Selection for Preservation of Research Library Materials

The Commission on Preservation and Access
1785 Massachusetts Avenue, N.W.. Suite 313,
Washington, D.C. 20036-2117
(202) 483-7474
August 1989

The Commission on Preservation and Access was established in 1986 to foster
and support collaboration among libraries and allied organizations in order
to ensure the preservation of the published and documentary record in all
formats and to provide enhanced access to scholarly information.

Librarians and scholars are vitally interested in developing strategies
and establishing priorities for choosing which materials to preserve when
not everything can be saved. This report is intended to stimulate further
thinking on the part of the community of scholars who must have a voice
in selection strategies.


There are more library books and journals in need of preservation today
than can possibly be saved before they crumble and disappear. Accordingly,
we cannot afford to spend resources on the preservation of materials that
are unimportant. Choices must be made, and made with the best available
advice as to the future scholarly value of the information to be saved.

The problem of brittle books arises from the acidic paper on which most
books and journals were printed from 1860 to 1920, and the temperature
and humidity conditions under which these volumes have been stored. About
30 million books in U.S. Libraries are, sooner or later, doomed to turn
brown, brittle, and unusable. The problem is a national, not a local one,
and only a concerted national effort has any hope of rescuing our cultural
heritage. Libraries must cooperate in lending their salvageable volumes
to the task and the federal government is the only possible source of sufficient
funding. The result must therefore be a national collection, accessible
to all scholars.

Some Distinctions

In this paper, “preservation” is used to mean saving the content of a
brittle book whether through a gross transformation such as microfilming
its pages, encoding its languages electronically, or reprinting it. Conserving” or
‘ restoring” the original item refers to attempts to save the physical
artifact as well. The choice of mode may depend upon the rarity, uniqueness
or special features (e.g., illustrations, typography) of the item, as well
as upon the feasibility and cost of the technology employed. For the greatest
part of the problem, microfilming appears currently to be the preferable
mode of storage for preservation, although replication in other media from
the storage microfilm may be preferable for use.

Manuscripts and archives also cry out for preservation or conservation,
but present different problems than scholarly monographs and serials do.
The latter are better known, defined, and classified than archives are,
and constitute a somewhat more manageable problem because they are kept
in well-ordered fashion in large collections that offer better accessibility
for purposes of preservation. Printed works also serve a larger constituency
than most archives do and their relative uniformity (compared to archival
materials) makes them easier to process on a mass scale. Finally, the existing
bibliographic network for printed works can be used advantageously in selecting
items to be preserved and in minimizing duplication of effort among preservation
projects. In view of the urgency of the preservation task printed works
seem the best place to begin. Success in this area will pave the way for
further support in others.

Disciplinary Differences

The needs and objectives of preservation vary widely across the several
fields of scholarship. Literary and historical studies make much greater
use of monographs, diaries and memoirs than the physical and biological
sciences, where greater reliance is placed on journal articles and conference

Correspondingly, in those areas of scholarship that focus on the movement
and transformation of ideas; changes in the text of novels, plays, and
poems; and connections among the cultural products of different eras and
different places, there is often a demand for more extensive preservation–of
each of the variant editions of a text, or each of several reproductions
of a work of art. Such studies of stylistic or substantive variation are
concerned with the changes or differences themselves in a work or a genre
that is nominally the “same.” The need for multiple versions is not merely
scholarly scrupulosity. Furthermore, in some subjects the preserved collection
should knowingly include secondary, “inferior” or “popular” material, for
scholars sometimes want to know everything that was being said about a
subject even by tendentious or inaccurate writers.

Students of history (in any area) present a particular problem for a preservation
strategy, for their scholarly mills can grind any kind of written or pictorial
matter into historical grain. In principle, there is no topic, no place,
no people, no event or sequence of events about which an historical account
cannot be written. While the most trivial and frivolous topics are ruled
out by the canons of scholarship, there is nonetheless a vast body of material
whose preservation can be justified on the theory that someday someone
will want to trace the historical changes in it or relate them to another
body of material. Given such amplitude of potential resources, a strategy
of selective sampling from some bodies of material–war veterans’ memoirs
for example–is justified. Such caveats do not necessarily apply to the
product of historical analysis, however, for the accomplished history of
any topic, place, sequence of events, and so forth may be justified as
a portion of the cultural record of the society in which it existed.

