Paste it in the head!


Monday, March 06, 2006

Article review

Virtually everyone is familiar with old, worn-out books, their spines cracked, covers torn off, and pages ripped out. Even if they haven’t been actively abused, books just don’t seem to last that long; even books first published 50 years ago have become yellowed and fragile with age. Librarians have learned to cope with these “brittle books” and, since the 1950s, have grown adept at taking measures to conserve them (Marcum & Friedlander, 2003). Marcum and Friedlander (2003) argue in “Keepers of the crumbling culture” that information professionals attempting to preserve electronic media can learn much from libraries’ experiences with the preservation of paper materials.
For over a century, libraries have been suffering the consequences of the inferior, acidic paper that has been used widely since the mid-1800s (Marcum & Friedlander, 2003). Though the problem of unstable books and other printed materials was recognized at least as early as 1900, committed efforts to correct the issue were not made until the mid-twentieth century, when the chemistry of paper was fully explored (Marcum & Friedlander). Armed with knowledge of the certainty of short-lived paper, librarians knew that changes had to be made. Marcum and Friedlander (2003) write, “Realizing that the cycle of deterioration would not end unless alkaline paper was adopted in book manufacture, the library community worked with other concerned communities and standards-setting organizations to promote guidelines for and use of durable paper” (Section titled “Books and paper: permanence and durability,” ¶ 14). As a result of these actions, in 1981 “the Z39 Committee of the American National Standards Institute drafted a standard for permanent paper for printed library materials” (Section titled “Brooks and paper: permanence and durability,” ¶ 14). Other advances in preserving brittle books were made when the National Endowment for the Humanities and private foundations provided funds for the preservation of brittle books, particularly by microfilming (Marcum & Friedlander, 2003).
By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the preservation of print materials had become assimilated into the management of libraries. Now that some of the issues surrounding preserving paper have been resolved, information managers have begun considering the preservation of electronic media. Marcum and Friedlander explore the unique qualities of digital media and the challenges of preserving them. One of the biggest challenges of preserving digital material in libraries lies in the area of ownership (Marcum & Friedlander, 2003). Marcum and Friedlander (2003) ask, “If libraries become gatekeepers, aggregators, editors, and consultants to researchers, leasing rather than purchasing the resources researchers need, who will ensure ongoing access to those resources? Who will preserve them as part of the human cultural record?” (Section titled “Why digital is different,” ¶ 23) Another problem surrounding electronic interpretations of print media is the relationship between content and form—when texts are microfilmed, for example, much of the original form is still visible, including the binding and the pages; however, electronic texts “decouple content from the artifact, so that information became separated from its original vehicle and expressed in a new form” (Marcum & Friedlander, section titled “Why digital is different,” ¶ 20). Furthermore, electronic materials tend to be unstable (Marcum & Friedlander). Finally, obsolescence is a concern, as well—even if the digital object has been well preserved, the absence of compatible hardware or software essentially means that the information contained within the object has been lost (Marcum & Friedlander).
Marcum and Friedlander conclude by emphasizing that libraries are and will continue to be on the front line of digital preservation. Also, librarians are familiar with the collaborative effort that the authors assert will be necessary to manage digital preservation effectively—they write, “Librarians inherit a tradition of local and global coordinated practice and procedures—namely, interlibrary loan, shared cataloging, and the development of directories of microform and manuscript collections, practices that are perpetuated through library school, professional training and continuous education” (Marcum & Friedlander, 2003, section titled “Why digital is different,” ¶ 29).
Overall, Marcum and Friedlander present convincing arguments to support their thesis. However, limiting this view to only libraries—ignoring the role that archives and the other information professions can and do play in the effort to preserve electronic information—is myopic. Certainly, archivists are also aware of the problems associated with preserving electronic information. Lin, Ramaiah, and Wal (2003) note that archives’ preservation programs “have been organized around physical paper records, microfilm, and other visible record media. Now, the archival repositories are in a long transition from paper to electronic records as the predominant record-keeping medium” (p. 117). Also, Lin et al. recommend that archivists and others in the preservation field partner with those who work closely with information systems, as a means of ensuring that archivists have a role in the process of publishing digital information. Though Marcum and Friedlander assert that libraries will lead the way in successful digital preservation programs, they do not present examples of how this will be accomplished, given the unique challenges that digital materials pose. Lin et al. provide several examples of ways in which digital preservation is being addressed, albeit in archives, not libraries.
Finally, Marcum and Friedlander appear to be operating under the assumption that simply because libraries responded successfully to the deterioration of printed materials, they will experience the same results with electronic information. Smith (2004) explains that, while libraries have been successful in the preservation of print material, the circumstances surrounding digital information are different. Smith writes, “With digital information, the preservation mantra seems to be ‘use it or lose it.’ That is a serious problem for collecting institutions that are working to ensure the integrity of the historical, intellectual, and cultural record. Low-use materials by definition die a premature death” (p. 110). Fenton (2004) comments on the link between preservation and ownership; though this relationship is clearly defined with traditional sources of information, it is much less clear with digital. Fenton explains, “Because these materials [electronic resources] are not held locally, neither the library nor the parent institution is compelled to make the same kind of infrastructure investment as with print materials. The link between local ownership and preservation and access is broken” (p. 118).
The movement to save digital information is too young to be declared a success in libraries, archives, or any other information organization. Though Marcum and Friedlander may be right in asserting that libraries’ history with preservation will stand them in good stead throughout the digital preservation process, it is more likely that a collaborative effort between libraries, archives, and information systems developers is the approach that will bear fruitful results.


Fenton, E.G. (2004). The digital preservation conundrum, part 2: Preservation and electronic archiving, The Serials Librarian 46, 115-119.
Lin, S.L., Ramaiah, C.K., & Wal, P.K. (2003). Problems in the preservation of electronic records, Library Review 52, 117-125.
Marcum, D. & Friedlander, A. (2003). Keepers of the crumbling culture: What digital preservation can learn from library history, D-Lib Magazine 9. Retrieved February 28, 2006 from
Smith, A. (2004). The digital preservation conundrum, part 1, The Serials Librarian 46, 107-113.


  • A nice analysis of the disparities between traditional and electronic records; disparities which should not necessarily exist.

    By Blogger Ted Pesando, at 1:19 PM  

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