Preserve and Protect

weedWeeding! It’s a swear word for a lot of academic librarians. Our public library counterparts are more amenable to the whole thing. (See Awful Library Books.) Academic librarians, however, take very seriously the charge to preserve the scholarly record. In an online discussion recently with my literature librarian colleagues, many of them said they would NEVER weed a literature book. I think that begins to be an untenable position. Space in academic libraries rarely grows at the rate that the collection grows. Given that situation, you can choose to either to stop growing the collection or begin to dispose of items that are not vital for your local population. The response to that is typically: “well, I thought about getting rid of a book once, and lo and behold, 10 years later I really needed that book.” Most anti-weedenists are willing to push that number years to infinity. What if someone needs it 20 years, 50 years, 300 years from now?  It’s not sustainable, my friend.

Here is what IS sustainable: a coordinated approach to preserving the scholarly record. Librarians need to think and work in a collective way, across multiple collections. Each library focuses its efforts on preserving a section of the scholarly record. The rest of the collection is gravy, as it were. It can be maintained as long as it is serving the local needs. When it is no longer serving that need, it becomes expendable. But not to worry. Some other library considers that material to be part of its preservation responsibility. So, the University of New Mexico, for example, is pledged to preserve materials about New Mexico, the American Southwest, Hispanic and Chicano culture, Latin American studies, and Pueblo culture. Of course, we also preserve anything published by our university press and by authors associated with our university or our state.

We would also keep a core of materials that serves any our of curriculum needs. Undergraduates would have the assurance that they can study any subject that interests them…to an undergraduate level of depth. A research level collection we would let be driven by whatever the current needs are, but we would not feel compelled to keep that material beyond the period of its current need, unless it was in one of our areas of pledged preservation interest.

There are now many tools that make this kind of distributed preservation work possible. JSTOR was intended, from the beginning, to be a way that librarians could have peace of mind about disposing of particular journal volumes that were available in a safe online archive. Most libraries never took JSTOR up on the offer to get rid of those journals that are in the archive. But there are other resources that begin to provide additional layers of preservation. LOCKSS, CLOCKSS, and Portico all offer additional preservation of digital content. Google Books provides digital copies of many public domain books. Many of those digital copies are further preserved by the Hathi Trust.

Several consortia are also developing a means of preserving print materials in a distributed way. WEST, the Western Regional Storage Trust, is developing plans for libraries to cooperate in creating a distributed repository of print journals. Most of their initial target materials will be items that have significant digital preservation and duplication as well.This list goes on and on of library consortia and organizations that are preserving print elements of the scholarly record: California Digital Library, Greater Western Library Alliance, Center for Research Libraries.

All of these factors can work to make a distributed preservation plan work:

  • mass digitization (Google, Internet Archive, Hathi)
  • cooperative, distributed print respositories (WEST, CDL, GWLA, etc.)
  • cooperative digital preservation initiatives (LOCKSS, CLOCKS, Portico, Hathi)

More initiatives like these will flourish in coming years. At a certain point, we need to say, these materials are widely available digitally, a print copy is safely housed in a library repository, and the level of use locally suggests that I don’t need a copy sitting on my shelves any longer. Time to make room for something else.

Photo courtesy of tobym on Flickr:

2 Comments on “Preserve and Protect”

  1. Ginger Williams says:

    Good post, Steven. We need a system of repositories to ensure that a regional disaster doesn’t wipe out portions of the scholarly record. Regional disasters, like Hurricane Katrina or the Japanese earthquake, could destroy one repository. A system of several repositories in North America, with collection policies that included trading excess copies with repositories on other continents, would safeguard the scholarly record and possibly even improve access to materials.

  2. Steven Harris says:

    It’s hard to get libraries to cooperate in this way, but what we need to do.

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