Note: An earlier draft of this paper was presented on April 17, 2003, at the 2003 Popular Culture Association/American Culture Association Conference held in New Orleans, Louisiana, April 16-19, 2003.
This paper proposes guidelines for collaboration across libraries, archives, and museums that incorporate an understanding of how collections develop, the social systems that impart value to the collected items, and the needs of the research population. Future directions for professional practice implied by these general theoretical principles may enable collecting institutions to provide a high level of service to patrons while retaining their defined individual identities, expertise, and access (albeit sometimes indirectly) to the original physical objects.
The proposal relies on institutional relationships. To comprehend how relationships between collecting institutions can be used to preserve the historical record, one must understand why materials that document the historical record matter. The solution suggested here--that of a managed de-accessioning and accessioning cycle of selected and, therefore, historically important materials between different types of institutions--is an adaptation of the ideas presented by both Atkinson and Bake. (1) Emphasis is placed on fostering active relationships between individual institutions in order to preserve original documents that have attained significant contemporary social value and potential future usefulness. Reshaping day-to-day practice and designing systems modeled on the proposed themes could lead to Pareto-optimal outcomes for all participating organizations.
In an electronic environment, preservation processes and the nature of collections maintained by libraries, archives, and museums are experiencing dramatic transformations. Traditionally, the types of materials collected and the research purposes that these materials support defined collecting organizations. Libraries "tend to collect material which exists in multiples, whereas other groups work with items which, by definition, are unique." (2) The use patterns for libraries tend to center on content to a greater degree than the book- or text-as-artifact focus often observed in other collecting organizations. Increases in the volume of published material, the resulting competition for budgets and shelf space, and the promise of salvation through technology have led many collection administrators to make regrettable decisions--in hindsight--regarding the wholesale de-accessioning and destruction of primary materials from their institutions" collections in exchange for access to imperfect surrogates. These decisions were criticized in Double Fold: Libraries and tide Assault on Paper by Baker, and a lengthy response to this critique, titled Vandals in the Stacks? A Response to Nicholson Baker's Assault on Libraries, was recently published by Cox. (3) General interest in the topic of long-term preservation in libraries, archives, and museums was generated as a result of this public debate.
In response to Double Fold, several members of the professional community mention editorially that libraries are not archives. (4) Librarians deal primarily with providing access to information, while archivists deal with information access and retention of evidence. (5) Museums, by comparison, "operate under a mode of indirect, mediated access" to the collected materials. (6) Despite these differences in function and focus, Levy and Marshall claim that contemporary "boundaries between libraries, museums, and archives, although intuitively clear, are not so easy to draw in practice." (7) Each type of institution is subject to practical constraints on their actions as a result of budgetary, spatial, mad scope limitations. These limitations result in both selection and weeding decisions, and the practices and processes through which materials are retained have implications for how these institutions function in the long term. …