The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 26, Number 4
Feb 2003

New Study Examines Preservation in Academic Libraries

By Kathlin Smith

A recent study of large and small academic libraries provides new data on the state of preservation activity today and suggests how professional organizations, consortia, and funding agencies can help academic libraries improve their preservation capabilities.

The study's methodology, findings, and recommendations are described in a forthcoming report from CLIR (Council on Library and Information Resources) entitled The State of Preservation Programs in American College and Research Libraries: Building a Common Understanding and Action Agenda, written by Anne R. Kenney and Deirdre C. Stam. CLIR undertook the study in cooperation with the Association of Research Libraries (ARL), the University Libraries Group (ULG), and the Regional Alliance for Preservation. The Institute for Museum and Library Services funded the study.

Data for the study were collected by means of a survey and on-site interviews. The survey was conducted in 116 libraries, including 22 midsize university belonging to the ULG, 20 major non-ARL land grant institutions (LG), and 75 liberal arts colleges belonging to what is known informally as the "Oberlin Group" (OG). The survey was designed to secure documentation from the ULG, OC, and LG libraries that was comparable to information on ARL members that appears in the ARL Preservation Statistics for 2000-2001.

After conducting the survey, project staff members made site visits to 20 institutions representing ARL, ULG, LG, and OG. The purpose of the visits was to collect qualitative information on attitudes, opinions, and emotions relating to the topic of preservation that would supplement the quantitative survey data.

The Status of Preservation

Not surprisingly, the survey found fairly consistent relationships between number of professional staff within a library, the size of its holdings, and its expenditures. ARL institutions, with the largest collections and budgets, also had the largest professional staffs; OG libraries, with the smallest collections and budgets, fell at the opposite end of the spectrum. Preservation expenditures as a percentage of the total library budget were below 3 percent for all institutional groups and below 2 percent for the Land Grant (LG) and Oberlin Group (OG) libraries. (The authors caution that these figures may represent underreporting of preservation expenditures, expecially in LG libraries.)

Staffing is the largest category of expense, accounting for about half of all preservation expenditures. When one compares the number of full-time preservation staff with the number of total staff, ARL libraries show the strongest support for preservation (4.5 percent); OG libraries, at 3.9 percent, are not far behind. At LG institutions, preservation staff members represent only 1.4 percent of full-time staff.

The site visits yielded the following information about the state of preservation activity:

Assumptions about the nature and scope of preservation vary widely, even within a single library.
Although staff members report being fully familiar with functions traditionally associated with preservation, the relationship of these functions to an overall preservation strategy is not always apparent to those engaged in the work.
Preservation is seldom central to the process of strategic planning in libraries.
Although library staff find ways to obtain resources for preservation activity through existing funding structures, dedicated funding lines are difficult to establish in some libraries.
There is strong interest in training library staff in preservation, although resources for this activity are severely limited.

Supporting Preservation Work

Preservation staff members were asked what would be needed to sustain effective preservation work. They noted the importance of funding, but not only in terms of expanding funding sources. It will also be necessary to improve accounting methods and planning, and to cooperate with funding agencies to rethink assumptions about the utility of preservation programs.

The following additional needs were noted:

To secure adequate support for preservation, awareness of the importance of preservation must extend beyond the library to college and university administrators, custodial staff, the institutional community, and the public.
Staff members need help in clarifying and communicating authoritative opinion and reliable data relating to preservation.
Some preservation information, however authoritative, is difficult to use. Information must be processed and packaged in ways that are practical, efficient, and effective for local training and other applications.
More information and training are needed in all aspects of the environmental setting, with particular focus on heating and air-conditioning systems, water damage, storage conditions, and the effects of deferred maintenance.
Services, institutions, methods, standards, and cooperative projects are needed for preserving non-book materials, such as audiovisual materials and photographs.
There is a need for practical, cost-effective preservation training programs and materials for use in structured teaching situations as well as in one-on-one approaches.


Drawing on the findings of the survey and site visits, the project's advisory committee developed six recommendations, along with a list of ways in which concerned parties can act on this guidance. The committee acknowledged that some of the recommended actions do not yet have an organizational champion, and they suggested a stakeholder review process as a next step.

Encourage a common and more inclusive understanding of preservation to support program development. When preservation is viewed narrowly, it gets separated from mainstream functions, becomes identified as someone else's domain, and is considered a luxury. The message must be clear that preservation is everyone's job and that it cuts across all library operations. Encouraging the development of a common understanding of what constitutes preservation would improve communication among those involved in its functions. Helping library staff members appreciate their roles in preservation would enable the library to better meet its preservation objectives.

Focus attention on pragmatic and measurable approaches. There is a general hunger for practical advice and help based on proven approaches. Greater emphasis must be placed on providing such assistance and services, as well as on establishing goals that can be realized and on delivering information in useful forms. The focus on the pragmatic should include advice on what not to attempt and when to seek outside help.

Tailor knowledge and techniques to targeted audiences. The delivery of information should respect differences among and be tailored for various institutions. The study revealed some of the distinctions between different institutional types that should influence how and when material is presented and what is emphasized.

Address the digital preservation challenge at the local level. Staff members in academic libraries understand the general problem, but most do not know how to address it. At the institutional level, responding to this need requires recognition of joint responsibilities with related units, such as information technology. On a broader scale, it entails creation of consortial opportunities.

Explore collaborative solutions that demonstrably benefit the home front. Interinstitutional collaboration has been underused in preservation. It deserves further exploration and, where appropriate, adoption. Making the case for such cooperation will depend on how effectively it can be tied to institutional interests as well as overall goals.

Secure sustainable funding for preservation. Most academic libraries participating in the study considered their own institutional resources for preservation to be woefully lacking. Adequate preservation resources typically are not built into general operating budgets, and programs in many institutions have developed only with outside grants. Until preservation is given higher priority as a programmatic objective, it will not secure adequate resources.

The survey is the first in a series of activities, including a conference in 2003 and additional publications, that CLIR will undertake to examine preservation in the twenty-first century.

For a copy of the report discussed, call 202-939-4750 or visit the website at

Reprinted with permission from CLIR, November/December 2002.

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