Saturday, June 21, 2014

Reading “The Preservation Management Handbook”

Preservation keeps getting bigger! In the last 20 years, the scope of what preservation in a cultural heritage organization has grown and diversified. From my perspective, the two most significant areas of growth are the explosion of digital content and the widely expanding context within which we understand preservation. Discussions about preservation have moved from the context of individual library’s concerns to a networked understanding involving libraries, archives and museums.

The recently published The Preservation Management Handbook: a 21st century guide for libraries, archives, and museums by Ross Harvey and Martha R. Mahard (Rowman & Littlefield, 2014) provides a snapshot of what 21st century preservation looks like, and a framework for how to manage preservation in this ever widening context.

The book is divided into two sections: the first section is written by Harvey and Mahard and lays the groundwork for understanding and managing preservation in this new context; the second section is written by a variety of authors and covers the preservation issues of specific media and materials.

While it can serve as useful reading for anyone working in preservation, and the media section is a particularly handy reference tool, this book seems to be best suited as a textbook for an Introduction to Preservation course. There is a real need for such a text. Although Banks and Harris’ Preservation: Issues and Planning remains a wonderful volume, it is showing its age and doesn't reflect the changing preservation landscape.

One of the biggest challenges of preservation today is trying to develop a holistic understanding of its growing diversity. It is easy to separate print and audiovisual and digital collections into their own silos with their distinct preservation concerns. Harvey and Mahard attempt to provide such a holistic vision of preservation. They do an admirable job of “Mapping the Preservation Landscape for the 21st Century” in the first chapter. It is not just our collections that are changing, but they suggest the more fundamental change which is shaping new approaches to preservation is increasing interconnectivity.

In the second chapter the authors propose preservation principles “that apply to all materials, whether analog or digital, regardless of whether the materials are located in museums, libraries, or archives.” (p. 15) These principles are the fundamental assertion of this volume. They proved the framework through which to understand and manage preservation. Because they are the key to this book I will copy them in their entirety.

The Context and Aims of Preservation

  • Preservation, as a key component in the sustainability of cultural property, is an imperative that transcends national borders and is essential for the maintenance and perpetuation of global cultural heritage.
  • Preservation actions must take into account the needs of the user.
  • Authenticity of the objects needs to be ensured in any preservation action.
  • Preservation is the responsibility of all, from the creation of objects to the users of objects.

General Principles

  • Effort put into creating long-lived objects and materials reduces the need for preservation attention in the future.
  • Collaboration is necessary to ensure preservation.
  • Advocacy is necessary to ensure preservation.
  • Taking preservation action now is better than doing nothing.
  • Preservation requires active, managed care.
  • Understanding the structure of materials is the key to understanding what preservation actions to take, as materials contain the seeds of their own destruction (inherent vice).
  • Distinguish clearly between objects (containers) and the information they carry (content).
  • Prefer preservation actions that address large quantities of materials over actions that focus on individual objects.
Specific Principles
  • Appraisal is both necessary and desirable.
  • Keep the original.
  • Keep multiple copies of objects.
  • Do the minimum necessary to stabilize and preserve the object.
  • Preservation actions should not exceed the abilities of the personnel who apply them.
  • Preservation actions should aim at the highest quality possible.
  • Preservation actions should not harm the object.
  • Preservation actions should be documented.
  • Preservation actions should adhere to ethical considerations.
Despite the fact that I disagree with some outright, and quibble with others, I appreciate this effort to distill principles applicable to the big picture of preservation. I also commend the authors on routinely citing these principles throughout the rest of the book. They truly shape their approach and understanding.

In the rest of the first section of the volume the authors explicate these principles and discuss approaches to preservation management, and relay their understanding of the relationship between artifacts and information. While the content is worthwhile, I would really like to see chapters 3 through 6 edited and reorganized. Content often seemed to be repeated, and brief summaries of topics would be provided with notes that more fuller explanations were found elsewhere in the book.

I also would prefer to see more attention given to risk management and disaster preparedness and response. Each chapter on the different types of media includes a section on disaster response, but I feel that more attention should have been given to these topics on an institutional and networked level.

Oh, and more pictures and charts and graphs. I think some of the information could be better communicated through a more graphic approach, which would also help visually break up the vast sea of text. (The second section has lots of images.)

The second section on various media and materials is very strong. The various authors provide useful summaries of a specific media type. The summaries are brief, but informative. Each chapter follows the same structure which improves their role as a reference tool. The chapters included are: Paper Objects and Books, Photographic Materials, Sound Materials, Moving Image Materials, Digital Storage Media and Files, Textiles, and Paintings. Most chapters are divided into more specific categories. Each I found Brenda Bernier’s section on Photographs and Negatives to be particularly noteworthy and well-done.

While the volume’s subtitle “A 21st-Century Guide for Libraries, Archives, and Museums” states an intent to be a relevant resource across these various types of institutions, it seems this text is significantly more relevant to library and archive context, and less so for museums. I think the information is useful for those who manage museum collections, but the book as a whole is less programmatically relevant to the museum context. This is not intended as a negative assessment of the book, but simply a recognition of genuine differences. While it is helpful to understand how preservation is applicable across these three types of institutions, we also need to recognize that there are also distinctions of purpose and vision and collections, which create distinctions of preservation approach.

I am grateful to the authors for tackling the large challenge of perceiving and portraying what preservation looks like, or should look like in the 21st century.

Sunday, June 15, 2014


Here's my idea. During the 5 working days of July 14-18, 2014 anyone (or any institution) with any bit of preservation responsibility take at least one picture each day of something that depicts what preservation looks like for them that day and post it online with the hashtag #5DaysOfPreservation  It could be copying files off floppy disks, repairing a book, participating in a meeting, attending to a leaky roof, inspecting film reels, showing off a new piece of equipment, or however preservation looks to you that day..

The work of Preservation is a large and diverse. I think documenting a week in the life of preservation could be a good, and fun, way to broaden all of our perspectives (and not nearly as much work as writing long blog posts.)

It would probably be most convenient to use Instagram and Twitter as the primary places for sharing images, but share wherever and as broadly as you can. After the week I work on some way to gather the images. If this actually happens than more than just I do this (we'll see) I'll try to keep an up-to-date list of all participants.

Added July 2
I'm going to attempt to use tumblr to gather the various pics people share during this project. You can find it at