Session Summary: Preserving Library Collections

Roger Schonfeld, Manager of Research at ITHAKA S+R, linked his presentation about Preserving Library Collections with the discussions around Chris Cobb’s preceding presentation, noting that the intersection between quality and costing is particularly pertinent to the issues he intended to discuss.

He began by introducing the work of ITHAKA, a not-for-profit organisation that helps universities to work with new technologies. They have a strong focus on digital preservation and have been doing work to support libraries with the transfer from print to digital preservation from a policy perspective.

Schonfeld framed some of the issues around digital preservation by describing the results of a survey they conducted last autumn, which questioned faculty members about their feelings regarding hard copy journals compared with electronic copies. They used the strongly worded statement: “If my library cancelled the print version of a journal, but continued to make it available electronically, that would be fine with me”. The study shows that nearly 75% of faculty members agreed strongly with this statement, with this pattern clearly evident across humanities, social sciences and sciences.

Schonfeld discussed how these local questions about what “my library” does connects with the more system-wide questions about the implications of all libraries cancelling print versions of journals. The natural outcome of every library cancelling its print subscription would inevitably be that publishers would stop producing print editions and move to a digital-only model. However, when the same faculty members were questioned about publishers ceasing to produce print copies, the level of agreement was much lower. There is therefore something different between the local level and what happens at the systems level, even through these things are deeply connected, and this has significant impact when looking at collaboration and shared services.

They also asked a strongly worded question about university journal back files “Assuming that electronic versions of journals are proven to work well and are readily accessible, I would be happy to see hard copy collections discarded and replaced with electronic collections,” as they recognised that not getting something registers very differently on an emotional level with getting something in the past and then throwing it out. Around 40% of faculty members strongly agreed with this statement, an increase on the previous study where only 20% of faculty members supported this idea.

In summarising the rest of the study, Schonfeld noted that the number of faculty members who support their library, or even some libraries, maintaining hard copy records of print journals is steadily eroding. This has important implications for whether or how print versions of digitised materials will be preserved.

These trends have led to an increased interest in building shared collection of print repositories. Schonfeld showed a map of some of the shared print repositories that have been coming into existence, noting that there is no logic to where these have sprung up, but that there are a number appearing.

One of the assets he identified of creating these shared collection was a move towards not just looking at what the libraries have but what might be missing from these collections. These developments have also led the library community in the US to start thinking about ways of shaving costs off the process of preservation following the digitisation of materials.

That said, the way the system has been evolving has led to all sorts of materials not being brought into a print preservation infrastructure. The shared collections are not communicating with each other to establish what might be preserved in 20 institutions and what might be preserved in only one, or not at all, so the system does need to be improved. Understanding these issues has become of particular interest to Schonfeld and his colleagues.

Schonfeld observed that there are two approaches to creating a more robust print preservation:

  • Centralize the preserved copies and develop a business model to provide access to them
  • Share information about the preservation status of individual copies – this model would be expected to evolve around groups of libraries self organising, driven not so much by the preservation needs of their documents, but by cost and space considerations connected with storage of preserved materials.

These two models can sound very similar, but the question is about whether libraries are motivated by the need for long term access to print, which is little used following its digitisation, or whether they are motivated by space saving and cost avoidance, and what the implications are of that answer.

What Schonfeld and one of his colleagues have done is to come up with a framework for thinking about preservation needs which could be applied to both models. This focussed on identify what the preservation needs actually are, including:

  • identifying how many copies of print materials are needed following the preservation (which has both access and preservation implications)
  • finding out about the current community preservation activity – identifying whether there is a surplus or a gap.

They also identified some questions about the quality and characteristics of the digital version which they recommend be considered before the print copies can be confidently withdrawn. Part of this framework also included the recommendation of a 20 year preservation of print material if all of the above conditions were satisfied, after which there could be a reassessment of the continuing need to preserve print.

They have used this framework to develop a proof of concept tool to help libraries to make retention and withdraw decisions, with preservation at the core. This is not designed to tell libraries when to throw a copy out, but merely to tell them whether their copy is actionable i.e. its preservation needs are met elsewhere and they can be confident of this when considering what to do with their own copy.

Going forward, they want to refine this framework and expand the tool. Their key idea is to create a decision making framework that can take place in a decentralised environment. There does not need to be a brain in the centre of the collaboration to ensure that preservation takes place. Schonfeld’s belief is that whatever the nodes in the preservation system may be, towards the end libraries would not want to draw down further beyond a very minimum preservation threshold. A central model to ensure this would be difficult to create and fund, so his model is driven by information sharing as the most sustainable option for the future.