The future, many proclaim, is digital. Indeed, the present is largely digital as well. Library services have been deeply affected, and in some cases transformed, by the information technologies introduced since World War II. But while digital technology has transformed services by giving libraries spectacularly efficient, if not less expensive, ways of doing the traditional tasks of cataloging and maintaining inventory control, it is not clear how much the same technology will affect collections themselves. Are digital collections heritage assets? If so, what are the major risks to them and how should libraries safeguard them?
In most libraries, the internal control environments are deeply dependent on information technology (IT). The need for a robust technological infrastructure to support such things as online catalogs, circulation systems, creation of digital surrogates of collection items, and maintenance of copyright records means that IT managers bear a significant responsibility for the stewardship of heritage assets. In many libraries, the custodians of collections-librarians and curators-are culturally and physically far removed from the IT staff who are so critical to the well-being of the collections. Nonetheless, those who have direct custodial responsibilities for heritage assets and those who manage the controls over them are working toward the same objectives. To be effective in making collections accessible for the long term, IT managers and collections managers should cultivate relationships that support their complementary tasks. The risk-assessment process provides a framework for such partnerships.
A critical component of an internal control framework is the control environment, that is, the organizational culture. The control environment is improved when the organizational culture places a premium on the integrity and competencies of its people and makes each person’s responsibilities explicit and a factor in his or her overall performance evaluation. As an example, it may be convenient for staff working in a secured area to prop open doors at certain times of the day. It may also be convenient to send items to preservation for minor repairs without the custodial division filling out documentation to track the item. Nevertheless, these everyday behaviors are important components of a control environment. Another critical component is communication throughout the organization. One of the salubrious effects of a well-structured assessment of risk to collections is that each staff member who has some responsibility for protecting assets is identified and his or her role is made explicit. Because the process focuses on accountability at all levels of the organization, it can bridge the gap that often exists in large libraries between the content specialists (e.g., bibliographers, reference librarians, catalogers) and the infrastructure specialists (e.g., IT staff, security personnel).
There is no way to draw lines between the past and present of non-digital collections and the future digital library. Despite the connotation of the term “heritage assets,” these assets exist now in a hybrid environment of analog and digital services and controls, and the internal control framework of the future in which they will be managed will also be hybrid.
As libraries acquire more materials that are born digital, librarians will ask the same questions about how to manage and protect electronic information products as they do about their traditional resources. Digital resources come with many advantages. In theory, both inventory and bibliographical controls are easier to create and maintain (or they will be when common standards for description are defined). However, preservation and security risks loom much larger in the world of digital objects than in that of older materials. There is no way yet to ensure the longevity of digital data for a decade, let alone centuries. In addition, computer files, while hardly vulnerable to physical theft, reside on computer systems that may be vulnerable to viruses, invasion by hackers, and inadvertent programming disasters.
More problematic is the management of digital assets for long-term access. Because digital information does not reside on physical media or have its own independent physical existence, it is, in many ways, at much higher risk of loss or illegibility than are traditional resources. Digital information depends on hardware and software to decode the bits and bytes. It depends on metadata to identify its provenance and reliability. Most libraries have few policies and procedures that even begin to address, let alone ensure, the preservation of digital assets.
The business risk-assessment tool is well suited to the dynamic environment in which libraries now find themselves. In academic libraries, changing research trends alter the demand for and value of collection items. Materials deemed ephemeral and of low research value four decades ago are now heavily researched, and so the work of making those resources readily available has increased, as have the risks to those collections. Other collection items, once in great demand, now languish in storage areas, and libraries must provide optimal preservation conditions for their long slumber, waiting until new generations pose new questions and seek these old resources. The technology can also change demand for collection items. Special collections, for example, were long left in cataloging and processing backlogs. It was not worth the investment to process and preserve unique, but not often precious, special collections items, since they would always have a limited use by a limited number of people. It was thought better to catalog monographs and serials, which existed in multiple copies, had high use, and could be readily cataloged through shared databases. Digital dissemination has changed the way we value special collections. Nowadays, unpublished materials and visual resources are being preserved, cataloged, and scanned for digital access at many libraries and archives.
A similar changing demand in college and public libraries influences the controls that must be in place to ensure continued availability of their resources. Twenty years ago, public libraries did not have to worry much about videotapes and audio book tapes; however, that is far from the case today. How could a public library have anticipated and planned for meeting the growing demand for these resources? Annual reviews of the change in demand for and use of collection items, based on the baseline risk assessment that allows an institution to track trends, provide an excellent basis for identifying emerging needs and developing budgets. When something new appears in a library, be it a videotape or a computer file, it is initially acquired as an “add-on.” Within five years or less, however, those new things become part of everyday business, and the funds to support them must come from within the library through budget reallocations. Every add-on in a budget inevitably results in a corresponding take-off. The regular assessment of heritage assets provides quick and quantifiable indicators of the change in value of a library’s assets over time.
Taking Preventive Action
For libraries that are committed to retain collections long-term, materials that are no longer in demand are still assets that require protection. Preservation is the single most important investment that the library can make in its assets, and proper storage conditions can be the most effective preventive measure possible. The most vulnerable point in the life cycle of heritage assets is the moment when they arrive in the library. At that time, they have neither a bibliographical nor, perhaps, an accession record. After an item has received an identifying record, the greatest risk to fitness for use comes from the inherent instabilities of the physical recording medium and, when it is in use, from improper handling. Much work has been done in the past decade to determine the proper storage conditions for a variety of media. The removal of low-use paper-based items, film, and magnetic tape to off-site facilities built for preservation promises to be a boon to future generations of users.
Digital assets aside, preservation awareness and training are often the most cost-effective controls over heritage assets. Many preventive preservation measures do not require money, but rather staff training and small but important modifications in the behavior of both staff and patrons. Libraries are workplaces characterized by high levels of trust and professional pride. Requiring that staff check out books, even if they need them for only one day, or enforcing a similar policy for faculty members, may strike some as a subtle accusation. Nevertheless, the good stewardship of heritage assets is a responsibility of every member of the research community or general public that supports and uses a library. Library cultures are characterized by high levels of trust because American society places heritage assets in the public trust. Making members of the community aware of the risks to these assets and educating them about how they can help protect them does not lessen, but rather increases the chance that these assets will be accessible well into the future.