On the other hand, in the disciplines that accumulate knowledge by discovery
of new data and revision of established principles, such as the physical
and life sciences, the opposite is generally true. Working scientists are
usually interested in the latest version of a book or the latest number
of a journal. Great effort goes into updating, revising, and keeping current.
Active investigators and teachers of science generally believe that most
essential knowledge from the past is, for their purposes, adequately represented
in text books, handbooks, and reference works. The earlier (and usually
inaccurate or mistaken) theories, observations or inferences are discarded
to the historian of science, not cherished for their current usefulness.

It appears, therefore, that the preservation problem is most pressing
in the arts and humanities and, correspondingly for the reason cited, the
choices of what to preserve or conserve are the most difficult.

Approaches to Selection

Ideally, a selection strategy would invoke the most informed and prescient
scholarly opinion about the future importance of each individual publication.
there is neither labor enough nor time to make such a title-by-title approach
feasible, however, even in a limited area, as a group of classicists, working
collaboratively to preserve a mere 20,000 volumes, discovered. some less
fine-grained strategy is necessary, and a couple suggest themselves.

One is a “great collections” approach that begins with an evaluation of
the relative strength of collections by classification–e.g., the research
libraries group conspectus. this inquiry produced a ranking of comprehensiveness
of various libraries in specific subject areas–e.g., american history,
philosophy, linguistics, medieval english literature. collections identified
as “comprehensive” could be microfilmed in their entirety. indeed, it could
be persuasively argued that since such collections had been identified,
they should be the first to be filmed, in their entireties, for preservation.
it is often more efficient to preserve all the material in a particular
category than to deliberate lengthily about the relative importance of
specific titles.

The wisdom of a “great collections” approach is usually apparent to scholars,
once they have become familiar enough with the parameters of the preservation
problem to appreciate the magnitude of effort required and the urgency
of the task such consciousness-raising is essential furthermore, to the
success of the preservation initiative, which cannot succeed without the
understanding support of the academic community. a distinct effort of a
particular sort needs to be made in this connection. scholars are ordinarily
not familiar with the strength of library collections outside their own
special fields, and indeed, may not be able to evaluate confidently the
strength of collections outside their own university’s. further, many scholars
have become accustomed to a title-by-title approach through a lifetime
of judicious discrimination among individual authors, specific topics,
stringently defined periods and other punctuate features of their intellectual
arenas of work. they may initially resist what they perceive as a sweeping
indiscriminateness of the “great collections” approach.

The scholarly community can be of great help in clarifying the requirements
of research, advising on which materials are of little or no use, and which
are essential for an academic discipline. scholars can help to make the
judgment as to whether to preserve all of the items in a particular category
or to choose a representative sample when there is great homogeneity of
content among separate items–e.g., memoirs of war veterans, victorian
moral philosophical tracts, self-help books.

Another approach, suitable for small segments of a scholarly field, is
the use of an existing scholarly bibliography that presumably identifies
the most significant work in, say, british empiricist philosophy or indic
philology during a particular era when materials are known to be at greatest
risk of embrittlement. alternatively, an individual scholar or group of
scholarly specialists can draw up lists of authors whose work is considered

A variation of this approach involves enlisting the aid of the highly
specialized sub-societies that can be found in most scholarly fields. for
example, more than a dozen specialized interest groups in philosophy cover
a range of topics: the leibniz society and the medieval and renaissance
philosophical society, for example. members of such highly specialized
groups can bring a particular perspective to bear upon a bibliography of
the larger scholarly discipline and make judgments about its contents–or
construct their own specialized lists.

