The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 18, Number 1
Apr 1994

The Idea of Whole-Discipline Preservation in Libraries, Archives & Museums

A new approach to preservation, organized by discipline rather than by collection or format, has been rapidly gaining favor among the major players in preservation (USAIN, RLG, and AALL, among others). It offers a broad and meaningful framework for cooperation among all institutions, and is nicely oriented to the needs of scientists and scholars. This approach has been used or discussed in a number of contexts recently.

RLG and Whole-Discipline Preservation

In June of 1993, members of the Research Libraries Group (RLG) met in Washington, DC, to plan the future of PRESERV, the RLG Preservation Service. This meeting was held on the initiative of the six-member Preservation Advisory Council, to hear what members' needs were. One of them was the need for a type of cooperative project that focuses on a single discipline. The report of the meeting in the July 1993 Colloquium, a newsletter for RLG members, phrased it like this:

Whole discipline preservation project. Echoing a theme heard often during the planning conference, the council recommends the appointment of a task force to design and develop a new type of cooperative project that will focus on a single discipline or cultural area. Materials selected for inclusion in a whole discipline preservation project will receive appropriate treatments from among the full range of preservation options.

This approach resembles what archivists call "documentation strategy," which received its inspiration from the library world. Collection development is an aspect of library management that involves using a systematic plan for acquisition of new material, based on an analysis of what is there already. It involves more than selection of individual good books; it involves the library's priorities for all the subjects or disciplines in its collections. In archives, it means more than taking care of what other people decide to deposit there; it means taking the initiative to acquire what ought to be there. This is more an ideal than a goal, because most archives do not have the resources to carry it out consistently. Still, as a guide to action it can be beneficial.[1]

Preserving the Whole Discipline of Agriculture

Last May the U.S. Agricultural Information Network (USAIN) published a 20-page "National Preservation Program for Agricultural Literature," by consultant Nancy Gwinn.[2] It describes how the most important published and unpublished literature in the field will be preserved by a coalition of institutions and organizations. Of particular interest is a graphical summary (below) of how the plan breaks the literature into logical component parts and begins to assign preservation responsibility among the cooperators.

The core historical literature of agricultural sciences was seen as a primary candidate for preservation. The most important pre-1950 scholarly monographs and serials were identified by the Mann Library at Cornell University, using a combination of quantitative and qualitative methods, and involving scholars and scientists in setting preservation priorities. The core lists are being published as part of a seven-volume set, The Literature of the Agricultural Sciences, edited by Wallace C. Olsen (Cornell University Press), covering seven fields: agricultural economics and rural sociology, agricultural engineering, soil science, food science and human nutrition, animal science, forestry, and crop improvement and protection. The core historical literature will be preserved, and access enhanced, by production of both digital files and microfilm of the entire corpus; and it will be a nationwide, cooperative activity rather than a local project.


The overall plan is limited to paper-based formats at this time.

The NIC Chart as a Model

A field-by-field overview is graphically shown in the chart drawn up by the National Institute for Conservation (NIC), enclosed with this newsletter. The NIC tracks the very broadest trends and outstanding needs in conservation (and preservation) of cultural property, and mounts programs to keep any type of valuable cultural property from being neglected or falling through the cracks. For instance, the NIC discovered that outdoor sculpture, some of it very valuable by any measure, was often neglected and deteriorating needlessly because there was no one in charge of maintenance, or if there was, they did not know how to treat it. So they launched the ongoing SOS program (Save Outdoor Sculpture), which is reportedly quite successful. It is inventorying all the sculpture and training local volunteers to raise funds for their professional treatment and ongoing care.

The enclosed chart shows at a glance which kinds of materials are well or poorly cared for. It lists six main fields or materials (historic preservation, anthropology, archives/libraries, fine arts, history and natural science) and indicates for each one the degree of activity in public awareness, professional information, professional training, research, and preventive care and treatment. The information and training categories are further broken down into "conservators and preservationists" and "other professionals." Research is broken down into "basic and applied" and "analytical services."

Here is a stripped-down version of the NIC chart, to facilitate comparison with the chart for agricultural literature, and to help find the full-scale NIC chart if it gets separated from the newsletter. All comments refer, of course, to the full-scale chart, not this one.


