What is Enduring Value? Preservation and the Creation of Knowledge

 

The Barbara Goldsmith Preservation Lecture

 

December 5, 2001

 

 

Thank you very much for that generous introduction. I am quite honored to be speaking here this evening, and I shall take full advantage of that honor by talking to you from a personal perspective about something that I have thought about for decades: how does what we preserve, and what we do not preserve, shape the creation of knowledge. Despite what may appear to others to be a varied career path, to put it euphemistically, I have always felt my professional life to be one seamless whole, propelled by an insatiable curiosity about the past of our species and especially how we record things about ourselves and our surroundings and why, how we pass this information on, and why, and how we use the evidence that has been left to us to shape our endsthe ability to shape our ends being my definition of knowledge.

 

Putting aside monetary considerations for the time being, how should we think about the value of the materials we choose to preserve, think about them in ways that help us provide appropriate treatment to the numerous collections in our charge, especially when we cannot possibly do justice to even the majority of them? While I do not wish to diminish the importance of money, I do not think that lack of funding per se is the largest constraint on our effectiveness in meeting preservation goals. More money will not solve our problems. I shall return to this point.

 

My thirty years in the history and library professions have produced two simple and deeply held convictions: first, that lossof information, of knowledge, of evidence from our pastis inevitable. As Shakespeare wrote in an early sonnet, �everything that grows/ Holds in perfection but a little moment,� and, he goes on, to hold on to that perfection is futile. �To make war upon this bloody tyrant Time,� to take up arms against death and decay, is doomed to disappointment in the end.

 

Hence my second conviction: that our job as preservationistsby which I include anyone who cares about the continuity of the past and the presentour job is to manage and minimize that loss. We should not attempt to deny that inevitable loss by fetishizing objects�be they books and old newspapers, artworks, or collectibles of any sortbut we should reduce the risk that what is truly of value will be lost, and we should let that which is not valuable die its own natural death. In cultural institutions such as this university, we should manage that loss explicitly in the service of cultural missionsin the case of New York University, of research, of education, of the life of the mind, and the well-being of our polity, including the life of this city.

 

So our job as preservationists is to choose, to edit, to perform triage on the abundance of stuff that comes at us, to discern what is of enduring value and ensure its integrity over time. In other words, we are in the selecting business, not the warehousing business. Warehousing is a very important function, and does play a part in preservation both for libraries and for archives, especially for legal and fiduciary purposes. But I do not associate that holding actionwhat archivists would call records managementwith the more critical function of selection that we must do in the service of our cultural missions.

 

These ideas about loss and the importance of selecting what to keep and what to lose seemed so self-evident to me as to be unremarkable, literally, at least in my first two careersas historian of medieval Russia and then working at the Library of Congress. It was not until 4 years ago, when I started at the Council on Library and Information Resources, that I began regularly encountering people, both in the academy and in the public at large, for whom these two ideas seemedhow shall I put this?controversial or �contestable.�

 

As a Russian medievalist, I have worked in American, European, and Russian libraries and archives on a period of history, before 1700, when recording anything visually or textually was rare. I conducted my doctoral research in the Soviet Union during the Cold War, when Brezhnev was still alive. What 17th century sources had survived war, revolution, and frequent natural catastrophesknown in Russia simply as �winter�were often mysteriously �unlocatable� when called for by a citizen of a capitalist country, such as your humble speaker. That what survives from the past would constitute the historical record is a very shaky notion, one deeply politicized in Russia, even today.

 

Of course, the Russians, it must be admitted, have a far more creative attitude to history and the historical record than we of the Anglo-American tradition. They are not positivists, they do not repose deep trust in so-called objective facts. They are frank about using the pastwhat survives and does not survive of the pastas a way of shaping the present and future and they have always been so. If they do not like the current version of the pastif it somehow proves inconvenient to someone in high places, for examplethey discard it and create a new one, an act of legerdemain that some of you know from the images of Trotsky and Bukharin that magically �disappear� from photographs over time, and which we have witnessed firsthand again since 1989. (This wholesale rewriting of history, incidentally, has always been the task of historians. Librarians and archivists had a higher and much riskier calling: they had to save everything, no matter how damning, and be sure that none of it fell into the wrong hands, such as those of your humble speaker.) This understanding of the uses of the historical record did not begin with the Bolsheviks. Rather, it was because the Bolshevik regime perfected that tradition of �creative history-making�, and practiced it with great, bald-faced flair, that made them so successful. We scholars of Russia struggled mightily to understand the past from a very fragmentary record, one with a rich overlay of painfully didactic secondary literature that tried to pass for primary documentation. As graduate students, we Russian specialists were much more alive to the fragility of the historical record, almost obsessed with how documents had been created, by whom, how they happened to survive, and in what form, and what had not survived, than our peers in American history beavering away at colonial trade records or some such. They seemed to us na�ve�they took their sources more or less at face value. Of course we were snobs about this�we told ourselves that our command of exotic languages and nearly indecipherable Old Church Slavonic paleography, our brutal travel schedules and scary field stories from Mother Russiamade us more authentic, or at least heroic, as historians. But of course we envied our colleagues in American history, their simple and largely justified trust in the authenticity and integrity�physical and otherwise�of their sources. We almost felt that we were in a different business. We were more like Sherlock Holmes than Bernard Bailyn. We always asked why the dog did not bark. If the dog did bark, we knew someone had put the dog up to it. Disinformation. (I will say parenthetically the current post-modern skepticism toward all forms of recorded information is fundamentally and radically different from the measured caution with which we approached our sources, primarily because we read human psychology and intentionality differently. But that is another story.)

