We Do Not Preserve, We Sustain

By: Joshua Ranger
May 1, 2014

So it’s Preservation Week — the true Old Home Week (ba-dum-dum!) — and even though the P word is a part of our company name, I am predictably nitpicky (predictably, and perhaps wearisomely, at least to my office mates, the poor kids) of its use for this celebratory week. Now, of course, preservation is probably the best sounding word and the one with the most traction (at least in the US), but overall there are certain burdens that come with the word’s connotations that make advocacy and communication about our profession difficult.

I think — especially within the digital preservation realm — we’re beginning to get across the message that preservation is not a single act, but a system of monitoring and activities applied over time, and, frequently, applied more than once. This fact stands out more with digital materials because of their shorter lifecycle. The fact still applies to analog media, paper, and physical objects, just typically on a much longer lifecycle. In many cases we have not had to deal with such issues in great frequency or volume…or we have ignored the issue until it begins to achieve a critical mass (note for next year’s blog post)…but the fact remains.

That being the case, however, there is still a general connotation with the word preservation as an act that ends in long term stasis requiring no monitoring. An act that freezes the state of an object as is for…[pause]… ever. The mosquito in amber. The tin of potted meat product. Walt Disney’s head. Stable and forgotten in underground storage until there is a need to revive or exploit the resource in the name of science/knowledge and/or due to the next apocalypse caused by science/the search for knowledge.

Yes, preservation is a perfectly cromulent word, and it is meaningful to the work we do, but personally I feel that a preferred term we should use for is sustainability. Because really what we do when we contextualize collections, establish stable environments, develop policies, advocate and fundraise, and otherwise monitor and manage the materials we care for is to enable sustainability — not just of the items in the collection, but also for the infrastructure that supports the collection, for the institution holding the collection, and, really, for the broader society we service. We sustain the cultural record and, in doing so, provide sustenance to society on which it can sustain itself.

The hunger of culture for culture, for the types of content we collect, continues to expand well beyond what was formerly the purview of local interest and academic researchers. Our pickled and salted and fermented goods are available for such purposes, but demand of the sort we are seeing (as well as our need to advocate for the importance of archives) means we also have to provide collections as farm fresh, ready to pluck off the vine and devour in the sun as the juice runs down one’s chin. Wherever there are un-arranged papers, we’ll be there. Wherever there is inconsistent vocabulary, we’ll be there. Wherever there are inaccessible formats, we’ll be there. We’ll be there to help people understand.

Joshua Ranger