Preservation in the Digital Age: What Is to Be Done?

By Smith, Abby | American Libraries, March 1999 | Go to article overview
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Preservation in the Digital Age: What Is to Be Done?

Smith, Abby, American Libraries


Lost: 80% of the films made in the United States before the Second World War; those that survive are often fragmentary and fragile. Lost: the images of Johnny Carson's early appearances as host of The Tonight Show; only some scripts were saved. Perhaps popular entertainment did not seem worthy of preserving at the time it was made, perhaps it seemed as if it were simply something ephemeral and not of enduring value. But we know better now.

Or do we? Who has saved the pioneer Web sites from 19937 Will the electronic journals that libraries are licensing today be available to researchers in 2050? What are we doing as individual professionals in our local libraries to ensure that the scores of videotapes on which we documented the progress of our children will be around for their children to view? It those tapes survive, on what machine will we be able to play them back? This personal loss will be magnified many times over in libraries - the storehouses of our national collective memory.

In the United States, communities depend on libraries and archives to collect, organize, and make accessible the information resources they need to function responsibly as citizens, scientists, teachers and students, policymakers, parents, and members of society. But libraries and archives are now challenged to preserve a rapidly growing amount of information stored on fragile materials and, increasingly, in digital form.

Preservation traditions

Preservation is the task of ensuring longterm access to information and cultural materials of value, but saving recorded information has been problematic from the beginnings of the written word. Historically, as recording media have become more efficient and capable of accommodating greater volumes of information, the same media have become less stable. Durable media such as stone and clay tablets may last a long time, but they are neither efficient nor easily portable.

The information revolution of the 16th century depended as much on the invention of paper as a recording medium as it did on the invention of the printing press. Since the mid-19th century, when manufacturers began to make paper more cheaply by using wood pulp instead of cotton and linen rags, huge amounts of information have been recorded on widely accessible, inexpensive, acid-based paper, a medium that is slowly destroying itself and the information on it. However, without that paper, the public and research library systems as we know them would never have developed.

For library managers, preservation is to a large degree about the protection of their institution's chief assets, its collections, especially materials that are unique to that institution. A preservation plan must be one of the key components in a management strategy to provide information resources to users. Whereas loss through theft or misplacement is the exception rather than the rule in libraries, loss through physical degradation is the inevitable fate of all collection items.

Library preservation practice has come a very long way in a remarkably short time, due in large part to a highly motivated group of professionals who were able to raise public awareness in the 1970s and 1980s about the problem of brittle paper and who used that heightened awareness strategically to raise funds from both the federal and private sectors to institutionalize preservation training and build up the infrastructure of preservation at libraries that have major research collections. This infrastructure has extended across the country to include a network of regional preservation centers that offer the full range of preservation services, from assessment and planning, to training and equipping, to providing a variety of collection treatments for those repositories that do not have in-house capabilities.

Preservation in libraries grew up in the shadow of art museum conservation programs that focused on rare or unique items requiring labor-intensive treatments.

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Preservation in the Digital Age: What Is to Be Done?


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