The Two Questions To Ask For Any Preservation Related Project

January 24, 2013

When I started running again after a short (uhhhh, 10 year) hiatus (man, I wish I had some fun reason for what I was doing in my 20s instead of running to have made it worth it), I didn’t start with running. Working at home on a Masters thesis, every time I had the urge to step away and look in the fridge (this was pre-Facebook and Twitter as time wasters) I took a walk instead. Eventually I wanted to challenge myself and began jogging in spurts. At some point after my thesis was done I decided I was going to run a mile. And then two. And then three. And then I had to replace my 10-year-old running shoes…

I wasn’t aware at the time, but I was approximating the pattern of the popular Couch-to-5k running program, a system designed to help even completely novice runners work up to the point of doing a long distance race. The walking/running schedule is set up so that people ease into the full distance they have targeted in a manner that tries to avoid let downs, burnouts, and overuse injuries. Not that I’m a genius for doing that on my own — it’s one of those simple ideas that just needs the right expression. And I’ve known many people who have used the codified program successfully, and the methodology remains an inspiration and a reference point to me.

That inspiration extends to other areas of my life, especially how I think about approaching large project or thinking through recommendations I make. In essence, it is a way of thinking about achieving a goal that seems overwhelming when only the end point is considered. Rather, it’s about breaking down the process into doable chunks and recognizable milestones. In this way, I consider two basic questions:

Where am I starting?
What are my goals?

1. Where am I starting?

This question is absolutely necessary because, as with exercise, you need to be realistic about what your conditioning and current abilities are. If you have not run for 10 years, you should not try to run for more than 30-60 seconds at a time. If your collection has not been arranged or described in any way, you should not assume that you are mere months from having an online portal for digitized assets.

Every step to greater access requires people, resources, and time. What is the first, the second, the third step you can reasonably accomplish on that road? As those steps combine and experience grows, more complex things will be accomplished. Be realistic, but not fatalistic. The task is not impossible, but it is work. In time you will reach one goal and then another and another. There will be setbacks, but those are not an end. The goal is the end. And a beginning to the next one.

2. What are my goals?

This is critical because it will determine your pace and rhythm, but also because it will help you determine your approach at each stage of progress. What is important to remember is that the ultimate goal is not the goal you should have in the forefront of your mind.

Everything preserved is not the goal. Everything accessible is not the goal. Everything online is not the goal. Every catalog record completed is not the goal. These are too big, too nebulous, and too far down the line. Failure to reach those goals will feel like utter failure and will lead to a greater likelihood of giving up if you do not instead set your sights on the multiple successes along the way. Additionally, those goals are never really achievable. Preservation is a process, not an endpoint. Materials addressed in the past will need to be addressed again, perhaps before other untouched items. The entire collection will not be preserved at a single point. It will cycle through time and formats and caretakers.


I’ll write in more detail about these ideas in the future, but as a brief example we can consider the selection of a metadata schema.

Where am I starting: Do you have existing data you need to map over, or are you starting from scratch? If you have existing data, in what form is it and where is it recorded? On paper? In a spreadsheet? In a legacy database? How will you get it out of that and into your new system? Does the data need a lot of refinement or is it already fairly clean?

What are my goals: Are you looking at creating a comprehensive finding aid or catalog records? Maybe EAD and MARC are a starting point, or they might be too heavy for your needs. Are you just looking for a quick turnaround to access so you can start making materials available, and then you’ll figure out fuller record sets later? You may want to focus on a minimal set that will achieve your goal, such as ID, author/creator, title, and media/object type. Are you planning for your records to be a part of something like Worldcat or is purely for internal purposes? You may need to conform more strictly to standards like MARC if the former. Are you mainly looking at creating an online portal for access? Consider what fields and types of information would best support researchers or the content.

The thing to keep in mind is that, in the end, it is not a short term goal you are looking at, but how the short term goals support longer term goals. For metadata we have to be aware that it will move in and out of systems and schemas as the collection grows and ages. Consider what will help achieve the need right now to start making things accessible sooner than later, but that will also be granular, portable, and consistent enough to support the next more ambitious goal and unforeseen goals of the future.


This, then, despite my earlier urge to not focus on the ultimate goal, is the ultimate goal. How do we make our collections more accessible to a wider audience? How do we work through the budgets, the bureaucracy, the politics, the froofrah to achieve that goal as well that goal of having a satisfying and fulfilling career working in a field we love.

—¬†Joshua Ranger