 

My sense of the inevitability of loss and the importance of managing it was deepened, though in a delightfully benign way, during my 9 years at the Library of Congress. At the Library of Congress, we collected voraciously, yet inevitably, incompletely. There were always collections that got awaymore often than you would think we turned things away because we could not provide proper stewardship. Loss seemed self-evident there too, under the best of circumstances, from the purely practical constraints of space, time, and inadequate resources, not from the malign influence of ideology or politics. On the contrary, America is so unlike the Soviet Union was in its information policy, and, frankly, that was part of the problem: in a democracy there are sincere and actually well-funded efforts to preserve an �undistorted,� unshaped, �complete�� record. But this is impossible, because the record is huge! Given a democracy in which nearly all citizens are literate, empowered to produce and consume records, feeling entitled to have their voice enter into the historical record, debatelet alone consensusabout relative value is disdained as virtually undemocratic.

 

 

II. Research Value

 

So how do we discern enduring value in research materialsand remain good democrats, small �d�? What is enduring value, in a world in which is it possible to acquire or document more than any one institution or even a network of institutions can properly take care of? To avoid making decisions about what to preserve is, in this universe, irresponsible. And I am talking not only of the digital universe of information, which is frighteningly large, but also of the old-fashioned analog world of information which, if you look beyond printed matter, is also daunting in scale.

 

Although it is our job, as librarians and archivists, to answer that question, we do not have an exclusive claim to wisdom on the subject. We at CLIR recently convened a group of scholars, librarians, archivists, and of course some academic officersthe presidents, provosts and deans who hold the purse stringsto advise us about how one is to think about enduring and inalienable value in the artifactual collections that crowd our libraries. What do we need to preserve and serve among hundreds of millions of books, journals, films, recorded sound, broadcast media, prints, photographs, maps, pamphlets, you name it. (And how do we pay for it?)

 

We asked them to focus on deciphering the values inherent in non-rare items, to describe the research value of them, a subjective assessment at best. Our scholars were quite distinguished for scholarship in their respective fields, but they were nonetheless surprised to be asked to serve on this group. They did not see themselves as having experience and expertise as preservationists, despite their professional dependence on research collections, so, as a control group, they were in many ways perfect for our purposes.

 

They were perplexed and intimidated by the technicalities of preservation, by the size of library collections, of a scale so evidently unmatched by available resources for good stewardship; by the fragility of even the most robust media, such as paper, even rag paper, and the greater fragility of film-based items�of the entire visual history of the past 150 years�and the yet more fragile media that carry the aural, or sound history of the past 100.

 

In order to engage the issues, they needed to �problematize� the matter, as they said, to make it intellectually compelling. They enjoyed interrogating the artifact, and they quickly saw the value of an ever widening scope of research materials, even as they protested that trying to keep all this stuff was clearly impossible. They urged the library community to reduce potentially wasteful redundancy of effort, saying that duplicative collections will lose their value over time as more and more information can be retrieved electronically. They want more of each type of genre, fewer exemplars of each. More specialization and focus in libraries, not more homogeneity. The promise of relatively easy if still expensive access to secondary sources through electronic networks led them to define the unusual, the piquant, and basically all non-print materials as worthy targets for the attention of preservation experts.

 

One distinguished scholar from New York, who I hope is not in the audience this evening, a great advocate for preservation, said that he found the discussion about how and why artifacts are valuable to be very stimulating, but, he added ruefully, it would have been even better if we had not been so focused on making decisions.

