Spem in alium: Orchestrating preservation

[These remarks were delivered to the Preservation Administration Interest Group at the American Library Association’s 2017 Annual Conference in Chicago, IL. By way of context, it was just announced that I was taking up the position of Director for Preservation at the Library of Congress. I spoke about preservation in libraries, but I believe that these apply as well to preservation in archives, museums, and other collecting institutions.]
I worry what Emily Post might say about lecturing on semiotics at 9 in the morning on a week-end, but Richenda got me a little bit fired up the need for a critical theory of preservation last night, so I’m going to start today with Heidegger’s thoughts on early Romantic period music and food storage:

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A Tale of Two Holes in the Wall

This is going to end up being a post about preservation management with an epilogue on equitable access and shared collections, but it starts with some rough building trades-work and a visit to a notable internet site’s headquarters. In planning the trip, I’d asked something about energy consumption for their data center. That led someone to mention a clever system for pouring the waste heat from their servers into the building’s air plenum for free heating.

I love this kind of stuff.

On the day of the visit, I asked to see how this worked and, upon entering the server room, was delighted to be disappointed because their system for harvesting residual heat was… wait for it…. Continue reading A Tale of Two Holes in the Wall

Comprehensive Preservation Environments, IFLA 2016 Satellite Meeting.

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.

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Think Like a Computer

I gave a talk at ALA 2016, in Orlando, Florida, describing some of the approaches I’ve used in teaching digital preservation for libraries. My slides from the talk are posted here, and if the date is later than September 1, 2016 and you’re reading this, please do send me a reminder to post the edited transcript. (I’ve included the basic notes below, but it’s been a busy summer.)

My slides: Nadal-ALAAnnual16-DigPresEd

And an outline of the main points from the talk:

  • Preservation requires intact Materials (Substrate; Media) and functional Rendering systems (Transport; Language).
    • Materials are the core challenge for physical preservation; Rendering is the challenge for digital preservation.
    • In evaluating any training or education prospect, as how it will help you learn to move data around (transport) or to make data usable (language).
  • Computers are machines for performing binary logic operations, incidentally powered by electricity.
    • If you can imagine a conditional series of events, a computer can execute it.
    • Librarians have to describe the essential requirements and logical flow of systems.
    • Developers refine our requirements and make a best-possible implementation at a given point in time with prevailing technology.
  • Computers and programming happen in history and in the real world. Over time, we gain perspective on them just like any other information artifact.
    • Preservation is a sustainable process, optimized over time. What you do correctly now, will be wrong later.

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Commitment Day

Twenty-seven years ago today, March 7, 1989, a group of authors and publishers signed a Declaration of Book Preservation, saying “We, the undersigned authors and publishers, hereby declare our commitment to use acid-free paper for all first printings of quality hardcover trade books in order to preserve the printed word and safeguard our cultural heritage for future generations.”

There was a footnote about using acid-free paper “subject to availability,” which wasn’t a dodge. At the time, acid-free papers were not widely available. They are now widespread. The notepad on your desk is almost certainly acid-free, and likely so are the post-its beside it. The paper in your printer is acid-free. The hand towels in the bathrooms here at ReCAP are acid-free, and not just because we’re that focused on preservation (though, let’s face it, we are), but because after 25 years, the paper industry has retooled. Things really changed.

Like many of these stories, there’s a person whose name you’ve never heard who deserves credit, and there are institutions who put their weight behind her. I think it takes both, every time, to make progress. A motivated person and network of support, spark and a hearth, a bright idea and a place for it to grow… and also keep that spark from burning down the house, a realistic concern in this case, because Ellen McCrady was on fire.

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The Destruction of Libraries: Book Reviews

[Written at the request of my alma mater for their project, “Books and Destruction: Honoring Banned Books Week,” during August 2015.]

Libraries and archives are frequent targets in war and conflict. Institutions that support the rule of law, encourage the exploration of ideas and identity, and stand for intellectual freedom are a grace threat to regimes that seek to control all aspects of public and private life.

The number of books that address this topic is, sadly, growing. Rebecca Knuth’s two most recent books, Libricide: The Regime-Sponsored Destruction of Books and Libraries in the Twentieth Century and Burning Books and Leveling Libraries: Extremist Violence and Cultural Destruction, deserve attention for their thorough scholarship and attention to current events. Lost Libraries: The Destruction of Great Book Collections Since Antiquity, an essay collection edited by James Raven, might be read back to back with Lucien Polastron’s Books on Fire: the Destruction of Libraries Throughout History, which is both thoroughly researched and deeply felt. A Universal History of the Destruction of Books by Fernando Báez may deserve a reader’s first attention, though. It is a comprehensive and provocative starting place, for one, but it is also a book that has been widely read in translation, which makes it a particularly fitting introduction to a problem that so often emerges from the fractured relations between nations.

