Monday, August 29, 2011

A Conservator Takes on Digitization

In 2004 University of Kansas conservator Whitney Baker wrote in Library Resources and Technical Services about the hybrid conservator. The article discussed emerging preservation programs which only hired one professional, a hybrid conservator, who was responsible for conservation of both general and special collection materials. The paper's survey and following discussion covered how individuals address the “split personality” of these positions.

This was published right around the time when I finished my MLIS and the library where I worked (and continue to work) "tapped me on the shoulder" to take on a librarian position with half time responsibility for conservation. They had a book mender on staff, but never someone with the training and skills (meager as they were/are). So, on a meager budget and some thrifty salvaging of some unused equipment I set up a small but functional shop and made an effort to care for the library's more "special" collections.

Recently, due to budget cuts the Library did some re-visioning and refocusing of our mission. During this process digitization was identified as a priority. At the beginning of the new year library staff and our responsibilities were shuffled to put us more in line with our new focus. We each received a sheet of paper with every staff-person’s name and area(s) of responsibility. Behind my name, after cataloging and conservation the word "digitization" appeared. (Oh, and the book mender retired so I got to repair the general collections as well.)

The intent of this post isn’t for me to brag (or bemoan) about how many tasks I can do and still manage to Facebook, Tweet, and write the occasional blog post. Rather, as I’m spending more time thinking things digitization, I’m pondering how they relate to the other aspects of my library work.

It is not uncommon for conservation and digitization to be affiliated in the library setting, although it’s not necessarily an obvious connection. One is very old world, one is very 21st century. One is seen as all about physical materials, and one is seen as “virtual,” as non-material.

My guess is that some of the perceived connections seen between conservation and digitization include: 1) both often deal with old items; 2) both are seen as related to preservation.

Conservation and Digitization Workflow

One of the ways I’ve been thinking of these two areas is in terms of workflow – what are the stages these programs move through. I’ve very roughly laid it out in terms of: Selection, Action, Sustaining. (I realy wanted the third word to end in –tion , but one didn’t come to me.)

Selection - what to conserve/digitize? This question is often answered by someone other than the person doing the conserving/digitizing. I guess a bigger question is for what purpose or to what end should this item/collection be conserved/digitized? Both acts are about providing ongoing access, although neither act by themselves assures ongoing access.

Action - Both digitization and conservation involve intimate and extensive interaction with the object. While there are commonalities to library materials, each piece will also dictate how it should be treated. Obviously the two tracks require very different technical knowledge. Also, the goal of digitization is to create a separate new thing and therefore requires decisions about the disposition of the original.

Sustaining - With both conservation and digitization, the intervention is only the start of the story. If the final object is not placed in a sustaining and sustainable environment all the work may be of little value. If the final object does not have good descriptive data to assist people in locating it the work may be of little value. If people cannot readily and easily access the final object, the work may be of little value.

There is a baffling relationship between digitization and the status of the object digitized. In some instances, it is thought that digitization of a book helps preserve the book because it reduces the need to physically use the original item. On the other side, volumes are often damaged intentionally or not in the process of digitization. (By intentional damage I'm thinking guillotining the spine.) Some suggest digital preservation is more sustainable than print preservation. Others disagree. The presence of a digitized volume in a trusted digital repository may impact the decisions of other libraries' regarding the disposition of their copy of that volume. Do they keep, send to offsite storage, or discard?

New Challenge

I now have the enjoyable challenge of creating a new digitization program. Yes, it means I get to buy and learn new technology and software, which is fun, but the part I'm more excited about, and what I think is the bigger challenge is devising a program that, on a minimal budget, can efficiently and effectively create useful and helpful new digital collections. As a state library with our primary responsibility being to serve legislative and state employee research needs and to be able to take advantage of the opportunities digital materials can offer.

Obviously, trying to design, oversee, and often enact effective and efficient conservation and digitization programs, not to mention cataloging and “other duties as assigned,” is well, ridiculous. But, it’s also quite a lot of fun. If a hybrid conservator is one who conserves general and special materials, I’m not sure what my current position is? Trinity? Quaternary? I’ll just stick with librarian.

(The first  connection between my conservation and new digitization duties is the acquisition of a guillotine.)


  1. Interesting post. You might also be interested in John Dean's, former head of preservation and conservation at Cornell, thoughts on the subject. . He also held draft guidelines ensuring that conservation/preservation and digitization work together. That was made easier by both operations then being in the same department...

  2. Peter, thanks for the link. I've always appreciated the preservation talks your institution posts online.