Thursday, 7 March 2013

'Knowing the need', or, How I learnt to stop worrying and love preservation management

This British Library Preservation Advisory Centre (#blpac, @bl_pac) conference took place on Friday 1 March 2013 to launch the new Preservation Assessment Survey (PAS) 'Knowing the need: optimising preservation for library and archive collections, February 2013' (pdf link).
Jams, jellies by Loozrboy, on Flickr
Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic LicensePreserves, geddit?
  by  Loozrboy 

I set up a quick and dirty archive of the #blpac tweets from the day on Evernote (via The formatting isn’t great, but it may be handy. Slides from the presenters are online via the PAC.

The first paper, from Caroline Peach, summarised the findings of the report

Some of the stand-out findings:
  • 29% of collections are not catalogued, and 62% are not findable online.
  • Preservation measures are best in the fields of handling, security and fire protection. They’re worst in are storage, environment (the worst of all) and emergency control. Its clear that the areas that are best are those that can be controlled by library staff themselves or that have high institutional importance anyway (i.e. fire protection).
  • Only 2% of items are in an unusable condition.
  • There wer need more cataloguing, and better storage, environmental and emergency control. Of these, cataloguing is the priority – we preserved for future use, and we can’t use if its not catalogued.
It didn’t seem surprising to me that these results aren’t so different from the previous survey (published in 2006). Getting an emergency plan understood, regularly reviewed and incorporated into staff training at an institutional level, for example, can be very tricky.

Things we can do:
  • Incorporate good housekeeping procedures, e.g. cleaning, into our regular work.
  • Make sure everyone’s trained on the emergency plan.
  • Implement taregetted environmental improvements.
  • Better prioritising of work, bu conserving or creating surrogrates of the poor condition items in highest demand first. (I wasn’t convinced by all the conclusions drawn from the statistics, e.g. that we’re not boxing the right items.)
Useful tools and reports:

Alison Cullingford spoke about the RLUK Unique and Distinctive Collections report (forthcoming)

Physical preservation isn't rocket science - we know what we need to do. So... why isn't it happening?
  1. Our organisations don't exist primarily to preserve special collections, and the things that need doing need contributions from people beyond the library who don’t necessary appreciate the importance.
  2. Maybe we have too much stuff, as a hangover from past collecting decisions or none decisions. Even if 70+% of our stuff is locally/nationally relevant (as noted in the report), that means that up to 30% is irrelevant, which is still a lot of stuff.
  3. Much of this is uncatalogued, so it won't be asked for by users, it’ll be kept in poor conditions, stored remotely, etc. This is both psychologically and practically very difficult.
There are differences between types of library. Though all have problems:
  • academic and research libraries have too much stuff
  • smaller libraries have storage and buildings problems
  • public libraries are a big worry because of cuts, because they had more hidden collections to start with, because special collections have long been a lesser priority (on average) than in other libraries, and because they didn’t benefit from past retro-cataloguing funding and initiatives.
How to improve?
  1. Keep it simple!
    • Take baby steps, e.g. cleaning. Make a little of this every week a core part of work, which is owned by everyone. Cleaning books isn't menial - you get to know the collections and get to know the problems.
    • Get something online, even if it’s not a full itemised catalogue. Paper finding aids just aren’t good enough any more.
    • Even if you can’t do anything else to improve storage, get your collections 15com up off the floor and make sure you insist on everyday good practice.
  2. Think value, use and priorities. The term ‘Unique and Distinctive’ is useful for this as it implies that importance extends beyond traditional (outdated) definitiong of special collections (i.e. old and valuable). The phrase is a way to explain value beyond money or age. Leeds University uses a typology of heritage (develop these), legacy (you'll keep but not extend), self-renewing (reference books), finite (stuff you do not want).
  3. Make most of opportunities. Don't be overwhelmed by having too-much-stuff, use the Copac collections tool to work out your strengths, backed up by graphs and numbers. Develop partnerships, for example regional emergency planning.
Jane Henderson spoke about decision-making under the title, ‘Confidence or evidence’

This was, for me, the most useful and inspiring paper of the day.  Jane packed an awful lot into her allotted time, and I won't be able to do it justice in this write up.

Her main argument was that you shouldn't be exerting more time and effort on making a decision than the ultimate effect of that decision will have.  She outlined two methods of decision-making: rational decision-making (we try to assess all the variables and calculate the best solution) and heuristic decision-making (we look at the big picture and work out what the most important aspects are).

