Marking Progress: print archives disclosure

For the past year and a half, Dennis and I have been working closely with a group of Research Library Partners and others to develop and test a method for registering print archives in WorldCat.  I’m pleased to say that the OCLC Print Archives Disclosure Pilot is now complete and a final report of our findings has been published. The report was jointly authored by Lizanne Payne (project director of the Western Regional Storage Trust), Emily Stambaugh (manager of  the California Digital Library’s Shared Print program), along with Dennis and myself.  Partners in this project included the Center for Research Libraries, (CRL), the California Digital Library (CDL), and the libraries of Indiana University; Stanford University; the University of California, Los Angeles; the University of California, San Diego; the University of Minnesota and the University of Oregon.

The report has actually been out for a few weeks now; it was published without fuss or fanfare at the end of April. Gary Price was kind enough to feature it in an InfoDocket post last month, and it’s been making the rounds on some of the specialized discussion lists devoted to print archiving and preservation activities.  The specifics of the report — guidance on how and where to register print preservation commitments — apply to a relatively small number of institutions, but the publication itself marks a milestone for library community as a whole.  It represents the culmination of several related efforts directed at redesigning the critical (and costly) business of  preserving print books and journals.

It’s been a long road.  Back in 2009, an OCLC Research working group undertook a review of shared print policy documents that revealed some significant gaps in existing guidance, particularly with respect to how and where print archiving commitments should be expressed or registered:

About half of the policies [examined in the report] stipulate that the special retention and/or shared access status of documents covered by the agreement should be systematically registered; less than 20% specify a location in the MARC21 bibliographic or local holdings record where this information is to be recorded. Only a quarter of the policies reviewed mandate disclosure of the retention or shared access status in regional, national or international union lists.

This last finding has important implications for collection-sharing efforts that seek to achieve significant scale or impact on system-wide economies. More effective and systematic disclosure of retention commitments, in particular, might produce significant network effects by enabling anonymous participation in collection-sharing initiatives, generating secondary benefits for the entire library community.

Predictably, the report closed with a set of recommendations (or admonitions) intended to address the policy gaps that we felt were most important:

Cooperative agreements that are intended to achieve or to enable truly transformative change in the way library print collections are managed should include:

  • A business model that acknowledges the changing value of library print resources in the current information environment;
  • An explicit acknowledgment that effective disclosure of library holdings and retention commitments is necessary to support distributed management of print archives; and
  • A commitment to capture, retain and share item-level condition information so that the preservation quality of print archives may be better judged.

The working group that contributed to the policy review was disbanded in 2009, but several participants continued to work, more or less informally, on drafting a set of guidelines for print archives disclosure in WorldCat.  That effort was explicitly modeled on modeled on practices developed in the 1990s for recording preservation microfilming information.  At the time, NEH was funding a large-scale brittle books preservation program and, to reduce duplicative effort, participating libraries needed a mechanism for identifying the titles and volumes that were already queued for filming.  Nancy Elkington was a prime mover in developing standard practices for recording this information in bibliographic union catalogs, using the MARC 583 Preservation Action Note.

Along with Deb McKern, a preservation officer at the Library of Congress, Nancy encouraged us to extend use of the 583 Action Note to print archiving activities.  Since 2005, use of the 583 had already been extended to registration of digital archives in the Registry of Digital Masters, a joint effort of the Digital Library Federation and OCLC.  It seemed sensible to build upon this past work in developing guidelines for registering print archiving commitments.  However, our initial effort to define guidelines for print archives disclosure foundered when it became clear that the bibliographic record was not an appropriate vehicle for recording item-level condition or retention statements.  For journal archiving efforts in particular, it was difficult to convey in a title-level record how much of a given journal run was actually preserved.  And, in a master-record union catalog like WorldCat, it was even harder to see how archiving commitments from multiple institutions could be adequately represented.

For a year or more, our efforts to define descriptive metadata guidelines for print archiving lay fallow.  Other projects were taken up.  But by 2010, with the emergence of several large-scale print journal archiving efforts and increasing public awareness of the importance of distributed preservation, it was clear that common approach to identifying shared print collections was urgently needed.  As anticipated in our 2009 report, the largest archiving efforts were finding it impossible to “scale up” without some shared infrastructure.  Happily, in the intervening years, support for item-level holdings information in WorldCat had increased substantially and it was possible to design and test a disclosure strategy that was better adapted to journals.  With the support of OCLC product management, the Print Archives Disclosure Pilot project was launched.  And as a result we are now — collectively — in a better place to design and implement scalable strategies for print preservation.