This was a term paper for The Public Library a graduate level course offered by the School of Library and Information Science at Kent State University.


The role of the public library has always been to preserve the knowledge of the past as well as the present. Though this has changed slightly in the past century, with the huge volume of material being published, and the speed at which some of it becomes outdated, the role of the public library remains to collect and preserve knowledge, generally the written record.

These preservation duties have included materials that survive easily - books printed on rag paper or written on vellum, stone tablets, and the like, and also materials that are quite fragile - like newspapers, papyri, and books printed on acid paper. Yet even these difficult to preserve media remain well represented in many libraries.

In the second half of the twentieth century, there was considerable hope given to the idea that microfilm and microform might be the best way to preserve deteriorating documents. Now a similar hope is given to digitizing technology. The purpose of this paper is to investigate the best way to preserve and provide the information of the printed material into the 22nd century. It will investigate these problems almost solely from the perspective of the users, as they are the people who must use whatever solutions are provided.

Microfilm and Microform

Photographic technology appeared at first to be a major innovation in the preservation and sharing of fragile and rare library materials. For centuries, conservation consisted mainly of rebinding books and making new copies of manuscripts. These methods were limited in usefulness while also being time consuming and expensive. The use of microfilms and microforms seemed to solve many of the problems associated with storage of library materials.

Microfilms allow for the compact photographic reproduction of fragile, deteriorating books, newspapers, and other print items. These films are easily reproduced, so that a long run of a newspaper may be photographed once and then shared by many libraries, saving the cost from each library having to preserve its own copy or having to photograph its own copy. This also allows for storage of the materials in a much more compact manner.

The large scale microfilming of American newspapers and magazines was seen by many as the only way to preserve the deteriorating contents of publications on highly acidic paper, which came into use at about the time of the American Civil War. Due to the high acid content of the paper, books and newspapers printed on it become yellow and even brown with age. These materials require careful treatment and handling - slow, gentle opening of pages, support of covers while the book is being read, and similar actions. In extreme cases, the paper can be so brittle that the simple stress of turning the page causes it to crack and detach from the book along the fold.

Microfilms, however, have their own problems. They too require a certain amount of care in their handling. They require special equipment for viewing. They deteriorate with time. They are much more difficult to read than the paper copies they replace. In short, they have many of the same problems as the acid paper they were supposed to replace.

It seems the greatest problem with microfilms is image quality. A photograph, of any sort, will never be quite so clear as the original. Many microfilm photographs are either out of focus or lack the resolution of the originals that they were to replace. The great loss in microfiliming is the visual content of the work. Color reproductions, duotones, even black and white illustrations, become difficult to study, high contrast, poor reproductions of their originals.

If we are to consider the text the only information worth saving from these items, then perhaps the microfilms are successful - they do preserve the text. However, the value of the images contained within the text is as important, often, as the text itself. These are lost, almost completely, in the process of microfilming. Unfortunately, the originals from which the microfilms are made are often sold or discarded, so that the user no longer has access to the material.

Digital Preservation

The digitizing of materials seems to, at the very least, replace the role of microfilm in the library. Digitization can be done either by photographing an item, or by placing individual pages on a scanner. Materials may also be stored just as text on the computer, either because the original was saved that way, for example, many current newspaper or magazine articles, or because it was entered into the computer in that manner, such as the e-texts provided by Project Gutenberg.

The idea of digitization seems, at first, appealing. It seems to allow far greater access to materials, by users worldwide, with less cost to the individual library, because each library would no longer need to keep a copy of a microfilm. There are still, however, many issues that need to be dealt with in regard to digital collections.

The quality of many early digitization projects seems little better than microfilm. One example of this is a project at Cornell University to digitize mathematics texts. The books were disbound and then scanned flat. This avoided the problems that many other similar projects faced, that the text near the center margin was virtually unreadable, but it also rendered the books unreadable by library patrons. The resolution of the images was relatively low, and they are reproduced in a high contrast black and white. These texts, though readable, leave quite a bit to be desired.

Another example worth noting is the 1920 census data, as observed through Ancestry Plus. The scans of the images are at low resolution, and in many cases, it is difficult, if not impossible, to read the information. This can be partially attributed to the handwriting of the period, but it is not helped by the quality of the reproductions. It is also difficult to figure out what column is what, when looking at a magnified part of the page. Fortunately, the corresponding data is searchable, albeit with some errors.

