The problem of decaying collections in libraries and archives all over the world is not new. However, during the second half of the present century several factors have combined to make it more acute. The notable increase in library use, and especially in the use of rare material since the end of the second world war; the increases in temperature in and modifications to library and archive buildings, introduced for the convenience of staff and users; the increase in accessibility of library and archive material as a consequence of the application of information technology; the invention and use of a variety of methods for making multiple copies; and the increase in atmospheric pollution, have all contributed to an acceleration both of chemical and of mechanical damage to the collections that constitute our written heritage.
Both the urgency and the size of this problem mean that no library, no archive, however well-resourced, can tackle it in its entirety in a way that would safeguard the collections and the information contained therein for future generations. Moreover, the development of mass techniques in deacidification and paper strengthening and the emergence of new surrogating techniques (with their consequent preservation problems) have emphasised the need for co-operation on a national and international scale.
Over the past seven years or so, the economic situation - at least in most European countries - has deteriorated. Other issues, such as defence, unemployment, health, crime, figure higher on the political agenda than do education and knowledge, and even when the latter do achieve a high profile, they are not as a matter of course linked to the need to preserve the embodiment of knowledge as it is represented in the holdings of libraries and archives.
Lack of funding, lack of political prominence coupled with a real and ever-increasing threat of the deterioration and loss of our national and international written, printed and otherwise recorded heritage, force us to make the best use of scarce resources in a co-ordinated and carefully planned and prioritised way. Hence the vital importance of an institutional, a national and even an international strategy for the long-term maintenance and accessibility of library and archive materials.
A number of institutions have such a policy, a very few nations do, and an international strategy is a very long way off. Three recent surveys - a brief one conducted by the IFLA Section on Preservation & Conservation, a more elaborate one organised by the Ligue Internationale des Bibliothèques Européennes de Recherches, and a very detailed one in the United Kingdom (to isolate the country where my own experience is greatest) - have shown that, although the desirability of and the need for a coherent preservation strategy is generally acknowledged, it is an aim that is difficult to fulfil and so far the figures do not fill us with pride.
In the UK, 89.5% of 488 libraries surveyed do not have a preservation policy, while documented preservation policies in archives are also generally scarce. In Europe, of the 136 Research Libraries (all LIBER members) that took part in the survey, only 18.4% have a strategy to tackle their preservation problems, while the return of the IFLA questionnaire shows that only eight countries have a strategy for their preservation programme. Canada has published a national preservation policy, but as it is not implemented, it does not constitute a programme as such, while in Botswana a national programme is in the process of being formulated. Seven countries have (or have had) a National Preservation Office , and, in the cases of the UK and Malaysia, this office is charged with the co-ordination and formulation of a national preservation strategy. Both Canada and New Zealand are engaged in setting up a National Preservation Office (or its equivalent).
From these questionnaires it is clear that a great deal of preservation and conservation activity is taking place, but much of it lacks co-ordination and most of it is not based on a written, nationally agreed strategy, that sets out clearly the categories of material to be retained and preserved for the nation as a whole, that prioritises these categories, and that allocates responsibility and funding for its implementation. Of the policies I have seen, Canada and the Netherlands come closest to having such a strategy, albeit in the Netherlands for only a limited range of specified material. Australia has developed several elements for a coherent national strategy in the context of the National Initiatives and Collaboration, a Branch of the Services to Libraries Division of the National Library of Australia.
Developing, agreeing and formulating a national strategy for preservation is obviously not an easy task. Many obstacles get in the way, the most important of which seem to be: lack of commitment, both on the part of national governments and (to a lesser degree) on that of lead-libraries; other and higher priorities, such as the need to acquire collections and to make them available in the short term (rather than worrying about accessibility in the long term); the pressure to extend library automation, or simply the day-to-day difficulties of making ends meet; lack of resources, and in particular lack of funding. It is interesting that in those countries where there is either a strong and active political interest or where extra funding is made available, national programmes and co-operation between libraries to carry out such programmes, are much in evidence. More local inhibitors are a certain amount of possessiveness or protectionism on the part of the libraries themselves, an inclination to let local pressures and local needs take precedence over the broader, national need, an inclination often stimulated by pressure from local users and a strong service-oriented culture. Nevertheless, in many countries there is general support for the need of a national preservation strategy. Having been asked to talk about the difficulties and the process of formulating such a national strategy, I can do no better than become parochial and turn to Great Britain where for a number of years the legal deposit libraries (including the national libraries) have been discussing the desirability of a national preservation policy and are gradually starting to move forward together with the other major research libraries and archives on this tortuous and stony path.
In 1996, the National Preservation Office (which had been in existence since 1984) finally became an independent Office, funded by a group of libraries and the Public Record Office, and was given the remit to develop a national strategy for preservation, and to support the development and implementation of national, regional and local preservation programmes in libraries and archives in the UK and Ireland. As a first step, a carefully planned and prioritised work programme was drawn up, the elements of which all feed into the main aim: the development and co-ordination of a national preservation strategy.
Before such a strategy can be developed and before a national preservation programme can be agreed, the preservation problem as it relates to the holdings of archives and libraries needs to be assessed on a national scale. A number of individual libraries and archives have carried out conservation surveys of their own collections. But, when a small working group collected what surveys had been done and brought these together in order to see whether they would add up to a national picture (albeit with some significant gaps), it became clear immediately that these surveys had been conducted according to different methods and were based on different principles. In some libraries only the rare collections had been surveyed, but it was not apparent what had and had not been included, nor what proportion of the total collection these rare collections comprised. The surveys had been carried out for different reasons and therefore different questions had been asked. A wide range of statistical sampling methods had been used, and the upshot was that the results could not be compared in any meaningful way. This led to the commissioning of a ‘blueprint’ for preservation surveys, a methodology for surveying archive and library collections in order to establish their preservation needs and priorities. Once such a methodology has been developed and tested, funding will have to be sought so that surveys using it can be carried out in representative libraries and archives all over the country. Only then, with the help of some statistical scaling up, shall we be able to assess what the scale of the preservation problem actually is, both quantitatively and qualitatively.