In the latter approaches, whatever the source of the bibliography or the
category of material, it constitutes simply the first step in selection,
and must be followed by bibliographic cross-checking (e.g., through oclc
or rlg records) to determine whether a preserved version of the item either
exists or is planned. thirdly, a cooperative source, usually a university
library, must be located to lend the item for the preservation process.

It is important to inform scholars about the need for preservation as
well as the constraints– financial. logistic and temporal–that surround
the process and equally important to involve them in making decisions about
preservation. scholars’ understanding of the process that is developed
for deciding what to preserve and its credibility are essential for overcoming
resistance and for generating support. this need is particularly acute
in view of the apparent necessity to choose a preservation process–microfilming–that
has a bad name in the academic community generally. technically imperfect,
carelessly executed microfilming has made even more unwelcome a medium
that is greatly disdained in comparison to the familiarity and convenience
of the bound book. a little direct experience handling the crumbling pages
that can be found in any library, however, is a powerfully convincing argument
in favor of preservation now–but the path toward that goal needs to be
explored and discovered collaboratively on the part of librarians and scholars
in order to reach it.

Factors Affecting Choice of an Approach

The urgency of preservation of the intellectual estate of the nation demands
that the task be done expeditiously, while its vastness requires that it
be done economically. Both of these dimensions urge that the strategies
chosen be as simple and straightforward as possible, manageable by a wide
variety of libraries, a broad spectrum of scholarship and a large assortment
of materials. In an ideal world, unlimited resources and vast amounts of
time would allow item-by-item selection on the part of scholars, exquisitely
careful bibliographic checking by librarians, and restoration of the conserved
(as well as preserved) work to the shelves of its lending institution.
In the real world, all of these features must be compromised.

The issue of cost is crucial, given the vast quantity of deteriorating
paper in libraries, and the cost of selection cannot be allowed to consume
a disproportionate share of the total cost of preservation. As noted above,
there are opportunities for economies in the logistics of preservation,
and there clearly are economies of scale. Scholarly judgment is of the
utmost importance in identifying important bodies of material, but it may
be wiser as well as more economic not to attempt item-by-item selection
but to sweep all of the items in a particular category/collection into
the preservation process. Similarly, if the machine-searchable bibliographic
networks of the country do not evidence the existence of a duplicate preserved
item, that may be signal enough to include the item in the preservation
process, even though we know that not all of the collections of all libraries
are included in that database.

An important logistic issue concerns the willingness of libraries to collaborate
by lending portions of their collection to a preservation process. The
evidence of willing cooperation is, to date, immense. Yet there are signs
that there may be resistance, especially on the part of faculty, to a collaboration
that involves sacrifice of a volume or its non-return to the shelves of
the university library. While librarians may be ready to recognize that,
in order to retain scholarly content, it is reasonable to “destroy” a physical
object before it self-destructs, faculty sometimes mourn or even rage.
Such postures could have a distinct bearing upon selection for preservation.

The national program of preservation does not have a well-marked road
ahead to travel, but the direction it must take is clear enough. Enough
at-risk literature has been identified to justify an immediately increased
effort to preserve it, and this effort will teach us much about the task.
We do not know exactly what to do step-by-step, but we know what needs
to be done: enlarge the involvement of scholars and librarians in the process,
explain it to a generally sympathetic public and legislature, and learn
as we go how to do the job better.

For more information on selection for preservation and the Commission
Scholarly Advisory Committees, see Commission Newsletters No.
4, September 1988
, page 2; No. 6, November 1988, page 1; No. 7, December 1988, page 3; No. 9, February 1989, page 2; No. 11, April 1989, page 2; No. 12, May 1989, page 4; No. 13, June 1989, page 1.

Scholarly Advisory Committees, composed of scholars and librarians, are
charged with the Following tasks: to consider preservation selection criteria
in light of the needs of the various academic disciplines; to advise on
priorities and program directions within each discipline; and to act as
liaison groups with the academic disciplines. Disciplines currently represented
are history, art history, philosophy, and modern language and literature.