What Is at Stake?
Scholarship and progress in the humanities depend on the continuing availability of the documentary record of published texts, manuscripts, and visual sources. Access to knowledge is inextricably linked to preservation. There is hardly an aspect of scholars' use of research resources that is not affected by the preservation crisis in libraries. "For centuries the library has been the repository of the written record and a powerful symbol of human intellectual achievement,"1 observes the Mellon Foundation study on university libraries. The purpose of the research library, notes Sheila Dowd, "is, and has been throughout its long history . . . to collect the record of human knowledge, to organize and make it available for use, and to conserve it for future use."2 The nation's research libraries house the vast historical and intellectual records of human experience, both the original sources of scholarship and the products of past scholarly work. These libraries contain major special collections of unique research resources as well as scholarly texts, in print and the many other media on which the collective memory of human activity is preserved. While research libraries play an indispensable role in all scholarly fields, for the humanities the content of these libraries is, in effect, the very foundation of scholarship and teaching.
Research library collections constitute a major part of society's collective memory. Without preservation of these documentary resources, the accumulated knowledge of society cannot be transmitted to future generations. As the historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., warns, "A nation that forgets its history is disabled in dealing with the present and the future."3 Society depends on the continued availability of historical and cultural records that chronicle political events, document achievements in the arts, track scientific discoveries, and capture human experience in its myriad manifestations. These records are of immense value to society in helping it understand the past, shape its view of the present, and plan for the future.
Scholars, librarians, archivists, and library users share the conviction that a nation must preserve its cultural and intellectual heritage. Recorded knowledge has a long life, but the human record, in every form, is fragile. History has recorded the loss of the papyrus scrolls in the great library of Alexandria. In this century, the survival of the print record has been threatened by acts of war, fire, and flood, and by many other forms of destruction. Chance often plays a significant role in determining which records survive. We know from the detailed census in the Records of Early English Drama, for example, that only a small number of these plays have come down to us as texts. Carelessness, accidents, the ravages of use, and the vicissitudes of time have jeopardized the documentary heritage. But many of these hazards pale in comparison with the "brittle books" problem, the shorthand term for the "slow fires" of acidic paper that are endangering most publications of the past 150 years, many of which are already so brittle that they may fall apart during use. It is estimated that nearly 80 million books in North American research libraries are threatened with chemical and eventual mechanical disintegration. If this estimate proves correct and research libraries lose even a fraction of their printed publications over the next decades, the comprehensiveness and richness of the nation's cultural heritage will be irreparably diminished.
The print resources of the past 150 years constitute a significant portion of the nation's cultural legacy and are crucial to all areas of the humanities especially. The landmark 1986 study by the Council on Library Resources reports, "The paper most often used for books manufactured since the mid-nineteenth century tends to be acidic and, for that reason, less stable and durable than earlier, alkaline paper."4 Virtually all post-1850 publications are at risk, because they are printed on paper manufactured from unbleached wood pulp—which is highly acidic—and/or paper treated with acidic sizing. Unbleached woodpulp paper deteriorates rapidly with the passage of time; the process can be slowed down but not reversed. Unless libraries take action, books printed on acidic paper may become unusable in the twenty-first century.
The instability over time of major portions of research collections will seriously affect humanities scholars now and in future decades. The brittle books problem is particularly daunting in that the underlying cause of the deterioration of texts cannot be changed without costly chemical treatments. It would be a serious error to underestimate the peril to print collections and the cost of ensuring their continued existence.
While the uncertainty of paper-based research collections is a stark reality, the growing reliance on information in electronic form poses the challenge of maintaining access to an even more volatile format. Magnetic media are especially subject to physical deterioration; hardware and software obsolescence presents a different but equally serious problem. Overshadowing these concerns is the complex intellectual question about which electronic information to save. The projected growth in digital information in the twenty-first century threatens to overwhelm libraries' capacity to select, manage, and preserve these new formats.
Preservation in the digital era presents challenges that are not only more complex, but also reach beyond the traditional boundaries of preservation programs. Preserving information in electronic form entails significant technical investments and structural institutional change. Files must be refreshed—that is, copied—and existing applications must be migrated repeatedly to new hardware and software platforms. As scholarship becomes increasingly reliant on digital collections, research libraries face the challenge of maintaining for long-term access resources created with the new technologies. As George Soete puts it, "When we confront the problem of preserving digital information, we confront the very essence of what it will mean to be a library in the 21st century."5