Preservation Week II: Problems versus Process

April 26th, 2011 § 2 comments

At the IPI workshop today, we naturally fell to talking about the relationship between collection managers and facilities managers. One of the hurdles in optimizing collection storage environments is that these two groups simply have different ways of working, each one adapted to the general requirements of their work and customs of their profession, and often enough, these are very different cultures. In the course of the discussion I mentioned to my (soon-to-be-emininetly-employable) students, Nora Bloch and Jacque Geibel, that this was an instance of a general problem we’ve talked about in preservation administration, and that’s the subject of today’s preservation week update. Let’s call it problems versus processes.

I suspect that every preservation librarian can quickly rattle off a list of specific problems they have on their to-do list. For me, there’s an incoming Ethiopian poster collection, Nazi-era press leaflets, recordings of Roy Newquist’s interviews, four volumes of Variedades that were somehow missed during a microfilming project in the 1990s; the list goes on and you get the picture. Each one of these is important, each one has a collection manager or three advocating for it, and enticingly, each one has a beginning and an end. These things could get actually and truly done.

And if I did all of them, several months would go by and the preservation objectives of the UCLA Library and its ability to be a trustworthy steward of the human record would be advanced barely at all.

My goal as a preservation administrator is not to fix all the broken things, but to make sure that the library becomes the kind of place that can and does fix things. If that sounds like a politician’s distinction, well, preservation administrators are universally middle managers, and I’d venture to say that successful middle managers have a little of the politician about them. They’re your representative to the powers that be, and the voice of the Capital back in your hometown.

At the risk of going once more down a Proustian path, I’ll give the metaphor one more paragraph. Preservation administrators, like good politicians, have to balance the creation of good government with enough tangible results to keep the voters happy. If the specific collections or items of concern never get tended to, that’s not great preservation, but if they get tended to while the roof starts to leak and the library starts to collect beyond its means, that’s not great preservation, either.

Let me give some concrete examples from my experience at UCLA. ALmost on arrival, I was consulted about a collection of Nazi press agency leaflets. These ended up at UCLA during WWIi. They bear the date-stamps that our old Serials department added as they arrived, with great regularity, it seems. We can’t say exactly how this arrangement was worked out, though there was a large German ex-pat community in LA as a result of the Nazi program, and many of you can attest to the incredible gravity that a library exerts, and the fascinating things that are pulled into our orbits. And many of you can guess that WWII era new leaflets have come down to us in a wretched state of brittleness. These are as fragile as anything I’ve seen, and it’s a huge collection.

Also, this may be the only set in the world.

Another example are the recordings of Roy Newquist’s interviews. Newquist was the host of a radio interview series called Counterpoint, and the nearly 300 recordings in this collection are a who’s-who of mid-20th century American writers and intellectuals. The collection includes the only recording of Harper Lee talking about To Kill A Mockingbird.

It’s an audio archive. It’s unique.

Here’s where the balancing act starts. Two years ago, UCLA didn’t have a reformatting program. We didn’t have a methodology for either prioritizing scarcely held materials or for taking action once a priority was identified. We did have options for digitizing things or even for microfilming, but each project was a one-off. Each project implied a new set of procedures and kicked the can down the road about the long term management of the resulting digitized versions. This went for books and paper, it went double for audio, and video or moving image was an order of magnitude more ill-defined.

UCLA still doesn’t have a great preservation review and reformatting program, but we have the foundations in place, and they support the whole library system. We don’t have the best digital preservation plan, but again, we have some foundations and as a library, we are starting to see a common set of issues and approaches to solving them. Given my preference, we’d still wait a year to dive into these two projects, but that’s why I’m not solely in charge, of course. (Though, note to University Libraries Gary Strong, if you want to knock off for a week or two and leave me with a modest discretionary budget…)

What’s happening here is a balancing act between priorities and process. As a preservation administrator, I want to make sure that if I’m hit by a bus tomorrow (or, more likely for Westside Los Angeles, a Lamborghini), the library will still have some processes in place that will serve it well into the future. I don’t want the library to be left in the situation of having had a few hundred more brittle books digitized, but no idea what to do about the next hundred.

In these specific case, we have had a really transformational year in our readiness for dealing with digital resources and for preservation review. (In an inside baseball note, it’s been transformational enough that we talk about preservation review, rather than brittle books or reformatting, and “preservation review” covers those services as well as scarcity assessment, persistent deposit, and replacement buying.) We’re on the cusp of a big step forward in our capacity to deal with audio, video and moving image materials. This year, I have a real live preservation budget to support projects in all these areas, and staff to see them through.

Because of all that, by spending time to develop processes first and holding projects off, I think we’ll be able to do better work for a long time into the future. That will benefit the next big ticket collection, but it will also benefit that as-yet-unread Bulgarian novel someone needs for their dissertation (a true story) or the millions of other workaday items that make up the whole of a great research collection. Developing the process also means that if a collection manager leaves (they do), or a preservation administrator is out for a a few weeks in Liberia (I’m always hoping), preservation will carry on of its own momentum.

All in all, I could still use a few months, maybe a year, to fiddle with my preservation program. But I’d be in danger of letting process get the better of projects. At a certain point, it’s time to take a leap, and that may be where having a little bit of political instinct matters to a preservation administrator. I could but maybe should not write an entry on that, so let me try to finish this on a note that we can all agree on. Process matters, and I think it’s the primary responsibility of a preservation administrator, but process has to be measures by its ability to generate projects. Why?

Because our collections are jaw-droppingly awesome and like any librarian, I’m eager to show them off.

§ 2 Responses to Preservation Week II: Problems versus Process"

  • eliza says:

    Love this post, Jake. I face a lot of the same choices as conservation gets underway here at UVA. The program is still new enough that I need to get a lot of the foundation work done, but there are so many things to treat that I feel tugged in many directions on a weekly basis. The good news is that I finished a big re-housing project today. It was one of those things that popped up and was better to get done than to set aside even though the collection isn’t the most crucial. At least it can be checked off the “to-do” list!

  • Kim Peach says:

    Oh come on! Bring on the politics!  You correctly and admirably identify the administrator’s prime directive: invest in the process that ensures continuity of operations for the greater good of collections so that all does not come to a standstill when we respond to emergencies, or get run over by Lamborghinis.  And indeed, a department that “runs itself” is better able to invest staff time into special projects. 

    But we need to fill those annual reports with projects to stay on the radar of upper management and our admiring public!  And in a financial environment that leaves us depending more and more on grant money…that money is more likely to be granted to fund a temporary hire to work on a special project. 

    So we need to be creative.  For example, do something really ingenious like collaborating with statistics students to show how the regular daily operations of our department CAN have a big impact on our collections, be streamlined to target segments of the collection that will be benefitted the most, and show everyone that Preservation is alive and kicking. :-)  Now who was that guy who did that…. ;-) . Thanks for the great posts Jake!

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