Preserving the Past for the Future
(Presentation at the Millionth Volume Celebration)
Why do we collect and want to preserve our library materials? The answer is that these materials embody and reflect the accumulated wisdom and experience of our civilization. Without them, we could draw only on our own individual memories and on strictly contemporary evidence to understand social institutions, to achieve insight into the human condition, to comprehend human behavior, and to solve problems. We need to draw on the guidance of the past to understand the present and cope with the future.
Fiscal and organizational pressures in the last few years have caused many of us to take a long hard look at what we do in the university and in the university research library. The library of the future with its electronic resources and digitized information opens a whole new world of ideas and concerns for us all.
The emergence of new technologies offers new challenges for providing access to recorded knowledge far into the future. The scholarly use of technology continues to transform and influence the very nature of instruction, learning, and research, accompanied by vastly changed information requirements and demands.
Our choices for preservation have rapidly escalated from the complexly sublime to the sublimely complex. First there was an array of techniques for prolonging the life of an individual artifact. Then there was the agony of selection over transferring the information to the relatively stable but unpopular microfilm. Now we have a complex matrix of technical and intellectual decisions determined by the proposed or expected use of the material.
An environment of electronic information presents two kinds of challenges for the library that is intent on preserving access to recorded knowledge. First, there is the need to assure continuing access to knowledge originally generated, stored, disseminated and used in electronic form. Second, there is the potential to use digital technology to reformat materials originally created in other media that are now deteriorating.
The advantages of an electronic environment are immediately apparent: multiple users can gain simultaneous and remote access over the networks, easy use and duplication of information, more space, more sources. To achieve these potential advantages, however, we face numerous challenges:
- Document images are often created at the expense of originals, leaving no original source to compare context.
- Copyright laws for both scholarly material and for software to view it on-screen raise barriers to access.
- It is not always easy to browse materials on a computer screen. Moreover, it is difficult to use electronic documents for a sustained period of time. And, we do not yet have good cost models to assess the value of converting and storing documents.
Yet none of these problems is insurmountable and under the guidance of certain principles we can move ahead:
First, think in terms of life cycles, not permanency. Like all capital assets, library holdings in all formats are subject to general notions of capital maintenance and renewal: the asset is acquired, it is then used, lost or it otherwise depreciates -- in the case of a book printed on acidic paper, the asset may simply disintegrate by sitting on a shelf -- whereupon the library must either discard it or renew it by conserving it as an artifact or by preserving the information in some other form.
In this context, permanence of storage is not really an end in itself, but rather a measure of the length of the renewal period. For information originally prepared in electronic form, we must not think in terms of a relatively short renewal period, because electronic media are not so durable as print and microfilm and the hardware and software that we use to gain access to the electronic media are changing very rapidly. We must evaluate the use and accessibility of this information against the medium in which it is stored and the cost to renew the medium.
A second principle is to adopt an incremental approach. It is important to recognize that the economy for managing and administering library resources is an economy of incremental choices. The wholesale adoption of new and potentially revolutionary technologies is typically difficult to defend and justify in the large, established organization. Rather, organizational and technical change tends to occur through a series of choices tailored to mandate the needs of our institutions.
A third principle is that libraries should aim to build their use of imaging on technical standards and products bering developed for the broad marketplace. The management of complex documents in image form is a general problem, not confined to libraries, to academic institutions, or even to the publishing industry.
Finally, the fourth principle for adopting the new technology is cooperation. To make electronic resources widely accessible, we need to build upon a technical and social infrastructure of equipment, software, networks and knowledgeable users and staff that spans campuses, and facilitates the reliable and cost-effective interchange of image documents. The cooperative work must include multiple libraries, campus computing organizations, and vendors.
The agenda for action in the library of the future is rich and full. There will be no single answer for the preservation of current information and that of the future. In the complexity of choices and the opportunity to apply new information technologies, the preservation effort forsees a vision of scholarship, the library, and the university of the next century.
Potential activities in the library of the future help us look at the library with fresh choices in mind. In the words of Ogden Nash, who had his own way of thinking about things, "Progress might have been all right once, but it's gone on too long."
Patricia Selinger is the Preservation Librarian for VCU Libraries.