Symposium: Scientific Collaboration Key to Preserving the Human Record
Billions of holdings in libraries, archives, and museums in the United States are known to need preservation action to slow deterioration or prevent their loss. Unanswered questions in basic and applied science limit our ability to respond effectively and efficiently, not least for the fast-growing digital record. Rapid, focused, and cross-disciplinary materials research is essential to reduce the risk of loss for an array of records that store our knowledge, culture, and history.
The Library has long played an important preservation research role. It has contributed knowledge essential for mass treatment of acid paper, environmental conditions to retard collections decay, and procedures for paper, iron gall ink, and photograph treatments, among many other achievements. Now, Robert Dizard, Deputy Associate Librarian for Library Services, notes, "It is essential to understand that the preservation of our collections requires a balance between the challenges of conservation and access in the digital age. The Library's research program includes both preservation of the physical form of digital media, and being on the cutting edge of digital methods for preservation research."
The Library has recently committed substantial resources to additional progress. By fall 2008, laboratory expansion and renovation will provide nearly 10,000 square feet of modernized, "green" facilities for optical, chemical, and mechanical research as well as storage of reference samples for study and historical comparison. New hires have increased the full-time doctoral research staff to seven, and the Preservation Research and Testing staff to fourteen.
Current research initiatives include "visual storage" —anoxic or low-oxygen display cases for treasures like the Waldseemüller Map and the draft Declaration of Independence, deterioration of magnetic tape and disks, laser scanning for digital recovery of sound recordings, storage and treatment of laminated documents, and development of procedures for direct analysis of materials in real time, among other efforts.
Despite this important effort, much remains to be done, and no single institution can accomplish it alone. As Eric Hansen, Chief of Preservation and Testing observes, "The Library recognizes that progress in preservation science requires an agreed-upon national research strategy for coordinated effort. We can maximize efforts by clearly identifying areas where collaborative research is most needed, reducing duplicate work, encouraging fiscal responsibility, and fostering financial support from grant and other funding organizations."
To help address these needs, on July 24-25 the Library of Congress Preservation Directorate convened an international summit of senior scientists with strong, long-lived programs of preservation and conservation research. Their charge? Help identify "purpose-driven" collaborations, strategic objectives, and future lines of research that might help solve the pressing preservation challenges of libraries, archives, and museums.
Participants represented 30 institutions, including the National Archives and Records Administration, the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, the National Gallery of Art, the Freer Gallery, the Museum Conservation Institute, the Lawrence Berkeley National Labs, the Getty Conservation Institute, the Image Permanence Institute, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Harvard and Carnegie Mellon universities, the universities of Arizona and Delaware, the Canadian Conservation Institute, the British Library, the Centre de Recherche sur la Conservation des Collections, the Koninklijke Bibliotheek, and the National Library and University of Slovenia, among others.
Scientists reported on the focus and progress of recent research in their laboratories and collaborations, and noted that collaboration is more normative in European efforts than in the US, in part because the European Union provides significant funding for joint or cooperative preservation research. The modest availability of funds for this research in the US was noted as a significant limitation.
Participants noted that the Symposium provided a rare opportunity for focused information exchange. The meeting proved an invaluable update on complementary efforts in various labs, in particular the development of non-destructive analytical techniques and the identification of volatile organic compound markers associated with degrees of deterioration in a variety of materials.
Participants indicated the value of continued information sharing, and urged that the Library develop a model for broad dissemination of research communication using Web-based technologies to augment face-to-face meetings. Social networking tools suggest powerful mechanisms for this goal.
Another desirable initiative identified by the symposium is development of a joint digital catalog of reference samples for experiment and analysis and a protocol for access to the samples. This would include a database of analytical information accrued for the samples, designed for preservation and interoperability.
Support for this summit was provided by a $10,000 grant from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, and funds from the Foundation of the American Institute for the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works (AIC), and the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT). Additional sponsors included members of the International Federation of Library Associations Preservation and Conservation North American Network (IFLA PAC NAN), including the Preservation Directorate of the Library of Congress, Yale and Pepperdine university libraries, and the Kilgarlin Center for the Preservation of the Cultural Record at the University of Texas at Austin School of Information.