Sunday, August 24, 2008

What can we afford to lose?

Even when the economy is booming, there’s never enough time, money, or people to do everything that needs to be done. We’ve always had to prioritize and make decisions, we just have to make harder decisions now. Today we have two fronts for both knowledge and preservation – traditional paper that lasts for centuries if we care for it, and popular electronic that can be gone in 60 seconds.
We have an obligation to use our resources – cash and people – wisely. We also have an obligation to scholars to preserve both the cultural heritage and new research for future generations. The decisions we make now will determine whether tomorrow’s students and faculty study here, or at a school that thought in the long term.
What's the problem with commercial online journals? Everyone loves them - they're fast, easy to search, printable, you can access them from home, and more than one person can use the same issue. Yea, they're expensive but so are the print issues, and isn't this better to buy? But we don't buy them - we just rent them, for hundreds of thousands of dollars a year. And we rent them by the package, so often we pay for four or five copies of the same online journal - more than we would buy if it were paper. The more we spend on onlne resources, the less we have for permanent ones and preservation.
We can expect even the most acid paper to last a few decades, and good paper to last centuries, even if it’s slowly decaying. But digital can be gone in a nanosecond, if you don’t pay the rent. Even if you do, things can change – journals disappear, or like newspapers, the content can disappear. After the Tassini decision on licensing rights, papers just took all their back issues offline, rather than renegotiate rights. That can happen with back issues of anything.
Why don’t we just do it ourselves? We’re forbidden by the license agreement to print out hard copies from the online version. We can’t digitize them ourselves, because of copyright; we could license directly from the journals to do it, but their license with the big aggregators – the businesses who run the big databases – forbids them.
We could buy and preserve a lot of print journals and books for a million dollars. What we can’t do is make them easily accessible by our scholars – they would have to come here and use them, or use ILL, or microform. Those options aren’t nearly as sexy – and not as easy for distant learners and other non-traditional users.
Preservation vs. access is the classic conflict of librarians. You can keep your Edsel or Pinto in great shape – as long as you don’t take them out of the garage and use them for what they were meant for. Books get checked out and have all kinds of adventures – they go to MacDonalds for lunch, they meet dogs, they take baths. Educating users can help, but we can’t turn back the clock a century and close the stacks. The culture of research has changed, and is changing again.
Preservation isn’t just about saving books, it’s about saving the cultural record. We’ve seen revolutionaries destroy national libraries. The photos taken by the FSA were ordered destroyed – who wants to remember the Depression! We don’t know what will be important to future scholars? Small press books, ephemera, wartime editions? These are “medium rare” books – ones that aren’t unique for the contents, but for the design and marketing. They were the paperbacks of their day. Today they’re studied, 25 years ago I bought them for a dime each.
The idea of books is the distribution of knowledge, so one disaster can’t destroy all the copies. But we’re an ARL library because of our unique resources, the special collections and archives. When all our eggs are in one basket – we better take care of that basket!! Security, climate control, insect control, education are all part of preservation.
Can we microfilm? Sure, but grant money for microfilm has dried up in favor of digitization. Can we digitize? Sure, we just need a few hundred manYEARS, a few million dollars, a couple of thousand gigabytes of server space – and the software, and scanners, and technical expertise to keep it all running. And that’s just to scan the title pages! In the meantime, we need to save the originals for the long term. Like the medium rare books, they have value for their form, as well as their content.
Don’t the big online aggregators, the guys who buy the rights to put them online, have to do the same thing? Nope – they get the files in digital form, and just index them. In fact, most books and journals want their incoming material in digital form, so they don’t have that expense. And that’s why so few journals have back issues online, because the works weren’t submitted digitally.
What will it cost to preserve the paper version? That depends. Think of preservation as insurance – costs determine care. Will a band-aid suffice, or do you need a specialist? Is the money better spent on a few important patients, or on community health – preserving by controlling the environment? Lowering the temperature and humidity helps avoid mold and decay – and the patrons happen to like it, too. But the books don’t leave on spring break, and the air conditioning or heat has to stay on, no matter how hard that is to explain to engineers.
We’ve made a start. What we haven’t looked at is how to preserve digital information – across campus, in all disciplines.
Money for microfilming may have dried up, but the model is a good one. We need a central registry for who’s doing what, whether that’s digitization or preservation photocopying. Co-operation will give us the best return for our money. We may only be able to save a few books, but we can prolong the lives of many. We can have a central registry of who is doing what and who has the designated preservation copy – the one that will be saved physically and not used.
Don’t we have brittle books licked? Haven’t we been working on them a long time? Well, most of the world’s publishing was done on acid paper, in the last 150 years; and we’ve only been working on it for the last 20 – and acidic paper is still being used for printing new journals.

What can we do?

We can get input from scholars on what’s vital, what’s important, and what may be useful. We can make educated guesses, but the more input we have, the better our choices.
We can co-operate with other libraries and archives, to maximize the impact of our efforts.
We can invest in preservation. Books – and knowledge – are capitol assets, not sunk ones. We have plumbers, electricians, groundskeepers to maintain buildings. But not a single part-time preservation officer for seven libraries and 2 million books. That’s just over 100 million dollars of contents – more than the cost of the building, and not counting irreplaceable unique collections of millions of items. Are we good stewards if we let them disappear though neglect?
We can teach faculty the implications of digital information – not just using it, but the effects of the software and forms they use to create new papers influences the way they are accessed – or not accessed - from then on.
We can insist that online journals archives their files somewhere safe. It worked with giant Elsevier, it can work with others. And it must, or we’re throwing money away.
We can discuss our options. Everyone is involved in this, not just librarians. Scholars, administrators, and students need to know why prices for journals, costs for tuition, and research costs are going up, not just that they are.
Most importantly – we can do something. Now. Our preservation work has doubled – now we are responsible for the paper copies and the digital ones. There is no time to lose – and millions of books to lose. Even if Google digitizes twenty million volumes, that leaves millions more in our care.
Let us lead the way.

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