Friday, November 29, 2013

Distribution is Preservation

Growing up in the preservation world I was taught, and I in turn taught that the single-most important factor in long-term preservation of materials was climate-control. Ensuring that some book sitting on a shelf would still be there in usable form 300 years from now is best accomplished by providing a stable and ideal environment.

I’m not so convinced of that anymore, or rather, I think I am less interested in preserving that one book sitting on your shelf as I am in providing access to that book – for as long as possible/necessary to as many people as possible. I am now of the opinion that the single-most important factor in providing ongoing access is distribution. (As I write this I take note that I switched from preserving a book to providing ongoing access to that book – hmm, curious.)

Distribution is not a guarantee of preservation – there has to be some motivation and capability to retain the thing that was distributed – but distribution vastly increases the likelihood of preservation. I’m sure one could develop a formula comparing the likelihood of survival and accessibility between one (or a few) book(s) in ideal environmental conditions versus several distributed books in less than ideal environmental conditions. (For a great analysis of the number of copies and likelihood of survival see Jake Nadal and Annie Petersen’s Scarce and Endangered Works: Using Network-level Holdings Data in Preservation Decision Making and Stewardship of the Printed Record )

In my experience (which is admittedly very limited and idiosyncratic) library and archives preservation has primarily been approached through the lens of preserving the specific and “unique” items in a specific institution’s collection. (In fact one of my concerns with the book conservation programs being absorbed into art conservation programs is that it is encouraging viewing each book as a unique item – and not part of a broader network of at least very, very, very similar published items held in institutions, and elsewhere, around the world.) It is perfectly reasonable that library preservation thinking has focused on preserving items in one’s institutional collections – because it isn’t very reasonable to expect me to preserve items in some other institution’s collections – but this approach may not be perfectly effective in ensuring long-term access to the items held by an institution. 

I don’t mean to dismiss the skills and interests of those who are pay keen attention to the unique qualities of individual volumes, but their interests are the miniscule minority and saving two really nice trees but losing the forest is not an excellent conservation strategy. I will be so bold as to suggest that saving the 1961 edition of Joseph Heller’s Catch 22 is almost always more important than saving one institution’s specific copy of the 1961 edition of Catch 22. Yes, there are always exceptions.

What initially spurred me to write this post is an interesting blog post by Ed Summers based on a talk he gave – titled “The Web as a Preservation Medium.” There are lot of things said in that post which may not be relevant to physical material collection, but as I’ve said before, it is important for physical material preservation folk look to and learn from digital material preservation folk. Summers quoted Rufus Pollock of the Open Knowledge Foundation said This next decade belongs to distributed models not centralized ones, to collaboration not control, and to small data not big data.

The World Wide Web is a ridiculously successful tool for distribution. This blog post will likely be recreated on screens around the world maybe as many as 20 or even 30 times. It is being also archived by Internet Archive. Against my intentions parts of my previous blog are available online – thanks I’m sure to some Russian hacker. (It was a bit of a surprise to see this content which I had taken offline and thought it was gone “forever” suddenly re-appear less than a year later.) 

Now yes, print materials and print preservation are not the same as digital materials and digital preservation, but each has something to learn from the other. I think it is important for the print preservation world to better recognize the preservation power of distribution and incorporate it into their preservation strategies. Distribution as a preservation strategy requires the national and international collaboration of many institutions and may, at times, place the value of the cooperative over the value of the individual items in individual collections.

(p.s. As I was bringing my work on this post to an end, it occurred to me that perhaps the federal government document depository program might also be a strategic model to consider for distribution providing preservation and access. I, however, don’t know much more about the program than what I wrote in the previous sentence.)

(p.p.s This post deserved more time and thought and work, and that might happen some day, but it is what it is for now.)

No comments:

Post a Comment