The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 6, Number 4, Supplement
Selection for Preservation
Aug 1982

A Survey of Approaches

by Ellen McCrady

"Preservation" is an ambiguous term which, in current usage, can mean anything from full conservation to simply not throwing an item away. It can even be used to mean microfilming an item and then throwing it out. For the purposes of the present discussion, this ambiguity will be resolved in the usual way, by using all of those meanings. "Preservation" will refer to any step taken (or refrained from) that will prolong the life of any information-bearing item, or the information it carries.

All preservation actually involves selection, whether tacitly or explicitly, because we cannot save everything. Because of the size of the task, every decision to treat or copy one book condemns several others to death--a depressing thought, unless one is sure that the irreplaceable core of the collection has been identified and is being given special treatment.

Not everyone who has approached this problem is sure how or whether the more valuable items can be singled out. We are not used to thinking in such terms. Recently, though, a number of people active in conservation and management have addressed this problem before different groups or in different publications, and as a result it has become clearer. Their remarks are summarized or excerpted below.


Archivists have been sifting through mountains of government papers for centuries, deciding what to keep and what to throw away, according to the lawful guidelines. In the United States federal government, for instance, only one or two percent of all documents are retained. Most of the sorting out is done by specialists before the documents are taken in, but some is done afterward.

The Ordinance of the French Minister of Public Instruction, July 1, 1921, can serve to illustrate the principles by which archivists select documents for preservation. (This information is from T. R. Schellenberg, Modern Archives: Principles and Techniques, Chicago, 1956.) French archivists at that time were required to preserve only:

  1. all pre-1830 materials,
  2. all that could help determine a right in favor or an administration, association, or individual, and
  3. all documents that had, or might acquire, a historic interest.

It was all right to destroy:

  1. materials with information that was summarized in printed form, and
  2. materials of interest only for the period of their current usefulness.

Of course, weeding has been done for centuries in libraries too, but it is one of those things that can be put off indefinitely in a library that has extra space available or a collection that is not growing very rapidly. Many libraries went on buying sprees in the last decade or two, though, and they now have serious collection management problems.

Weeding can be seen as a form of selection, because the books or other items that are left were chosen for retention just as much as the books that were removed; so weeding is one of the ways to select for preservation.

Conference on a National Preservation Program, 1976

The topic of "selection for retention" came up six times in this conference, but did not get concentrated or prolonged attention. The difficulties perceived were: 1) selection will cost more than preservation unless you throw away a very significant number of books; and 2) it is impossible to tell today what will be important in the future. One observation was that we are already selecting books for preservation every day through our various library procedures.

The emphasis in this conference was to find a way to save everything by microfilming and remote cold storage with centralized bibliographical control--or rather, to save one copy of everything. It is not surprising that selection did not get much attention.

Library of Congress Guidelines, April 1981

LC's Preservation Policy Committee issued for internal use a 1½-page "Guidelines for Preservation in Original Format and Restoration Priorities," which is not intended as a comprehensive or exact guide to preservation priorities, but should help the departments within the Library to choose which books to send for conservation.

Symposium at Brown University on Deaccessioning, June 1981

There is a 10-page report on this excellent conference in the June-Sept. 1981 issue of Bibliography Newsletter. It was sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and attended by invitation only. Terry Belanger's pithy report, amusing and informative, will eventually be supplemented by the published proceedings.

There was a lot of attention given to problems of bequests and donors, and the income to be derived from selling deaccessioned materials. These are reflected in the guidelines recently adopted by the New York Public Library:

  1. All proceeds will go into restricted endowments.
  2. The inferior, not the superior, copy will be sold.
  3. NYPL will honor the conditions of bequests.
  4. NYPL will sell to realize the highest possible price.
  5. Association copies and those containing MS material will be retained.
  6. Deaccessioning will emphasize out-of-scope material.
  7. There will be advance, public disclosure of proposed deaccessioning.