However, the knowledge of how much and which of our collections are in physical need of conservation, will still not give an accurate picture of the national preservation need. This can only be established in the context of a national retention policy. We shall have to decide, collectively, what the written heritage for Great Britain consists of and what should be retained in the longer term. The issue of retention is one that is perhaps more difficult to grasp for libraries than for archives, as in most archives retention decisions are usually made at the point of acceptance. Moreover, archive material, being unique, has a better, and certainly a less-controversial, claim on long-term retention than some printed material. Although libraries too select (and indeed select quite rigorously) items to be added to the collection, such a selection can be made for a variety of purposes, not all of which continue to be valid in the longer term. Many libraries take in duplicate copies for very good service reasons, many take in publications in parts, in the knowledge that these will be superseded by later cumulations. This kind of material is not selected with the aim of being retained in perpetuity.
Although a number of libraries have retention and disposal practices and several libraries have formulated retention policies, these again differ noticeably, both in detail and in length, and range from very broad mission statements to detailed disposal practices without the solid back-up of a specific and positive retention policy. A small working party consisting of representatives from the Consortium of University Research Libraries and the British Library is developing a model for a retention statement with the intention to come - at least initially for this group of research libraries - to a co-ordinated approach to retention. This working group strongly supports the concept of a register of collection strengths as a basis for the allocation of retention responsibilities and as a way of identifying suitable recipients for collections earmarked for disposal. If this model proves workable, the intention is to extend its use to other libraries, including public libraries, so that a wide range of retention policies (formulated on the same basic model by a wide variety of libraries) can form the basis for national preservation decisions and for allocation of responsibility for the long-term maintenance of and access to specific parts of the national holdings of research material.
Once the preservation needs have been established and been assessed against collection strengths and retention intentions, individual libraries and archives should be encouraged to compile and publish their own preservation policies. These policies will have to be compared, and to be dovetailed into a coherent national programme. This is where the National Preservation Office can show its value: as the central body to encourage, help and co-ordinate individual efforts and to shape them into a national and nationally agreed policy. Once this stage has been reached, preservation priorities and programmes can be established and responsibility for preserving certain categories of the national collection can be allocated. In order to do this successfully, it will be necessary to subject local interests and short-term expediency to long-term goals in the national interest.
The necessary funding for a national programme will have to be discussed and its allocation agreed. The autonomy of institutions, libraries and archives in relation to their own funds is not in question, but the provision of funds for a wider national responsibility may have to be top-sliced and earmarked for use in the national interest. Funds from central government, but also those from other sources, need to be co-ordinated so that money is spent wisely to the greater benefit of the national collection as a whole. The National Preservation Office has a distinct role to play, not only in getting recognition of the need for dedicated funding, not just in raising funds nationally (and possibly also internationally) and in advising those who allocate them, but also in co-ordinating proposals for specific preservation projects, in advising applicants on appropriate sources of funding, and in ensuring that whenever funds for preservation are available, they are allocated and spent according to agreed standards and within a national framework. It is incumbent upon the libraries and archives to demonstrate that such funds can be shared in a responsible way.
The success of a preservation policy and that of a co-ordinated preservation programme are to a large extent determined by finance, but not entirely. Human intellect, human understanding, historical and technical knowledge, common sense, plenty of energy and a strong will to succeed are all vital. The need to imbue an institution and eventually a nation with an all pervasive preservation culture, to increase awareness, and - as a basis for this - to train and educate people at all levels is well understood. Much work is needed here. The National Preservation Office sees as one of its tasks the provision of information on a wide range of preservation issues, as another, the encouragement of the formulation and application of appropriate preservation and conservation standards and the propagation of codes for best practice, but these are but two elements of a much wider programme for education. Through investigating the subjects and audiences for preservation training, through the co-ordination of existing or incipient training programmes, through active lobbying of library and archive schools and providing advice on the most useful elements of preservation training that can be incorporated in their courses, and through initiating training programmes for preservation management, the National Preservation Office can do much to ensure that future preservation programmes are carefully planned, properly prioritised, sufficiently supported, and well managed.
What then are the elements for a national preservation policy? First of all, the rationale for the policy needs to be stated, and its scope defined. This scope will have to be agreed and be subject to review at periodic intervals. An assessment of the preservation problem on a national scale needs to be made, both quantitatively and qualitatively. A national retention policy must form the basis for a long-term preservation strategy, while a statement of collection strengths and retention decisions will form the basis for an allocation of responsibility for the long-term preservation of certain categories of material. Selection criteria for long-term preservation should follow. The next stage would be the setting of priorities, the drawing up of preservation programmes, the allocation of responsibility for such programmes, the formulation of standards and targets and the earmarking and allocation of funding followed by the recognition of the need for and provision of training on a national scale, and finally by a mechanism for monitoring progress and success. All this can only be done if it is undertaken as a genuinely co-operative effort, an effort on the part of libraries, archives and government departments, but also of individual scholars, creators and users of books and documents, steered and co-ordinated by a central body (such as a national preservation office).
We still have a long way to go, but the will is there and the co-ordinating mechanism is in place, so that the prognosis for the formulation of a British national strategy for preservation may be: difficult and slow, but it is certainly not hopeless.