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Notes from the CRL Collections Forum
@Risk: Stewardship, Due Diligence, and the Future of Print

The Center for Research Libraries’ spring forum, @Risk: Stewardship, Due Diligence, and the Future of Print, sought to remind librarians of the stewardship responsibilities we bear for preserving library collections and transferring them safely to the next generation. Bernie Reilly, CRL’s executive director, assembled a group of speakers on the first day to offer perspectives on a range of preservation-related topics, and the second day was devoted to panel discussions on trusted repositories, vendors’ roles and responsibilities, academic and independent research libraries, and shared print repositories, while leaving time later in the day for a discussion of the appropriate role for the Center itself in the preservation landscape.

Reilly invited me to deliver the keynote address for the forum, asking that I serve as a “moral compass” in framing the issues. My talk “Due Diligence and Stewardship in a Time of Change and Uncertainty” was released today as an Issue Brief on Ithaka S+R’s website.

The full program, list of speakers and recordings of the first day presentations can be found at https://www.crl.edu/node/11968, but I note here some of the highlights of the meeting, from my perspective. The panel of research library directors made clear that they have a strong sense of responsibility to preserve what they acquire, but also that the case for funding is especially hard to make in a fiscally constrained academic environment.  As they attempt to make better use of library space for new services, they are asking their provosts for large sums of money to move collections into off-site storage facilities. These materials are rarely used, but the maintenance costs are significant. The panelists look to collaborative action to help with print repositories and taking responsibility for preserving last copies of research materials.

Speakers from the New York Public Library and HathiTrust elaborated on the theme of collective action and collaboration. Their talks about organizational priorities and operations highlighted the dilemma of determining what our stewardship responsibilities are. The Trustees of the New York Pubic Library made a decision that all materials in the institution must be retained for the “life of the corporation.” Members of the HathiTrust have determined that taking responsibility for the preservation of print collections for 25 years is “as close to forever as they can get.”

In a particularly compelling talk, James O’Donnell of Arizona State University Libraries, offered a scholar’s perspective on preservation. What scholars want, he said, is “seamless access to the world’s cultural heritage,” and in libraries, we have a remarkable facsimile of that. He noted that real preservation has little to do with physical objects. What matters is the social commitment we bring to keeping those materials around. He described digitization as the salvation of print in our time. All libraries should be working toward digitizing collections that will result in collections being available to all.

On the second day, topic-based panels engaged the audience in discussions about what is working well and what needs to be better in each area. In the concluding sessions, Reilly led a discussion with participants about the specific roles the Center for Research Libraries can play to ensure the long-term preservation of research materials. There was great interest in having CRL facilitating discussions on key topics to ensure that the library community collaborates in tackling the preservation problem.

Throughout the two days, it was clear that everyone who participated in the forum believes in the fundamental importance of preservation. How it is paid for, how individual efforts add to the collective whole, and perhaps most importantly, what is the appropriate relationship between preservation and access, remain topics for much more discussion.

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