This chart shows at a glance the advantages or handicaps of each field or material. The most public awareness is enjoyed by historic preservation, archives/libraries, and fine arts; archives/libraries and fine arts produce the most professional information for those in the field, and so on. We see that the fine arts field also has the most activity in both professional education and education of other professionals; and fine arts and libraries/archives are the subject of most basic and applied research. Natural science is the most neglected field, and anthropology is the next most neglected. NIC has been carrying out several projects to benefit natural science conservation and compensate for past neglect.

Even though these estimates of activity are necessarily subjective, they are informed estimates, and provide a realistic basis for priority-setting. They came out of formal discussions by representatives of NIC member institutions, which include the major collections in this country, and a number of small organizations or institutions too. The chart is being revised at present.

Such a chart would be a handy tool for decision-making in any group that wants to present its priorities and activities to the broadest possible audience (like legislators, or a large membership) with the least effort.

Preserving Science and Technology

NIC's chart might also be the best way to map out a coherent program to preserve the records of science, which take diverse forms (journal articles, lab notes, magnetic tapes, photographs, movies, computer disks, e-mail), and have diverse owners, users and preservation problems. The fields of science are also diverse: each has its own educational system, its own history, preferred record formats, related artifacts, and sources of funding. There is no national endowment to keep track of all this or to fund what needs doing the most. The National Science Foundation does not operate like the National Endowments for the arts and the humanities. Each field of science has to keep track of its own records, if this is done at all. Some fields are active and responsible, usually through their professional organizations, but others have no channels through which preservation programs can be carried out, unless they can be presented to the NEH as a form of historical preservation.

Another factor that complicates the preservation of the records of science is that they are stored in so many different places: museums, archives, libraries, research institutes and private homes. The librarians and others who care for the records in all these places never come together all at the same time, so they have no opportunity to discuss their common interest. Individual scientists who grow concerned and want to see something done have no forum in which to express their concern.

It does not help, either, when scientists say that they do not need the old records, or that it is all they can do to keep up with the current literature in their specialty. When they say things like this, others want to believe them, because it simplifies the problem. But they are wrong, even if they are scientists. Sometimes it is crucially important to find astronomical observations of a supernova from hundreds of years ago, or an old collection of plant specimens from an area where a wild plant offers a natural cure for a dread disease, or the lab notebook of a scientist whose work has been found to be fraudulent, years after his or her death. These are not the kind of records you look up every day, but in every field the need arises now and then to consult older records.

Magnetic media have furnished us with some disturbing cases of rapid disappearance, or near-disappearance, of scientific records: two familiar cases are the original data on the Van Allen belts of magnetism around the earth, and the 1960 census, which the National Archives has found a way to read and is now pulling back from the brink of oblivion.

Other media used for science can be problematical or neglected too. Take film. Motion pictures have been used to record primitive cultures, analyze ballistics, record wind tunnel effects, record the growth and movement of microorganisms and animals.... But when grants are given out to preserve films, it is usually the well-known fictional stories that can be remarketed on TV that get the attention. What happens to the films that advanced the knowledge of the world?

Whole-Discipline Preservation Will Not be Easy But It Can Be Done

Funding will have to be come from many sources, and as always it will be hard to get, but a competent and workable overall plan will attract funding. With such a plan in place, institutions will be better able to show how their projects contribute to a larger effort that has a beginning, a middle, and an end (or at least a good stopping place).

Keeping track of what has been done, and what remains to be done, will be a big job that will make compiling the National Register of Microform Masters look like a picnic. Much will depend on the strategies we develop for inventorying all the component parts of a discipline, and for setting priorities among and within those parts. We also need to find ways to involve the scholarly community in the planning stages. Perhaps the best way to do this is to concentrate first on a number of carefully chosen science, social science, and humanities disciplines over the next few years. (In the sciences, for example, geology and botany seem like ideal candidates.) Methods worked out there can then be adapted to a broader set of disciplines. The RLG whole-discipline initiative will certainly contribute to this effort.

In general, a grass-roots "bottom up" effort is more likely to yield a variety of creative approaches than a top-down, nationally prescribed program. Broad involvement will generate the momentum to carry this long-term effort through most of the administrative and funding challenges that the next few hundred years will bring.


1. Terry Abraham, "Collection Policy or Documentation Strategy: Theory and Practice," American Archivist 54/1 (Winter 1991), 44-53.

2. Nancy E. Gwinn, A National Preservation Program for Agricultural Literature, Smithsonian Institution Libraries, May 1993.

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