Mapping the Preservation Landscape

Abby Smith

The purpose of preserving physical objects that contain information or hold memories is to ensure access to that information or those memories at some time in the future. Books, manuscripts, maps, photographs, home movies, postcards-each object is its own memory palace, waiting to be explored at some unknown time hence.

Happy are those who decide what to save with some person or purpose in mind: the mother who squirrels away childhood mementoes when her daughter goes to college; the taxpayer who assembles all pertinent papers from a tax year into a folder, marks the folder with that year, and places it carefully in a filing cabinet. They are secure in the knowledge that when those items are called for-by the daughter now grown with children of her own, or by the Internal Revenue Service on a quest for records of past transactions-they can be found and delivered to a satisfied user.

These individuals are content because they possess the most important pieces of information necessary for successful preservation: They know what to preserve, for whom, and for how long. After that, they just face a series of second-order issues: space, media stability, labeling, and organization. Daunting perhaps, but second-order nonetheless.

Libraries are not so fortunate. While they can presume to know what present-day users want, libraries, especially research libraries, collect and preserve on behalf of future users as well. They do not know for certain for whom they preserve, what that future user might really need, and for how long a resource must be preserved and kept ready for use in order to meet that unknown user’s needs.

How well have libraries done in meeting the needs of current users for old or retrospective resources? Recent evidence suggests that libraries have been unable to keep up with current demand for preservation (Kenney and Stam 2002) and too often have proved unable to anticipate what users really want (Baker 2001). Indeed, it seems that users of research libraries want these facilities to expand greatly the scope of what they collect, what they serve and how, and to what they will ensure future access (Nichols and Smith 2001).

As we compare the expectations of library users with reports from the preservation profession, it is hard to feel sanguine about the future of the historical and cultural record. What does the landscape for preservation in this new century look like? Are libraries really facing new challenges that demand new strategies? Do transformations in the ways that information is recorded and disseminated in the digital world render obsolete our current assumptions about what to preserve for posterity and how? How can we map the journey ahead?

First, a cautionary note: A map is only a depiction of where someone has already been. You may plan your trip according to a map, but you are placing your trust in those who claim to have gone before. When we depart for someplace that is uncharted, we can do one of two things: look at the large blank before us and mark it “terra incognita” or fill in the empty space with depictions of things reported-or simply fabricated-by others. One of the most enchanting genres of recorded information is the map of exploration. It is more often a feat of the imagination than one of daring and bravery leading to actual discovery.

Perceptions of the Road Ahead

Reports from early reconnaissance missions into the future information landscape are mixed-indeed, often contradictory-but we can see a few trends emerging. As people look for familiar landmarks in this new, largely digital, environment, many professional practices and tried-and-true preservation strategies are called into question. Here are some observations about what is new, what is familiar, and what paths forward present themselves.

  • In the future, as in the past, the fundamental purpose of preservation will be to ensure access to information to some user at some point in the future. But who that user will be has become unclear, especially for the abundance of materials created and distributed on the Web. Users who seek information from the Web are a far larger and more heterogeneous group than any one library ever sees in its reading rooms. Now we must reckon with the possibility that the user could be in any location and seeking information in any format, and that he or she will remain completely unknown to the library that collects and preserves.
  • As in the past, selection will be necessary. But selection is more difficult in a world where there is too much information for any one institution to filter, assess, and acquire. The value of Web-distributed information in particular is not immediately apparent. New genres and formats are appearing and disappearing in rapid succession, before we have time to assess their long-term value. And yet we must make decisions quickly about whether and how to hold on to these evanescent forms of expression. Some of the most bizarre or ephemeral forms could turn out to be incredibly important (or not).
  • Then again, maybe selection is not necessary. Storage is getting cheaper; for this reason alone, some people maintain that we should save everything. Others counter that preservation is not storage and that saving everything is not a service to future users. The new methods of distributing information only complicate things, because much of what appears to have value-a faculty Web page, for example-is not created or disseminated in the ways that were typical in traditional publishing and does not naturally fall within the collecting scope of libraries. How do we know what is of value now and in the future? How do we acquire it if it does not come to us? And what are we supposed to do with that Web site our English faculty member created using Flash?
  • In the past, preserving information in a fixed form on an archival medium was the preferred means of ensuring long-term access. How are we expected to bound or fix an information object for preservation if it has no clear boundaries and is by nature dynamic-appearing in many versions, often simultaneously, as it is on the Web? The concept of fixity of content or medium is inoperable in the digital realm, because information is not fixed and there is no such thing as an “archival medium.”
  • Ownership of and access to collections are no longer synonymous. Given the complexity of digital preservation in a networked environment, it is likely that a few institutions will have to preserve on behalf of the many. The issues that arise under these conditions are many. Who pays for preservation? How do we determine what the benefit of preservation is and to whom? How can we support scholarly and cultural resources without turning them into commodities?
  • Preservation cannot be deferred for long in a digital environment, but the myriad technology dependencies of this content make the library world dependent on manufacturers and a consumer-driven marketplace. While it might be easier to capture, describe, and preserve digital objects if there were more standards, achieving agreement on which standards to adopt is tremendously time-consuming. Moreover, if adopted prematurely, standards can stem innovation.
  • Everyone in the chain of information creation and transmission needs to consider preservation now. How a person creates, in what file formats, and using which hardware and software can predetermine the life span of a digital object. Libraries cannot achieve all their preservation goals on their own; they will need to enter into a series of relationships with so-called preservation stakeholders, whoever they are. Moreover, libraries will have the additional challenge of motivating others to engage in preservation-of explaining to communities at large, from scientists to photographers to digital cartographers, why they should care about preservation and what they should be doing about it.

