I had the honor of presenting a paper for the International Federation of Library and Archives satellite meeting at the Library of Congress. This meeting of the Preservation and Conservation Section together with the Preservation and Conservation Strategic Programme focused on on high density storage for library materials.
The paper, “Comprehensive Preservation Environments: Site-wide Resource Management and Conservation Outcomes for ReCAP,” describes ReCAP’s ongoing program to: 1) provide an excellent preservation environment for library and archival collections in tandem with a reduction in total energy usage, 2) shift power consumption towards sustainable and low-impact energy resources, and 3) engage in good stewardship of the lands under its care.
The paper is available in full here: S11_2016_Nadal_en.pdf (PDF, 360 KB). Below, I summarize my observations on how ReCAP’s technical work helps to make a case for a methodological and strategic shift by turning stewardship into a measurable effort, and helping to make the shift towards a curatorial mode of librarianship.
I think that ReCAP’s library and archival preservation goals should be the exemplars of a complete conservation ethic that pervades our entire means of doing business. Questions of how to deploy technology to achieve an optimal balance of preservation outcomes and energy consumption are of direct and immediate interest, but these technical goals can also be considered as part of a sustainability strategy that is adaptable and resilient.
A long-term effort like ReCAP needs to be able to both fail over safely and scale up reliably. In terms of preservation environments, that calls for technical systems capable of providing pinpoint environmental control that work in tandem with site and facility design that moderates the impact of the prevailing environment and guards against the threats of extreme weather conditions. This holistic approach to the site, facility, and systems ensures that there are many complementary paths to successful preservation.
When ReCAP the site and facility are understood as technological systems focused on achieving a series of mutually supportive preservation outcomes, it is possible to see ReCAP the corporation as an economic actor of a particular type: one that is focused on stewardship rather than consumption, and on optimal scale rather than maximal growth.
In this view, our goals for operating a sustainable shared collection share many of their framing concerns with other conservation efforts, even though we realize those objectives in a different way. In both cases, we are faced with making a transition from one economic model to another.
American libraries and universities, from their inception through the end of the 20th century, have functioned in an acquisitive mode. The primary method of supporting research was to get as many works as possible and co-locate them with the scholars who would use those materials to create new intellectual or creative works. This is, in its essentials, a virtuous cycle when information is scarce and scholarly attention is relatively abundant.
In the late 20th and early 21st century, the balance of information availability compared to researcher attention began to reverse. Now, libraries are under exceptional pressure to be curatorial, selecting and presenting the optimal information resources for use by limited scholarly resources, and to be transformative, offering services that support and amplify the value of all of the resources around any given intellectual project.
Operations like ReCAP have a vital role to play as laboratories for a new mode of common pool librarianship. Because preservation repositories are anchored in a fixed, measurable, and very tangible aspect of collection management, they can prove out the financial and governance models required in a cooperative system, teach lessons about scale and diminishing returns and, in so doing, become a cooperative resource base that will serve as a foundation for further collective action in other areas of library practice.