problematic, especially in institutions where preservation is a decentralized activity. This is true for all the groups surveyed and may be especially true for the LG libraries, which may define “preservation staff” narrowly and therefore underreport the extent of participation in preservation-related activities.

Skip to content