David Stam, of NYPL, had two other lists. His nine kinds of deaccessioning deserves immortality:

  1. The Deaccession Nugatory (getting rid of ephemeral materials)
  2. The Deaccession Rapacious (wartime plunder)
  3. The Deaccession Inadvertent (materials deaccessioned as worthless about which later generations think differently)
  4. The Deaccession Censorious
  5. The Deaccession Covert
  6. The Deaccession Incendiary (of. Alexandria)
  7. The Deaccession Extraneous
  8. The Deaccession Duplicative
  9. The Deaccession Remunerative

He lists nine factors to consider:

  1. Institutional goals
  2. Crown Jewel aspects: great treasures need constant display
  3. Integrity of bibliographical records: is the item listed as yours in a catalog or catalogs distributed throughout the world?
  4. Preservation: the present physical condition of the item; the cost of preserving it; the cost of making it saleable
  5. Security problems
  6. Legal matters: get them straight
  7. Original donor's intentions
  8. Public relations
  9. An accession by definition makes something accessible; it follows that a deaccession does the reverse.

Margaret Child, Talks Before Archival Or Preservation Groups, October 1981 to February 1982

Margaret Child is the Assistant Director of the National Endowment for the Humanities' Research Resources Program, which this year is devoting 13% of its three million dollar budget to what it calls "model conservation and preservation projects." These include projects to "involve administrators, humanists, and conservators in efforts to identify materials of permanent research value and to develop national priorities for dealing with conservation problems affecting then; the development of cooperative conservation programs on a regional, local, or other collaborative basis," as well as training, workshops and the dissemination of information. In other words, the NEH is very interested in selecting what to save, rather than trying to find a way to save everything. Ms. Child often addresses groups to promote this point of view and encourage grant applications based upon it. Her talks, to people unused to hearing these ideas, are iconoclastic, sometimes electrifying and persuasive. A summary of the passage on selection for preservation in each of her talks is given whenever the text was not available for quotation:

MARAC Meeting, October 1981 (Summary)

All institutions should reexamine their goals and policies with regard to acquisitions, reference, preservation, and so on, and figure Out the long term costs of keeping material, before acquiring it. This cannot be emphasized strongly enough. Appraise what comes in; appraise what you've got; and throw away as much as you can. More is NOT better.

Resource sharing is common in libraries. It needs to be done in archives as well, both regionally and nationally, in connection with collecting, using, and preserving materials.

Society of Georgia Archivists Meeting, November 1981

(Excerpt from the text)

There is just not enough space to house, staff to process, or money and expertise to preserve the non- print documentation needed to record our very complex society's activities and accomplishments.... Like the proverbial mountain which is climbed just because it is there, it sometimes appears that repositories have collected and retained materials simply because they were there. As an administrator, I am well aware that one of the most successful ways to justify requests for additional funding is to play the numbers game: so many linear feet acquired; so many linear feet processed; so many readers served; even (if your record-keeping is very good) so many monographs and articles published on the basis of sources found in your repository. But where is the qualitative assessment in all this? Were those materials worth collecting in the first place? Have they been placed in the appropriate repository? Are they all worth retaining and preserving, and for how long?...

I am a great believer in periodic reappraisal of one's holdings and weeding of materials which no longer fall within one institution's collecting policy or which have proved to be of little or no interest to any user. I also am an advocate of "planned deterioration" which is the acquisition of materials with full consciousness that they will have a limited shelf-life. When they begin to deteriorate, their lives will not be prolonged by artificial means because by then their informational value will presumably have been exploited. In short, documents like people should be allowed to die natural deaths--even in hospitals or repositories.

American Association for the Advancement of the Humanities Meeting, December 1981

(This address is published as a companion piece in this supplement.)

