Preserving the Print Record in the Digital Age

It’s been 15 years since the Task Force on the Preservation of the Artifact issued its report “Preserving Research Collections,” which concluded by noting that “[t]he combination of the brittle books legacy and growing numbers of media, electronic resources, and users–compounded by limited financial resources–points to a turbulent future for research collections.” In the intervening decades, digital technologies have introduced massive changes in both librarianship and scholarship, opening up new modes and ranges of access, and raising afresh questions about the place of print materials in humanities teaching and research. The opportunities and challenges are sizable and require a dialogue that includes both the custodians and the users of these materials. To begin a national conversation we have constituted a new, broad-based committee to think again about the future of the print record.

Many students and scholars in the humanities have embraced digital scholarship, and research libraries have been actively transforming their services and collections according to digital protocols. The community of scholars, students, librarians, and publishers now confronts a number of extraordinary opportunities to shape the future of research, teaching, and libraries. Not the least of these is the collective opportunity to ensure the preservation of the print record at national and international scale, as is becoming the case for preserving the digital record.

Humanists have a large stake in the future of our increasingly hybrid academic and research library collections, which contain a wide range of printed materials—including books, scholarly journals and other periodical publications, and government records—alongside a broad array of digital records. Digitization efforts continue to progress, and large-scale resources such as Google Books, the HathiTrust Digital Library, and the Digital Public Library of America are evolving to meet many of the requirements for students and researchers. Digitized texts are opening up the study of the past. At the same time, humanities scholars have continued to assert the need for the rich evidentiary, bibliographic record in its physical forms, along the lines of the 1999 Task Force report.

Academic and research library collections remain at the heart of the humanist project. In 2009, Christine L. Borgman observed that

The library continues to be a laboratory for the humanities, but not the only laboratory [emphasis supplied] … Humanists need to partner both with librarians and with the information technology planning and policy groups on their campuses. These communities urgently need to ‘think together’ about the common challenges faced in a time of shrinking budgets for collections, physical space, staffing, and technology services.

We want to urge such thinking and collaboration beyond local campuses towards a more coordinated regional and national conversation about the future of legacy print collections.

Budgetary and resource pressures add urgency to these questions. The 655 million volumes in the stacks of research libraries in the United States alone occupy more than 19,000 kilometers of shelving. Libraries continue to add print materials to their collections while also developing spaces to support new teaching and research modalities. As a result, on-campus space comes at an ever-higher price. With these pressures, libraries have been prompted to rely on off-site shelving facilities, placing little-used materials in remote warehouses for on-demand retrieval. Off-site storage has itself been controversial among humanist scholars, some of whom object to the loss of browsing and the familiar, physical access to materials. And collectively, that storage investment is significant as well; estimates suggest that $1.2 billion is being spent annually on the off-site effort.

Given impacted spaces, strained budgets, the continued acquisition of print materials, and the increasing availability (and cost) of digital resources, many libraries must reshape their print collections. Yet these decisions about retention and deaccessioning (with some notable exceptions: WEST, ReCap, HathiTrust) are generally being made at the local level, and in most cases occur without significant input from the faculty and students. If the broader scholarly community is to be assured that decisions about materials have had the benefit of review by all key stakeholders in the community, a larger conversation needs to be convened and a broader system for decision-making needs to be implemented. In the United States and Canada, the opportunity for national and international collaboration to address this risk is particularly compelling.

We recognize that libraries and their parent institutions must steward both space and resources to meet a great variety of needs. In taking up the question of coordinated print collections management, we do not mean to suggest that libraries entirely refrain from withdrawing print materials from their holdings or curtail the digitization programs that have been so fruitful for increasing access to them. Rather, we hope to encourage a broad conversation about collection management, involving scholars, librarians, administrators, and other stakeholders.

In the coming months, we hope to build support for and consensus around that framework by engaging the many constituencies involved in a process of data gathering and discussion. These constituencies include: scholars across the humanities, via their scholarly associations (including the Modern Language Association, the American Historical Association, and the College Art Association, among others); different kinds of libraries, including both research libraries and those at regional institutions and liberal arts colleges, via the various library associations (including the Association of Research Libraries, the Center for Research Libraries, the Council on Library and Information Resources, the Canadian Association of Research Libraries, and the Independent Research Library Association); higher education administrators, via their organizations (such as the American Council on Education); and a number of national-scale projects and entities (such as the Digital Public Library of America, HathiTrust, the Digital Preservation Network (DPN), OCLC, the Andrew W. Mellon and Alfred P. Sloan Foundations, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Institute for Museum and Library Services, and the Library of Congress).

Our plan of action is to develop a steering group to lead this project (as well, potentially, as other working groups), to request input on the issues involved from the above constituencies, to build upon and expand the data gathered in such resources as the PAPR registry (for journals) and the ICON newspaper database, and to hold a U.S.-Canada symposium that draws participants into discussion. The Center for Research Libraries (CRL) is involved in several such efforts, and has received funding from the Mellon Foundation to convene international representatives of print preservation initiatives—conversations which could support our own effort. We hope that the result will be a framework for action that might be employed on any campus to help facilitate collaborative, productive decision-making about the future of the institution’s—and the collective’s—research collections.

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