This post is co-written by Jacob Nadal and Erin Engle. Jacob Nadal is Director for Preservation, and his work focuses on creating a sustainable plan for keeping the Library’s collections available. Erin Engle is Special Assistant to the Director, and her work intersects around policies, processes, and practices in the directorate office.
Preservation administration is much like other types of management and administration, except that our bottom line isn’t financial profit. Instead, the goal comes in two parts: maximize the usability of collections in the present tense, and do that in ways that improve their odds of usability in the future. No surprise, with over 175 million items in a collection assembled over more than 220 years, the Library of Congress spends some time on preservation administration.
The way we are framing our goals in preservation at the Library contrasts with some usual ways to describe preservation, like “keeping resources available to future generations” or “the future of the past.” Neither of those are wrong, but preservation is a process. Descriptions of preservation often omit the present, focus only on preventing harm, or take our users for granted.
The central lesson of library preservation is that present-tense use has to be the focal point. We talk about opening the treasure chest at the Library of Congress. Preservation is like a lever for raising that lid: we need to make sure the fulcrum is pretty close to the treasure chest or nothing is going to happen.
During the last year, we have been on a roadshow (some parts virtual), explaining how the Library of Congress is developing its preservation program. That includes reorganization to make sure we cultivate and sustain our staff abilities, along with budget models and business plans to help us make smart choices, so that everything we do matters to someone today and also sets a healthy direction into the future.
In the rest of this post, we will introduce some of the building blocks for this. In future posts, we will share a little more of our philosophy and strategy, as well as our evaluation of what works well and where we are looking at the next round of improvements. We will be writing for the wide audience of people interested in the Library of Congress, but if you are part of the cultural heritage profession or just excited to skip ahead and dive deep, you can see a few presentations we have done over the last year. This post mostly draws on a presentation our Director, Jacob Nadal, and Special Assistant, Erin Engle, gave at the 7th Kuopio Conference. Jake has presented other aspects of this work at Coordination Office at the international “Preservation in Perspective” Conference and for Preservation Week at the Library of Congress.
For this post, we will focus on the Kuopio Conference presentation about organizational and financial sustainability for preservation. Preservation can seem like a large, perpetual cost to an organization. Unless preservation can demonstrate present-tense, near-term strategic value, there is a risk that the goal of “preserving for future generations” sounds like something that can maybe wait a bit since money is tight this year. To remedy this, we have to think about how costs can become a convincing data point in the preservation program operations.
Making this pivot to cost assessment, evaluation, and change has been a multi-year process guided by the natural questions: Where have we been? Where are we? Where are we going?
Where have we been?
We developed a few different approaches to examine our users and services and assess our capabilities to answer this question. We ran a Preservation Services Awareness and Satisfaction Survey to learn what our internals users knew about us; commissioned cross-divisional teams to explore and discover work processes; and ran a series of workshops with chiefs and key program staff. The latter was to gather data and input about preservation services and activities the directorate currently did functionally, rather than organizational.
Where are we?
The internal self-studies provided information that guided a reorganization of our Directorate structure. We learned that many preservation services were high-quality and high-production, but divisions had a history of quite independent operations. Since quality and quantity did not seem to be problems, reorganization focused on a portfolio approach that put clear authority and responsibility for ongoing services within each one of the preservation divisions.
We did not want to disrupt a long-standing and successful culture that favored autonomy, but we were concerned that despite good service quality, there were signals that we were not able to focus services on the most significant areas, coordinate to tackle problems outside division services lines, and crucially, this might be because we could not bring sufficient resources to bear to do these things. Individual Division budgets were not large enough, so we needed to find a better method of budget planning.
Along with a new organization structure and internal planning efforts to rethink our budgeting, we started to work on a program of cost-studies to review the Library’s preservation methods and develop frameworks for evaluating the optimal usage of these methods. The first studies focused on comparing large-scale preservation methods to determine if it was possible to define and assign total operational costs to a preservation method like collections storage, reformatting, deacidification, or commercial binding. And the answer is, yes. These activities can be assessed like many other commercial business lines to see if they are run efficiently. The more complex question is how to evaluate those operating costs against their impact on the longevity of the collections.
Where are we going?
Starting in fiscal 2021, we turned our attention to budget and staff planning, and we developed a series of workshops geared towards enabling thinking “outside of the box“ of Division budgets. The goal was to leave portfolio responsibilities in hands of the division, but empower our team to begin to think in three-to-five-year budget planning horizons across Divisions to take on more significant goals.
This was a change from prior approaches that worked only in the very near term or in the indefinite future. This is a strategic problem in preservation management. In the present, the budget was not a strategic tool–we were just coping with whatever the year dealt out. Go too far into the future, though, and impractical ideas become tempting, even sensible averaged out across millions of items and hundreds of years.
Across three-to-five years, our actual budget history showed a float of 5-10% around average in any given year. Within the Division budgets, that is enough to do a nice extra bit of work, but it doesn’t fundamentally change anything. Across all the Divisions, though, 5-10% can mean there is a million dollars per year on the table, enough for major initiatives if only we could plan for them effectively. In that multiyear planning cycle, we could also start to think about a couple initiatives tied to the agency’s strategic plan that we could self-fund with a high chance that they would work, even if there was a bad budget year or two that shifted their schedule. This alters the preservation resources conversation from “can we please have some money” to “we have enough to do something meaningful; can we protect that funding or can we augment it to have more impact.” The latter conversation is better received by funders.
The key idea guiding this work is that evaluating preservation methods from a cost-based perspective in the near-term helps preservation becomes a sustainable and strategically valuable expenditure. Preservation has to solve problems across decades or centuries, but libraries operate in annual funding cycles and five or ten-year strategic cycles. Sustainability rests on developing preservation methods that can continue into the future while regularly showing benefits in the present, and doing this successfully required incorporating cost factors into the administration of preservation programs.