We feel we should be using rational decision-making so that we can demonstrate the numerical basis to our actions.  Some of the problems with rational decision-making are that:
  1. You can't ever calculate all the answers in the complex situations we're examining.
  2. Very often the effort needed isn't worth it.  You might not need to 5 year's of survey data to tell that your poorly insulated library fluctuates in temperature too much. 
  3. You probably can't remove all the subjective elements, and if the decision is ultimately subjective you maybe shouldn't be dressing it up with charts and graphs.
  4. A mathematical decision may not be satisfactory.  Even if we come up with number indicating a potential risk, research has shown that people systematically over- or under-estimate such risks.  (Jane made the lovely comment that disasters are predictable events that haven't been considered together.) 
Heuristic decision making, on the other hand, starts by ascertaining which criteria really matter.  You then only need to collect information on those, and finding a solution may be much more straightforward.

Obviously, neither of these methods are perfect: heuristics can be very subjective, and the rational approach can have its place, especially where you need to provide 'proof' for your suggestions to be taken seriously.

Jane used the (rather nasty) word satisficing to describe an attitude that chooses to be satisfied with the good enough, rather than aiming for perfection.  It's what we all have to do, especially when time and resources are limited, but I think we all find it a difficult concept in professional practice.

Conservation-wise, satisficing means asking:
  • who is this for?
  • why is it being done?
  • whoe else care about this?
  • what does this object / collection mean to various people?
Lastly, Jane commented on the skills and abilities of experts. They're experts because they
  • see what's not there
  • recognise patterns & exceptions in familiar situations
  • they are selective in picking decision problems
  • can imagine set of good outcomes
  • can mentally simulate routes to desires goals
Experts' use of intuition can appear not to carry weight. When someone voices an opinion without any apparent evidence this often, especially in wider institutional contexts, doesn't carry much weight.   Jane ended by saying that we need to be bombastic in support of the value of expertise.

Barry Knight talked about ‘Changing times, changing standards’

The first edition of BS5454 was published in 1977. As no other standards available, people adopted BS5454 for all sorts of other climates and collections for which it wasn’t intended, which was very detrimental to many collections and buildings.

The current policy is to manage environmental conditions rather than to attempt to impose straight-jacket control. PD5454 and PAS 198 adopt an evidence-based approach. We are required to examine risks, how long we want a collection to last, what the significance of the items is (and therefore what sort of surrogates might or might not be useful). Then you can determine appropraite target conditions, and the energy cost of those conditions.

Plenty of different types of items can co-habit in the same conditions, but one size doesn't fit all. You therefore need to know your collection and what its specific needs are.

Assessing lifespan isn’t necessarily a question of a number of years. The issue is the cost/benefit of conservation work, and the whether a surrogate would be satisfactory.

Caroline Peach presented a session on preservation surrogacy - creating analogue or digital reproductions to extend the usable life of an item

Consider what else we could do instead of surrogacy. (lining, de-acidification (expensive, can be effective, especially combined with cooler storage), boxing, safe handling, reduction in handling).
The key attributes of a preservation surrogate are that it:
  • replicates as far as possible the characteristics of the original
  • is discoverable by users and is issued in lieu of the item
  • will be retained for agreed period of time 
For long time the medium of choice has been microfilm, but today various pressures suggest that a move towards digital surrogacy may be useful.  Users, for example, are less willing these days to come to a specific physical location to consult a surrogate.

Caroline was keen to question the decision-making behind the creation of surrogates.  The results of the PAC survey suggested to her that there was little clear planning behind what to microfilm or digitise.  In my experience, these decisions are mostly driven either by users (those who a willing to pay for a copy of a microfilm of an item, and the library keeps a master cop to use as a potential surrogate thereafter) or by external funding bodies who wish to contribute to digitisation projects.  I think Caroline's argument that we should choose items based on importance, use levels and condition is sensible, but doesn't necessarily tie in well with short-term funding issues.

Gerry Slater, Policy Adviser at the Scottish Council on Archives, spoke about assessing the preservation needs in Scotland

The position of archives in Scotland is very complicated. As well as National Records of Scotland there are at least 133 public bodies holding archives. The SCA aims to be a force for advocating for archives in Scotland, as well as offering practical services.

Its National Plan for Learning achieved consensus approval in the Scottish Parliament, and is a good example of positive work. Another useful document is the ARMS Quality Improvement Toolkit.

The SCA funded surveys of 11 collections, which revealed that the state of preservation work in Scotland is in almost all areas, worse than the UK and Ireland as a whole. The only area in which its doing better is handling. They’re working on positive ways to break this news and to offer practical help to repositories.

What I'll take away from the day

Managing the preservation of a historic collection housed in a space not built specifically with preservation in mind can seem like a Sysiphean task. This conference really helped me think about how I'm making practical and strategic decisions about preservation and conservation at work.  It helped reinforce some of my opinions about what is a priority and how we should address that, and also gave me new ideas about how to present these ideas convincingly to the audiences inside and beyond my workplace.

Edited 8 November 2014 to update link to report.


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