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Craig Preservation Lab

How to Eat an Elephant

As a new preservation librarian managing a large project for the first time, and faced with what I thought at the time was some huge insurmountable problem, I often sought advice from my wise supervisor, Carolyn Clark Morrow. Often, her response was a riddle:

“How do you eat an elephant?”

The first time, she told me the answer. But in each subsequent “crisis” she would make me say it:

“One bite at a time!”

Then we’d laugh, I’d calm down, put the problem in perspective, and be in a better state of mind to tackle the problem rationally.

I learned a lot of things from Carolyn Morrow. This was at Harvard when the library preservation program was brand new. There was a lot to do. A major effort in those early days was developing a methodology to survey the condition of Harvard’s vast and diverse collections. Each time we prepared a grant application or planned a new initiative was time for some sort of information gathering – condition surveys, time studies, cost analyses, or other data gathering.

We used surveys of various kinds to begin to define the scope of preservation needs, order our universe, plan projects, and get work done. One of the first item-level condition surveys was of a collection of 5,000+ H.H. Richardson architectural drawings to prepare a proposal for funding that included conservation treatment, re-housing, cataloging, creation of finding aids, and reformatting.

But surveys need not always be in great depth. One of the simplest but most effective was a one-page form for curators to nominate collections for preservation. It collected information on significance, use, size, formats, and level of intellectual control. It didn’t take a great deal of time, nor was it exhaustive, but it helped kick-start things. This simple survey is a predecessor to the checklists often used today as a first step in considering the appropriateness of collections for digital conversion.

Surveys help identify and quantify preservation needs, develop plans to address them, prioritize, and then organize work so it can be carried out systematically and efficiently. Surveys can support many kinds of preservation planning. They can be at the institution level, evaluating infrastructure, organization, and activities; or they can focus on the condition of a specific collection.

Surveys have a role in guiding long-established programs as well as new ones, because no library’s preservation program can afford to remain static. Rather, to be effective over time, preservation programs must be able to respond to patterns of use, collection development priorities, and information formats that are constantly changing. An institution-level assessment can help re-align/re-balance preservation programs with the changing world they exist to support. When there has been significant change in the environment, an institution-level assessment, with broad participation across the library, may be in order.

As for surveys at the collection level, they are but one method among several used to identify materials in need of preservation. Selection for preservation can occur:

  • at the point of use (e.g., after circulation, or prior to exhibition, digitization, or other kind of use)
  • upon acquisition or in processing
  • via review at the shelf (often in tandem with shelf reading, transfer, or other collection management activity)
  • by a condition survey, or
  • using a “great collections” approach to focus on collection strengths.

Each selection method has its place, and ideally a library would use many of these. Use-based selection has ordinarily been a top priority in academic libraries, for good reason. Although it is undoubtedly important to address the immediate needs of users first, the huge changes over the past two decades both necessitate and make it possible to devote more resources to other approaches. Some of the indicators of this shift are that:

  • Libraries provide access to information in many formats, each with distinct preservation needs
  • Digital information and time-based media are centrally important today for learning and research, and circulation of print continues to decline (with some exceptions)
  • Digital information requires proactive preservation action
  • Analog time-based media pose an urgent preservation problem due to obsolescence and media deterioration
  • An ever-larger proportion of analog holdings are in remote storage and/or available as digital surrogates
  • We are taking on new commitments to share collections and draw down duplicate print holdings; special collections and aggregate subject collections of distinction (all formats) take on greater significance

Surveys can help when it comes to eating the elephant.

Follow the Preservation Blog for future installments on some of the surveys being carried out by the IUB Libraries’ Preservation Department.


  • Elise Calvi says:

    Good point! I edited the list of selection approaches so that “use” includes both post-circulation review and review prior to other kinds of uses such as exhibition or digitization.

  • Doug Sanders says:

    To add to your list of times and opportunities to select items for preservation attention I would also include exhibition and digitization efforts. Effective remedial conservation can result in safer scanning operations as well as improving patron/user satisfaction through cleaner, more aesthetically pleasing appearances as well as heightened information retrieval.

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