 

But of course, we are focused on making decisions, that is the moral basis of our work.

 

So where does that leave us? Well, our task force did come away with several very strong statements, which are all in the report, The Evidence in Hand. Loss is inevitable, if regrettable. We can maximize what we preserve if we create economies of scale, something critical in the digital realm but now, increasingly, seen as critical for analog collections as well. We should develop priorities for preservation action that reflect a balance between the interest of present and future users, the dynamic and changing research agendas of scholars, and, of course, the stabilityor instabilityof the object itself.

 

No magic formulas there, I am afraid. But we can, in fact, develop priorities for preservation based on these guidelines.

 

III. Risk management

 

The most effective way to do that, in my view, is to take a risk management approach. The risk assessment process model I refer to was developed by the Library of Congress during my tenure there and has been successfully adopted for a number of collection-management issues, including but not limited to preservation. It has been described in some detail by a CLIR report, Managing Cultural Assets from a Business Perspective, so I shall be brief.

 

Library preservation differs from museum preservation in that librarians are always looking to use and fitness for purpose. The risk assessment model is focused entirely on fitness for purpose: how is that object going to be used, and what really threatens its usefulness? Let�s take an ordinary library objecta book. What threatens to make a book unusable? It could be misplaced or inadvertently misshelved. It could be incorrectly cataloged and hence unretrievable; or it could be languishing uncataloged in a backlog somewhere on a book truck or cataloger�s desk. It could be embrittled and crumble when you turn the pages. Or it could be physically damaged through vandalismthe illustrations razored outor just plain stolen. In each case, the book might as well not even exist for all the good it does library patrons. In the language of risk assessment, the risks to the book�s integrity and usefulness fall into four categories:

 

��������� Bibliographical control: do we know what the item is?

��������� Inventory control: do we know where it is?

��������� Preservation control: is the information intact and the item usable?

��������� Security control: is the item at undue risk of theft or mutilation?

 

Risk management begins from the premise that, because collections are the primary assets of the library, or often, together with real estate, of the university, the question is not �How much can we afford to put into these collections?� but rather, �How much risk do we take if we fail to invest in our asset base?� It guides managers in how to identify specific risks in their libraries and how to decide what level of risk is acceptablethe cost of doing businessversus unacceptable. It provides a step-by-step description of a process of risk evaluation that involves everyone in the institution responsible for the collections. This means not only those who work directly with collections, but also those responsible for security, buildings and grounds, and, most importantly, the information technology infrastructure. After all, inventory and bibliographical controls are absolutely essential to all aspects of security, preservation, and service. So whoever maintains the online catalog, or the integrated library system, and keeps it up and running, is as critical to the good stewardship of library collections as a cataloger or a rare book conservator.

 

IV. Principles of Selection

 

Well, this is all great�the scholars think we should save as much as possible as cheaply as possible and I�ve just referred to a system of collection management that can maximize every dollar spent on preservation by deterring loss to begin with. You may have noticed by now that I keep avoiding the topic of enduring value, what it means and how we identify it. So why avoid the subject: what principles should we usecan we usewhen selecting for enduring value?

 

Well, the answer is simple: value comes from use. What endures is that which we use, today or tomorrow, to create our present and our future. There is more merit than you might think in stipulating use as the basis for selection for preservation. Collections of things that are used comprise at least an accurate record of what people at specific times in the world need for specific purposes. I remember struggling 20 years ago with the fact that certain types of records from the medieval past of Russia�petitions to the tsar, for example, or liturgical textswere created and preserved in relative abundance, while records of daily life, which we know were, in fact, created because we have found accidentally preserved caches of letters on birch bark in Novgorod, were not preserved. Well, we in the present may be more interested in the personal lives of medieval Russians than their spiritual or economic lives, but that is not how they saw it, and that is surely worth thinking about. The choices that were made back then about what to save really speak about who those people were and what they valued. The exact same will be said of us 700 years hence.

 

CODA

 

I also think use is the best place at least to start because preservation serves the purpose, ultimately, of memory. And we can see that use is at the very heart, or the very neuron, of memory.

 

Recent work on the neuroscience of human memory shows that we take in information about the world through all our senses and at many different levels, much of it processed through several centers of emotion (that is, to add affect that will help the brain to quickly figure out the information�s value to our survival; we should not have to think too hard or too long about whether or not a car speeding towards us endangers us or not; the brain should compute this in time to save our lives, and it does that by activating fear). The information we process without cease during our waking hours may or may not rise to consciousness as we speak of it, that is, higher consciousness. Specific memories are strengthened and endure longer if we retrieve them in the course of living our livesin fact, only if we retrieve and use them in various mental processes. But memories are shaped or rather reshaped every time they are recalled, or used. They are put into new web of associations�whatever caused this recall, whatever the current context is. No memory can be said to exist outside of a context, as an isolated fact, and that context is the redeployment of information, the recollection of something similar that we experienced in the past in order to solve a problem that presents itself to our consciousness in the present. More importantly, no knowledge can be created outside of the act of remembering.

