Managing Risk: Print Journal Collections

In a prior post on risk assessment and print preservation, I remarked on the need for some community-wide effort to define collective preservation goals and requirements:

Given unrelenting space pressures on library print collections, and decreasing circulation rates, it seems imperative that libraries – research libraries, in particular – take immediate action to establish a common understanding of our respective (and collective) preservation goals and identify the core requirements for managing this highly distributed, thinly duplicated resource as a single, shared collection.

I gestured toward RLG libraries as a constituency that might be mobilized in support of such work.

Not long after this, Ross Housewright and Roger Schonfeld commented on the need for a “systemwide approach” to library preservation:

Preservation issues cannot be adequately addressed in a purely local fashion. For example, it is quite reasonable that any individual library might deaccession certain little-used print holdings, but there is a system-wide need to ensure the preservation of an adequate number of print copies to enable future scholarship and potential digitization work. Without system-wide frameworks in place, libraries will be unable to make decisions that effectively balance risk and opportunity with regard to the deaccessioning of print materials.
[R. Housewright and R. Schonfeld, Ithaka’s 2006 Studies of Key Stakeholders in the Digital Transformation in Higher Education (August 2008), p. 31]

I’m pleased to say that a group of collection managers at RLG libraries has come together to work on a critically important piece of that framework, in a project focused on print journals in the humanities, a class of materials that we believe exhibits particular preservation risk characteristics. It’s well known that print books and journals continue to play an essential role in the work of humanities scholars but represent an increasingly small proportion of library acquistion budgets; specialized titles are often acquired by only a small number of research-intensive institutions. This low level of redundancy, coupled with widespread uncertainties about the appropriate ‘locus’ of a continuing print preservation mandate, places these titles at signficant risk of accidental (and permanent) loss.

We’ve now embarked on a project to establish a common methodology for identifying at-risk titles in local collections and generic workflows for managing them as a shared scholarly resource. Using Candi Yano’s analysis of optimal overlap in library print collections as a guide, we established a threshold of risk based on aggregate library holdings in WorldCat for a set of humanities-based journal titles. In the absence of aggregate use measures, we agreed to focus on peer-reviewed titles as a proxy for scholarly value. Monographic series and conference proceedings were excluded from the sample, which was further limited to titles distributed in print-only format. We then identified a subset of titles that are held by at least one member of the project team and which will be reviewed as a candidate for permanent retention.

The presumption is that research libraries that have already made an investment in collecting these relatively recondite titles have already asserted a tacit interest in their preservation: this project is aimed at clarifying institutional expectations and commitments regarding their longterm preservation, so that we can begin frame a ‘systemwide’ view of collections that is robust enough to support changed management at the local level. We will be compiling cost (acquisitions and processing) figures and usage data as part of this work with an eye to modeling aggregate financial requirements for longterm sustainability.

This initiative has only just begun and it will take some time before we know if the approach we’ve taken can be effectively scaled up. In the meantime, some readers may be interested to see which journal titles have made the list. We’ve identified 130 titles that meet our selection criteria thus far, and we’ll be adding to it as time goes by. Here is a public version of the title list built within I was surprised to find that one of the titles on our list — a Polish art history journal — had already been flagged by another WorldCat user (traveling under the alias ‘bibliographer’). A sign, I suppose, these relatively rare print resources will continue to find an audience, provided they are raised up and made visible in the network.