These are some of the early reports from the field. But are these reports really describing a new landscape? Before we depart for our reconnaissance into the future using these often vague and contradictory descriptions as guides for our journey, we should glance backward, take in all the places we have already been, and try to see what we can learn of the journey ahead on the basis of the position from whence we start. I would argue that very little of what lies ahead, while admittedly uncharted, will turn out to be completely unfamiliar.

New but Familiar Territory

Many innovations in technology have cumulatively revolutionized information creation and dissemination. In the past 150 years alone, we have seen the introduction of mass-produced paper, the invention of photography, and the development of technologies for sound recording, moving image, telegraph, radio, television, and video.

With each successive innovation in recording technology, some sector of the cultural heritage world has risen to the challenge of collecting and preserving the new media. The first efforts are usually made by visionary individuals who collect in the new media or sometimes-though not often enough-by the industries that publish in the new media. Libraries-at least the average academic and public library-have not routinely incorporated these new media; they remain print-centered worlds. Most significant collections of twentieth-century media-television and radio, moving image, and recorded sound-are either outside of libraries altogether or are kept apart from the books and journals. These collections often suffer from inattention; they are uncataloged or under-cataloged and are segregated from print collections in so-called special collections, archives, or media collections.

And why not? Libraries are conservative organizations, as befits their mission of stewardship. Modern libraries developed in large part to provide access to books and other printed materials, and that is how they got into the collecting business. Few libraries have been driven by their leadership or their primary patrons to expand beyond that domain to keep pace with new information technologies. Happily for libraries, printed materials have proved to be among the longest lived and most stable of media for information, and many notions that librarians and library users have about preservation derive, consciously or not, from our experiences of books as being fixed, stable, and enduring.

That paradigm of longevity and stability, barring occasional catastrophic destruction, was first and most grievously wounded by the discovery of acid in paper and of the subsequent effect that physical degradation of a medium has on the integrity of information inscribed on it. In the 1980s, this discovery spawned an aggressive rescue operation known as the Brittle Books Program. That program went about the reformatting of information from paper to film on the postulate that an aggregation of local preservation actions could, with some effort at coordination and standardization and a bit of outside funding, become an effective national preservation strategy.

We have come a long way since the inception of the Brittle Books Program. First came a recognition of the need to preserve not only the informational value of books and journals but also their value as cultural artifacts. That need applies, we discovered, even to humble, intentionally ephemeral items such as yesterday’s newspapers that do not bear the traditional hallmarks of artifactual value: scarcity, associational value, age, uniqueness, and market value, among others. We are now able to articulate a meaningful, if at times hotly contested, distinction between information that is intrinsic to an object as object, and that which is fungible and can be moved successfully from one format or physical carrier to another.

The Lesson from Audiovisual Archivists

With the growth and popularity of moving image and audio resources, which appeared on increasingly unstable recording media, a different understanding of preservation emerged. Collectors of audiovisual materials, from individuals to federal agencies, contend not only with fragile media but also with machine and manufacturing dependencies that obviate fixing on artifacts to the degree possible in paper-based collections. Audiovisual archivists are resigned to a life of reformatting, cold storage, and reference copies. They seldom repose trust in a preservation solution that promises fixity, stability, and ready access over even short periods of time. Moreover, audiovisual materials are usually fraught with a host of copyright entanglements that confound timely preservation intervention. Business models in the industries that produce and disseminate these items do not encourage third-party preservation. Even noncommercial audiovisual resources are in peril because too often preservation responsibilities must be assumed by the sometimes-untraceable owners of intellectual and performance rights, not by professional librarians and archivists.

The disjunct relationships between access and ownership, between ownership and stewardship, and between intellectual and privacy rights and preservation are old issues to stewards of audiovisual collections. It is regrettable that archivists in these fields have so little professional intercourse with librarians, even when both types of professionals work in the same institutions. Many librarians in research institutions are encountering these vexing issues for the first time in the digital realm. They seem unaware of the vast experience and expertise among their colleagues in other media.

It would be misleading to say that audiovisual archivists have met these problems and solved them. They are, however, well versed in the woes of property and privacy rights, and the vicissitudes of curating commercially valuable information assets. Just as important, they are used to evaluating dynamic and real-time information sources for acquisition and later for preservation-that is, things that keep changing, such as broadcasts, performances, or other information that one must absorb in real time, such as film and sound.