 

The implications for this have nothing to do with post-modern skepticism about objective points of view. The post-modern has built into it a suspicion about the motives for various configurings. I do not share that suspicion. I am merely pointing out the reality of our neural circuitry of emergence�that it is the bringing together of various strands of thought, of remembered impressions and feelings, into a moment of emergent consciousness that is the basis for our cognition and understanding of what we perceive. What William James called attention, our ability to attend to things at given moment.

 

Let me repeat: there is no such thing as a memory that exists or can exist outside of a network of associations, outside a specific context, past, present, or the imagined future. The associations can be reinforced, changed, or even nullified in some cases, but the purpose of memory is to put our present experience into a recognizable pattern that can lead us to act appropriately in a new situation. Again, we cannot �know� or have knowledge of how to act this time, this place, without the act of recalling and remembering.

 

Recorded information has longer durability than human memory, of course, and we invented writing words and photographing images and recording sounds chiefly to extend our memories artificially. But I believe that recorded information can and should be curated as extensions of our all-too-human memories.

 

The 2 sonnets of Shakespeare I quoted from earlier are devoted to the subject of time: how it ravages what is ephemeralbeauty for exampleyet cannot touch the things that are real. While acknowledging that one�s beloved may, and indeed will, age and die, the poet also argues strongly that death and decay can be transcended not only in heaven, but right here on earth. For Shakespeare, the cycle of sonnets he wrote on this subject was specifically telling his beloved that the way to keep love alive is to have children, so that some essence of the beloved is constantly being reborn. For preservation, this means that we must emphasize use, reuse, the constant intermingling of the past and the future through our present actions.

 

I mention this because I want to establish this principle as the ultimate benchmark of value for research and cultural materials: that which can be creatively remade into the future. It is no coincidence that the copyright regime established by the Founders also argues that the purpose of protecting the rights of creators is to allow fruitful ideas to circulate and multiply in the marketplace of ideas. Let them compete! By reusing the past, by finding usefulnessvaluein present things and reusing them, they pass in part to the next cycle of life. That is how preservation helps to create knowledge, and that is how, through preservation, we can shape our ends.

 

We save the past in order for it to be used again, and again, and again. That is why the library is a sacred site. Not because of the objects within, the metonymy of books, but because of the promise of a building filled with the spirits of men and women who are waiting to be discovered and reborn in us. The library is a sacred site not because of the sterile contemplation and veneration of objects, but as shelter for the rough and loving manipulation of ideas, the calling forth of memories created by others and made so magically available to us through the passionate acts of preservation.

Let me say in closing that the one resource we are in greatest need of for the work of preservation, so critical to the present and future, is human will. We cannot afford to continue the professional segregation of preservation from access, with users relying on others to have acquired, preserved, cataloged what they want. Our scholars must become their own librarians, and our librarians must become scholars again, they must return to that professional training that includes subject expertise. The advent of digital technology, which does not allow for the leisurely passage of time to prove the enduring value of something, is forcing every man, woman, and scholar to become their own preservationist. We must all be stewards of our own digital creations. I hear from computer scientists that we will soon solve the digital preservation problem. Storage is cheap and will get cheaper and we will be able to save everything. But �saving everything� solves the warehousing problem. It does not solve the preservation problem. Decisions about selection and value are only getting harder and harder in the digital realm. We must all now grapple with the thorny issue of what is enduring value.

 

There are no right or wrong answers. There are, as Le Corbusier wrote, only �living pasts and dead pasts. Some pasts are the liveliest instigators of the present and the best springboards into the future.�[1]All others will die. These words of Le Corbusier were cited recently by the New York Times Magazine in an issue dedicated to the rebuilding of lower Manhattan. How do we reconstruct a place shattered by wanton destruction? Think of what you need to begin to imagine rebuilding lower Manhattan, and the lives robbed of sense there, and you can get a sense of enduring value and what we must select to save from loss. This is not hard. But it does require human will. That, we know, we have, and we can never lose. We can and we will shape our own ends.

 

[1]Le Corbusier, �When the Cathedrals Were White� quoted in NY Times Magazine, p. 23.November 11, 2001

 

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