Digitization projects have gotten better with time, providing access to materials truly unavailable to most people, due to cost or fragility. The libraries of Oxford University, for instance, now provide extremely high-resolution scans of Ancient Greek papyri. Octavo publishes CD-ROMs of beautifully photographed rare and valuable books, with sufficient resolution for most any need. The quality of these products will continue to improve, as will the quality of displays, for the foreseeable future. Whether they will approach the quality of the items they reproduce remains to be seen.

Other texts have been digitized so that only their text has been preserved. These include both books and journal articles. At first, this seemed a better approach, as the files created used much less space than digitized pages. As high speed internet access becomes more common, however, the desire to see something that closer represents the original becomes more prominent.

These e-texts have a major advantage over their photographed counterparts - the text may be searched. This makes it far easier to find desired information in journal articles, and has led to the development of many research databases. These databases tend to make it much easier for users to find the information they desire.

This lack of formatting and imagery can also be seen as a negative. When the articles of a newspaper are available online, the newspaper often is not able to archive the articles from other news agencies contained in the print version of the paper. The context in which the articles appeared is lost. Photographs that appeared with the stories are often not archived online. Additionally, the advertisements that appeared with the print edition, a valuable record of the times, are lost.

The cataloging and access to electronic sources presents some issues. The cataloging itself is not an issue - AACR and MARC 21 provide for the cataloging of various types of electronic media. Continued availability of the information is the biggest problem - links to cataloged electronic documents are often broken, and ownership and maintenance of the source is retained by the provider, not the library. In addition, when the library ends its subscription to a source, it is no longer available to the users, while with print sources, the back issues remain available, in most cases.

Preservation for the Next Hundred Years

It may be reasonably assumed that technology and reproduction will get better with time. In fact, it seems possible that at some time in the future, computer screens will be quite similar to paper, in terms of size, image quality, and durability. Even given the great speed of technological advancement in this area, it seems unlikely that displays will have identical qualities to paper anytime in the next hundred years. It seems more likely that one will be able to print out full size perfect paper reproductions of newspapers and books, because paper simply has different properties and characteristics than a computer screen.

Microfilm's survival seems unlikely. With the advances in computer technology, items previously microfilmed will become available electronically. Electronic versions fill the information needs of most users, and they do this more quickly, at the convenience of the user, and with greater ease. This does not, however, spell the end of the need to retain physical copies of these items.

There are many materials and types of materials for which electronic copies are simply unsuitable for the information needs of the user. There are the issues noted above regarding newspapers. There is also the issue of the format - additional insights may be gained by seeing material in its intended format.

Magazines often show an even greater need to be retained in their original format. While some scholarly journals consist almost entirely of text, and little additional information is provided in the print version, this is the exception rather than the rule. The graphical design of the magazine tells much about the culture and the creators of the publication. Sometimes this can be reproduced reasonably well. For many publications, especially those with a focus on art or design, this is simply impossible. Wired Magazine, for instance, especially in the earlier issues, with the fluorescent inks and high quality printing, simply cannot be reproduced on a computer. Or take Nest, a Quarterly of Interiors, which often changes the physical shape of the magazine, using die cutting and the like, in relation to the theme of the issue - how does one really show a magazine with a custom woven cloth cover on the computer?

Many books suffer a similar fate, especially those with high quality printing. I had been content with the World Publishing Company's facsimilie edition of William Morris's Works of Geoffrey Chaucer Now Newly Imprinted until I saw the electronic version published by Octavo. The electronic version was, as a whole, not much better than the copy, but it let me know that there was something more there. This piqued my curiosity. So I viewed the original in the special collections of the Kent State University Library.

It was an amazing experience. The book was so perfect, so readable, so different from what I had been looking at. The texture of the paper and the type were important in the design, as was the transparency of the paper. It was as much of a difference as the difference between looking at a reproduction of a painting in a textbook and seeing the original.

We do not expect people to study art history solely by looking at reproductions. They are useful, for sure, as time and expense are required to travel to museums. However, the museums still retain the paintings, even when they require expensive conservation and care. We should take a similar attitude with books. They need to be preserved, that the originals may be read. This does not apply to all books, of course, but more reasonable decisions should be made now than have been in the past. Perhaps they need not all be retained onsite, but they should be retained.


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