Friday, February 13, 2015

Four Realms of Preservation

I’m nearing the end of Michele Cloonan’s “Preserving our Heritage: Perspectives from Antiquity to the Digital Age” and while I will write a fuller review/response in a later post, I feel the book is spurring some thought that I want to get on screen now. (I wanted to write “that I want to get down on paper” but there is no paper involved and sometimes you need to let a metaphor die.)

As I’m reading these many and various articles I suppose it is just the way of my brain to try and categorize them and put them into some kind of structure – pattern recognition. And the structure that is emerging is four realms of preservation thinking. I’m really not satisfied with “realms” but I haven’t found a better word yet. My thinking began in terms of genres of preservation literature, and there were three, but it is really less about genre as about subject matter and approach and three grew to four.

The four realms of preservation literature I am recognizing are: Conceptual; Strategic; Administrative; and Technical. These categories seem to me to reflect the four approaches to thinking about preservation.

Here’s a little about what I mean by each category.

Conceptual – A generally philosophical approach asking questions like why do we preserve? What does it mean to preserve? These are generally the questions of the academy which may feel too detached from the realities of physically preserving things.

Strategic – This was the category I added when I moved from 3 to 4 categories. Strategic is big picture thinking, but towards the aim of realizing something. It’s about setting a plan to move forward. It includes things like cultural heritage policy. I would see policy (as in governmental policy) as a subcategory of Strategic.

Administrative – This is the category of institutional or consortial work. It is here that issues of economics play a significant role. It is here where we see how the priorities of preservation relate and compete with other priorities.

Technical – This is perhaps the most easily identifiable categories. It is about the “nuts and bolts” of how preservation actions actually happen. It will tend to be the most scientific oriented of the categories.

My biggest challenge is conceptualizing how these 4 categories relate. One idea is a linear relationship where one leads to the next. Start with Conceptual, move to Strategic, then Administrative and finally Technical. That, however, feels like an incomplete model lacking in nuance. The next model I thought was the concentric circle approach with Conceptual as the outer ring moving down to Technical at the center. I like that a little better.

A question I have is Do all four need to be present? Can you move from Conceptual to Technical and ignore the other two? Honestly, that seems to describe my own experience; not so much out of intention but just because I like to ponder the conceptual stuff, and my work is largely in the technical realm. (I’d be quite happy spending more time especially working in strategy, but that’s not what is right now.)

I do think all four categories need to be well represented for a healthy preservation ecosystem. I also think current library preservation literature is much heavier on the latter two than the former, which is unfortunate.

Anyway, that’s my pre-reflection arising from reading the Cloonan book. I’ll try to get through the last 150 pages and get a review up soon. It’s just so many words.


  1. Hm. Great post. I've been thinking about some similar things as I plan some talks and training sessions. My themes are definitely grouping into "Preservation as Concept" & "Preservation as Activity" but I like your identification of Strategic and Administrative. Those "realms" seem to be the bridge between Concept and Action that I was missing. I've got Cloonan's book waiting on my desk right. Can't wait to dive into it. Looking forward to your review, too!

    1. Thanks. I'm glad you found this structure helpful.

      I'm looking forward to my review as well. I'm daunted by the task bringing this whole thing together within my mind and coming up with some summary thoughts that do justice to the breadth of this volume.

  2. I really appreciate your Four Realms breakdown. I can see how you would easily, as a solo practitioner, be able to go from Conceptual to Technical without blinking. But as a department, or working group or task force, your concentric circle idea would be very useful and a great guide to implementing a preservation program. I like the concentric circle model as well. And you are absolutely correct that preservation lit barely covers the conceptual and strategic.

    1. Jennifer, I'm glad to hear that this is resonating for you - and good insight on the jumping steps works, or at least is possible, for a solo, but not so much for an organization. I'm in the midst of reading a publication from the Getty (I think) - it is in the new Michele Cloonan "Preserving our Heritage" book which I don't have access to right now. The authors diagram a structure very similar to what I did and I found it useful. I'll try and share it later this week.