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Katie Fraser's blog and website

I'm an academic librarian, working in the UK Higher Educational sector, supporting academics and students. Prior to this, I was a researcher, working with social and learning technologies.

My interests include the application of emerging and traditional technologies, research support in libraries, learning spaces, evidence-based practice and the professional development of library and information workers.

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Preservation in Libraries: Graham Matthews’ inaugural lecture

January 19th, 2012

Library shelves

Day-to-day book shelves in an academic library: are these candidates for preservation?

Yesterday I went to see Professor Graham Matthews inaugural lecture at Loughborough University, titled ‘Why do you always keep your records in the basement?’ Library preservation and disaster management. It’s a topic I know very little about, and when a friend from library school suggested attending, seemed like an excellent way to expand my knowledge. I’ll put together a brief summary here, and collect some of the resources he recommended at the end of the post.

After a bit about his entry into the area, Graham talked about the different ways that damage to library stock occurs. His list included handling, storage, heat & humidity, lighting, pollution, pests, fire, flood, theft, vandalism. For me, the most interesting observation was that some of the most common ways for damage to occur to books are among the most mundane: rough handling and poor storage can cause just as many problems to an individual book as a large-scale disaster.

Graham held that all members of library staff needed to know something about preservation, from management down to staff based in the building who might first spot a leak. He held that librarians have a duty to preserve heritage for future generations, but acknowledged that selection of what to preserve, was a complex question. Selection criteria could include:

  1. usage levels
  2. risk of losing an artefact
  3. value and / or significance (at national or local levels)
  4. access and availability

As an academic librarian, I’m more than aware how unpredictable usage levels can be, with a simple change in a reading list completely redefining the desirability of a text for students!

I was surprised to hear that until quite recently, preservation-quality microfilm was still considered the best ‘preservation surrogate’ in the absence of an original artefact. Graham indicated that there are still many issues to be considered about the use of digitisation as a preservation method, and it’s still not fully understood how long-term a solution our current digitisation methods may be.

Graham also discussed disasters, and how these affected libraries. He emphasised that in large-scale disasters, the focus of emergency services will rightly be on life and safety. Preservation of library materials will often come down to the individual, and there can be some quite difficult decisions to be made about personal danger. He felt that the most important thing was to have a plan: and an active one, with procedures and drills, rather than a passive document.

Graham’s final thoughts were largely focused on collaboration and mutual concerns between libraries, archives and museums. However, he concluded by encouraging us to think about our own collections, in the home rather than in our libraries, and what we’d preserve in those in case of a disaster. Maybe it’s time to start making a list!

Resources to Read

  1. Ratcliffe, F. W. et al. (1984).  Preservation policies and conservation in British libraries. Report of the Cambridge University Library conservation project – Seminal report, commenting on the state of preservation in libraries and its disappearance from the library school curriculum.
  2. National Preservation Office (2006). Knowing the Need: A report on the emerging picture of preservation need in libraries and archives in the UK – Survey of preservation in UK Libraries. Due to be updated in 2012, with a new report published in the Spring
  3. Digital Preservation Coalition (2006). Mind the Gap: Assessing digital preservation needs in the UK – Report looking at the preservation needs of digital information: both born digital and digitised material.
  4. Matthews, G. et al. (2009). Disaster Management in Archives, Libraries and Museums. Ashgate: UK – Graham and colleagues’ book, introducing disaster management and giving advice on planning.
  5. National Computing Centre (2011). Managing data risk in the enterprise and the Cloud – Event Summary. – Report on an event covering the digital preservation implications of cloud computing.

Videos to Watch

  1. Preserving the British Library’s C19 Newspaper Collection – Interviews about this major digitisation project.
  2. National Library of Haïti – Alarming video of a library in the midst of a natural disaster, with mystifying soundtrack.

One Response to “Preservation in Libraries: Graham Matthews’ inaugural lecture”

  1. Mike Fraser says:

    Hi, just stopped by to see what you’re up to online, hope all is well. For me the glaring omission in his list of things that damage books is libraries themselves – specifically the physical abuse of books to categorise them in perpetuity (spine stickers, ink stamps, glued card inserts and so on). Ask any second hand book dealer what single aspect will damage the commercial value of a book more than any other and they will tell you that it is an ex-library copy, the aesthetic appeal destroyed in favour of organisational accountability. This is particularly a problem because aesthetic appeal is one of the increasingly small number of remaining aspects that a printed book has over a kindle book (and even then look how that saved the physical record/CD collections). Now there’s a situation where technologies could have a genuinely transformative effect…

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