Transitions in General Collections Conservation

November 11th, 2010 § 0 comments

PADG, an email discussion list for the preservation cognoscenti , has included some threads on “digital books and the impact on libraries” and “brittle book  replacement in the digital age.” For preservation administrators, those two topics immediately call to mind our three R’s: repair, retention (and rehousing, its tag-along dog), and reformatting. The discussion on PADG touched on the level of support needed for general collections conservation, library binding, and reformatting. I had some on- and off-list conversations around those topics and wanted to share some observations I made, since they say something about how UCLA’s preservation program is shaping up.

But, before I bury the lede, let me state that I think general collections conservation workloads are nearing a plateau. This stream of repair work is traditionally identified at the circulation desk and the indicators point to an overall decrease in general circulation. Since demand for services has generally outpaced capacity in conservation labs, the net effect may be that general collections conservation support can stay as it is and still meet the overall need. There are plenty of near-term caveats that figure into my thinking about this:

  • I suspect that UCLA can get a higher yield of materials sent for treatment. UCLA has a young preservation program and we’re fiddling with internal workflows. Consequently, there is still some business to drum up from libraries that aren’t yet in the habit of sending materials for treatment.
  • We need to add some capacity to support mass digitization projects, which require pre- and post-scanning repairs. Ironically, this may ultimately reduce the amount of circulation and repair need system-wide, by facilitating electronic access to our holdings.

This is not the end of general collections conservation, obviously. I think that this is “reduced pressure” in the sense of a river no longer overflowing its banks during a flood. What I hope this means is that my current staff will be able to make a shift from “frenetically busy and overwhelmed” to a more humane “completely and productively employed.”  I think there’s a strong parallel to be drawn with the reduction in serials bindery, and likewise, I think there are some a great opportunities in this shift.

One of these is being able to use general collections conservation in a strategic fashion, beyond just responding to what the circulation desk drags in. An 8-10% decrease in the amount of general collections work frees up an entire month’s worth of labor, which is enough to tackle some significant projects – rehabilitate a reserves or reference collection; get an overlap report of class numbers and circ rates from the last year, pick a “hot spot,” and launch a pre-emptive repair project; the list could go on and on.

There’s a distinction to be made between special collections and general collections usage, pre- and post-digitization. I haven’t seen any strong counter-evidence for the hypothesis that digitization leads to decreased use of the general collections. And it makes all kinds of sense that it would be so: we didn’t acquire or treat our general collections as troves of artifacts. We got these materials for their research value, abstracted from their format. Digitization just puts pay to the principle that research is about intellectual content. There’s a critical, rule proving counter-example in historic bibliography and material culture studies, but I would argue that we serve these needs better through declared and intentional special collections ad hoc, rather than through de facto collections of printing history attempting to carve out a safe haven in the wilderness of the open stacks.

Now that we’re actually transferring the content of our general collections into immaterial (or, only incidentally material) formats, declining use of the material formats suggests that the “immaterial text” model has some legs. Many users like it and they interact with it in a distinct way. New avenues of research are growing out of the large scale digitization. I also suspect that the existence of a digital collective collection has been the imperative we needed to develop the complimentary printed collections of record. Witness the WEST project or the JSTOR archives.

The shift to digital collections has opened up some problematized spaces in our work. I’d pick “research, reading, and pedagogy” and “care of material culture” as the two biggies, but there are others. On pedagogy, research methods, and the role of reading, I don’t find myself qualified to be anything but an engaged audience member. I’m confident that my colleagues are hard at work on this one, and all to the good; I think the issue belongs to them. I think that the library is obligated to preserve their options. From a preservation perspective, and perhaps a larger technical services view, I think my responsibility is to ensure that my colleagues have the widest set of resources.

On care of material culture, however, I think the library has a distinct place and an obligation. Our model of general collections has not always accomplished the needful in this area — witness our efforts to recover examples of late-19th and early-20th century book design, or the case of more recent books like various editions of Learning from Las Vegas, and I recall some discussion about historic newspapers a few years ago.

Acknowledging that more a few teapots have been lost to arguments over material culture and the history of the book, and granting that I’m as eager for e-books as any other scoliotic victim of an overladen bookbag, these problems point towards a rich area of scholarship that has important connections to the issues at play in our culture. Books are how we have chosen to represent our ideas for a long time, and even though websites are the medium of our time, the questions of craft and expression are still at play.

And yes, you can assume that I’ve been nudging my pals in library IT to give me some options beyond the Kubrick theme for our department weblog. And yes, I’ve also wondered if, some years from know, I will be writing an impassioned essay on Kubrick as a landmark in the history of digital text presentation.

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