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UCLA Library Cooperative Library Services Talk

On September 18, 2015, I had the pleasure of spending the day at UCLA Library talking about the work we’re engaged in around cooperative print preservation and the ways that a shared service layers that can provide better access to research collections.

I want to thank Sharon Farb and Dawn Aveline, particularly, for putting this event together. It was a real pleasure to work with the team at UCLA Library, and I was very glad that we had librarians from SCELC involved, as well.

The handout from my talk is here, and alludes to the main themes: UCLA Library Handout (94 KB; PDF). I don’t have a full transcript of this talk, yet, but some of the key ideas are captured in a short piece I wrote on “Curatorial Libraries,” posted on Medium for comment, and archived on this site.

Throughout the day, we referred to a number of resources, listed here:

Finally, let me say a word of thanks to the librarians at Princeton and Harvard, who invited me to give earlier versions of this particular talk, and acknowledge all of my colleagues across the ReCAP partnership, whose many years of work on cooperative services is the real proof of the benefits that come from cooperative library services.

Setting the Stage: Creation, Curation, and Use

I had the pleasure of serving as the opening speaker for the 2015 NEDCC Digital Directions conference. This post contains the text of my remarks and the slides from my presentation. Each is intended to be able to stand on its own, so if you want a quick overview, download the slides. If you want to dig in, read on below.

Slides: Self Playing PowerPoint Slideshow (ppsx, 1.7MB)


In this essay, I want to do a few things to prepare you for a productive foray into learning about digital preservation. First, we need to cross the divide from analog to digital. From there, we need to think about what it really means to create digital resources, to curate them, and to put them to use. And finally, we need to get ourselves back home, and ready to do good work.

To ensure you are ready for this journey, please look at your shoes…

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Curatorial Libraries


The Rocky Mountain Land Library is on my mind today. It’s a library-in-progress, still in an aspirational phase, but darned if I don’t hope it works. As the New York Times describes it:

Imagine a network of land-study centers stretching from the Headwaters of South Park to the metro-Denver plains. Each site will be united by the common purpose of connecting people to nature and the land, but each site will have something unique to share:

South Park’s Buffalo Peaks Ranch will offer a 32,000+ natural history library, along with residential living quarters for anyone who would like to experience the quiet and inspiration of a book-lined historic ranch, set on the banks of the South Platte River, and surrounded on all sides by a high mountain landscape, with some peaks rising to over 14,000 feet.

I admire this kind of curatorial vision, and I like to think of a point in the future of libraries when this is the core of what most librarians do. In the Land Library, it’s situating research materials about the land in a site that is proximate to or integrated with the land itself. More generally, it’s understanding a particular research and creative process, so that materials relevant to that process can be optimally arranged in space and time. This curatorial approach to libraries is not revolutionary, but developmental. It builds on the outcomes of the existing model of collection development, which collocated researchers with the largest-attainable quantity of the highest-attainable quantity of resources.

Call it the collecting library, a solution to the information scarcity problem. The curatorial library is an adaptive reuse of that architecture to provide a solution to the attention scarcity problem.

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Endangered Species and Dangerous Metaphors

I gave a short presentation for the ALA Midwinter 2015 Print Archive Network Forum delving into the “endangered species” question for monographs. While the talk was light on formulas and specifics, it expands on some of the work from the UCLA scarcity case study that I worked on with Dawn Aveline and Annie Peterson, and continues to argue two main ideas:

One, that we ought to base the print archive network on local/regional efforts, and not attempt to prescribe a national plan. The national work is net-work: a system to monitor for risk and optimize traffic across sub-nets and nodes. We need some national-level mechanism to alert, convene, and coordinate, but a diversity of localized business models and operational approaches in active conversation is the way to develop to good practices and sustainable programs.

Second, that we need to pace the print archiving effort so that we first address the areas of the collection that both have massive overstock and very low incidence of artifactual or para-textual value. This lets us solve the most pressing resource issues while also buying time to develop the right methods for protecting scarcely-held works and identifying specific books that have material culture value.

What follows is not a verbatim transcript and is a little more expansive than the remarks I made at PAN. The live conversation and session timing called for a few cuts and quips, day-of, but here are the slides (PowerPoint Slide Show: ALAMW2015-PAN-Nadal-Compact) and notes I spoke from:

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