The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 26, Number 1
Jun 2002

The Cost of Providing Access

By Abby Smith

Funding for preservation of library materials will continue to be vulnerable until we talk about preservation as a core business expense for collecting institutions, a type of insurance policy for institutional assets, and a rational and surprisingly low-cost risk management strategy for libraries, archives, historical societies, and museums.

Preservation as a distinct activity within libraries developed later than did other core services such as reference and cataloging. Because of the particular model of funding for preservation reformatting of physically endangered collections that developed in the 1980s and 1990s, many preservation departments expanded on so-called soft money. One of the consequences of this historical accident is that preservation departments are more dependent on grant funds for core operations than are other functions, such as reference and cataloging services.

But why should preservation be more vulnerable than cataloging to contractions and expansions in philanthropy? How can libraries treat preservation as anything less than a mandatory health insurance policy for their core institutional assets? At a recent gathering sponsored by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, regional preservation organizations discussed the results of market surveys of preservation needs and funding they had undertaken with support from the foundation. These surveys revealed that current and potential users of preservation services value preservation services but do not see them as a necessary expenditure. Meeting participants concluded that moving many preservation services to a cost-recovery fee structure seemed untenable. The preservation centers report a lack of awareness of the need for preservation and a corresponding lack of support for preservation among those who allocate resources within institutions—especially institutions such as museums, which have a public-education mission.

It is common to blame the lack of support for preservation on the make-up of boards of directors or on institutional trustees, who often come from the for-profit sector. Some accuse these individuals of being unsympathetic to the needs or cultures of nonprofit institutions. It is, however, unlikely that they volunteered to serve institutions whose core missions they do not support and value. We might as well blame ourselves for failing to educate those people who are best positioned to make sound financial decisions. What good businessperson does not insure his or her company's assets? And what is preservation but insurance against loss?

A board's lack of awareness is typically a symptom of a deeper problem. Lack of awareness begins among library staff and management. In many cases, it can be traced to the educational institutions responsible for training librarians, archivists, or curators. In libraries, for example, leaders tend to emerge from the ranks of catalogers, reference specialists, and now technologists. Seldom, if ever, do they come from preservation. Consequently, today's managers are themselves often unaware of the strategic role that preservation plays in collection management and cost containment.

One curious finding of the regional centers' surveys was that institutional managers frequently become aware of preservation only when forced to deal with a disaster. It is human nature to be riveted by the needs of urgent mitigation and bored by those of measured prevention, as any family doctor knows well. But an equally curious fact is that while insurance policies may often be hard sells, the one group most aware of their value is senior managers in the private sector. If library managers continue to talk about cultural assets as things dependent for their survival on the kindness of strangers and philanthropists, then they will not be able to secure the resources needed to fulfill the custodial mission of libraries. Library managers do not need to convince business people that the costs of prevention beat consequences of mitigation, but they do need to incorporate this rhetoric into their discourse.

Preservation needs to be calculated as one of the key costs of providing access. It needs to be viewed as an activity just as essential to access as is cataloging. The burden of funding preservation of digital information to which institutions provide access but do not own any rights is known to be a major economic challenge for digital archiving. However, there can be no doubt that for artifactual collections, good storage conditions, disaster preparedness, and other preventive measures to protect information assets owned by a library constitute investments that in any other business would be deemed essential.

Reprinted from CLIR Issues, No. 27, May/June 2002.

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