Certain genres of contemporary media are so technology-intensive, complex, and expensive to handle and preserve-35mm studio film productions are a good example-that they defy the traditional preservation-and-access practices of text-based librarianship. Books and journals are wonderfully consumer-friendly, just like music CDs. Everyone, including local libraries, can have their own collection of them. But film collecting is so demanding that only a few highly specialized organizations can effectively manage to do it; they engage in preservation on behalf of many. This type of preservation model tells us something about how to find our path into the territory of digital collections. Film archivists have had to enter into complicated, multilayered relationships with the producers of the content they curate and preserve. A business model, as we would call it today (or a distribution model, as it was called until recently), has developed to bridge the gap between those who have stewardship over film assets and those who want to see films. Be they researchers or movie fans, individuals who want to view a film after its theatrical release rarely have recourse to a screening room and 35mm projection prints. Film is preserved in one place, in its “native format,” and viewed in a million other places in a consumer format, such as video or DVD.

Selection and the Lesson from Collectors

How do we grapple with the question of selecting for preservation in an age that appears to have an unprecedented glut of information? Before there were libraries and archives and canons of collecting and best practices for preserving, there were collectors. In the beginning, collectors were kings and emperors and potentates with disposable incomes and either great curiosity or something to prove. But over time, and with a wide range of financial resources to deploy, an astounding and heterogeneous population of “passionate individuals” has found value and stimulation, consolation and excitement, solace and thrill, and much else in amassing coherent bodies of what can be crudely called “information objects”-artifacts that carry information and memories above and beyond any financial value they might have. Collectors are often the first to behold a new or heretofore neglected form of human expression. They want to bring it in from the wild, hold it, and describe it and show it off to others so that they, too, might take pleasure or find wisdom in it. Collectors, in other words, have been acting as front-line preservationists for millennia by bringing in things from the wild and ensuring their continued physical survival, if not always wide access.

We see a new generation of collectors spawned by the new digital technology-computer-game collectors and Brewster Kahle of Internet Archive fame are only the most talked about. In the digital realm, it is currently thought, preservation is an opportunity that can happen only with acquisition. Acquiring and ensuring long-term access are virtually synonymous, because “long term,” in digital parlance means “through the next hardware or software upgrade.” This is perhaps why keeping digital content for more than a few months is commonly referred to as “archiving.” What can collectors tell us about how to define value in a large universe of worthy candidates?

There are probably few features of this future information landscape that have no precedent. But the basic questions remain unanswered: What are we to collect and preserve, for whom and for how long, and who should assume the burden of stewardship? New information technologies leave us with more information to sort through and less time to take appropriate action before information starts disappearing. This phenomenon did not begin with digital technology; it started with the appearance of cheap paper and an array of analog technologies. That said, we will need new strategies to deal with the problems presented by a lack of time, a corresponding abundance of information, and a constantly shifting technological infrastructure. Meanwhile, the old preservation challenges will remain, bigger and seemingly more intractable than ever.

Has the basic purpose of preservation been affected in any way by the developments of the last two centuries? The underlying assumptions about the nature of recorded information and access to that information are certainly different than they were before mass publishing began to enfranchise so many readers and writers. Just as surely, the proximate goals of preservation have changed. They are no longer to fix, to stabilize, to conserve, or to reformat onto an archival medium. We speak now of ensuring continued access through maintaining collections that are fit for use. Increasingly, we hear that our users and potential users want more access to more resources, and they want them delivered in ways that promote customization and repurposing.

As we think about meeting these responsibilities as best we can, it is important to remember how morally charged that work is. We engage in preservation, as individuals and as a society, to influence the future. As we preserve, or choose not to preserve, we shape the resource base that is our common memory, the playground of what Thomas Jefferson called “reason, memory, and imagination,” and that our nation’s founders sought to nurture and protect, through copyright, as the source of innovation, knowledge, and progress. People will continue to rely on libraries and sister institutions such as archives and museums to secure our common memory into the future, through careful stewardship of collections that are authentic, complete, reliable, and accessible.

But perhaps there are limits to what can be learned from the past, and reassurances that the future will not be unfamiliar to us could be completely misplaced. We laugh when we look at the maps made of the New World that depict California as an island, because we have been there and know that it is not. But perhaps we are mistaken, and the map is actually a map of the future, depicting California when it will be an island once again. Sometimes maps are not accurate but merely prophetic.


Baker, Nicholson. 2001. Double Fold: Librarians and the Assault on Paper. New York, N.Y.: Random House.

Kenney, Anne R., and Deirdre C. Stam. 2002. The State of Preservation Programs in American College and Research Libraries: Building a Common Understanding and Action Agenda. Washington, D.C.: Council on Library and Information Resources.

Nichols, Stephen G., and Abby Smith. 2001. The Evidence in Hand: Report of the Task Force on the Artifact in Library Collections. Washington, D.C.: Council on Library and Information Resources.