Theatre Library Association, Conference on Preservation, April 1982 (Summary)

This talk was along the same lines as the talk before the Society of Georgia Archivists. Not everything, she said, can or should be preserved. This is the post-custodial age; we have to move away from the warehouse mentality. Because we are short of money and space, we have to examine the usefulness of everything. Appraisal guidelines should be developed for every discipline, and scholars should be involved.

There will never be enough money to preserve even one copy of every title in the libraries and archives of this country--so it is silly to try to preserve several of each. Institutions should cooperate on this by dividing either the turf or the problem.

Vertical files and scrapbooks, especially when they contain material like newspaper clippings that were originally issued in multiple copies, are not unique materials. The energy currently going into rearranging and filming these materials could be saved; most newspapers are already on microfilm anyhow, and one day not far in the future we expect all of them to be. The material can be approached through indexes.

The concept of planned deterioration is similar to the archivist's concept of scheduling. It involves a willingness to let certain materials live out their life and self-destruct. A larger proportion of the working collection can be kept, as compared to the collection of record but the collection of record should be weeded routinely.

John Dean, "Collection Development and Book Preservation: A Guide for Managerial Decision Making," a talk delivered at the Second Annual Preservation & Conservation of Library Materials Conference, February 1982 (Summary)

Most preservation problems are managerial; so are collections development problems. Each institution needs a document setting forth the aims and goals to work for, in weeding as well as in acquisition, because the purpose of both processes is to serve the needs of the institution as a whole. Librarians don't like weeding, but under today's conditions it is necessary.

The weeding program should be run by a library administrator, preferably a collection development or conservation officer who is also an assistant director. Administrative skill in this job is more important than technical skill. It is important that they have the authority that will enable them to take part in long- range planning conferences, and make or affect library policy regarding shelving, microfilming and other matters. The best arrangement is for preservation to be done together with collection development.

Lee Ash, "Reviewing Collections to Select Materials for Preservation," talk delivered at the same conference (Summary)

Mr. Ash, a well-known bookman and bibliographer of 50 years' experience, is now a full-time consultant and appraiser of rare books. In that capacity he advises librarians who are engaged in weeding projects. At the time of his talk he was weeding the Yale Medical Library, where he has been able to dispose of 25-30% of the collection as he goes along; and the library of the American Museum of Natural History. He described the process of weeding as he does it: how he studies the subject area of each new collection before going to work on it; how he involves the professional staff, reference librarians, bibliographers and other specialists; and the types of books he removes (e.g. duplicate copies, superseded editions, and out-of-scope material). Books that are not retained are not necessarily discarded. Many are transferred to the rare book collection, and others are sold at public auction.

Book conservation and weeding go hand in hand. Unless they are done together, neither can be done well or economically.

A major tool for weeding should be the written acquisition policy statement or collection development policy. This should be used merely as a guide, not rigidly enforced. It actually improves the collection to remove the useless and irrelevant material, and circulation can be expected to increase substantially as a result.

National Archives and Records Service, "Intrinsic Value in Archival Material" (Staff Information Paper 21), about March 1982. 6 pp.

Like the LC guidelines described above, this pamphlet concerns itself only with the question of what should be retained in their original format. Nevertheless, it breaks new ground and should be very useful as a guide for setting conservation priorities, both in archives and (with modification) in other institutions. The nine criteria are:

  1. Physical form that may be the subject for study if the records provide meaningful documentation or significant examples of the form. Example: early glass-plate negatives
  2. Aesthetic or artistic quality
  3. Unique or curious physical features
  4. Age that provides a quality of uniqueness. Example: Early records of the development of nuclear power
  5. Value for use in exhibits
  6. Questionable authenticity, date, author, or other characteristic that is significant and ascertainable by physical examination. Example: original photographs of UFOs
  7. General and substantial public interest because of direct association with famous or historically significant people, places, things, issues, or events
  8. Significance as documentation of the establishment or continuing legal basis of an agency or institution
  9. Significance as documentation of the formulation of policy at the highest executive levels when the policy has significance and broad effect throughout or beyond the agency or institution.

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