Our profession is obsessed with establishing priorities, and rightly so since there is always more in our collections to address than there is time and other resources.  We could make establishing priorities within preservation very simple–what is in the worst condition gets treated first.  Unfortunately, even within our own practices this is not realistic since that one item may take months of our time and all of our resources.  Add in other variables such as the monetary and intrinsic value of items or collections, availability of and demand for a book or its intellectual content, storage and use issues, and inherent vice, and we need to start having conversations with our curators.

These conversations always require some background and education including the fact that we are NOT asking them to tell us what condition their collections are in and what needs repair, or what treatment we should use, but rather what are their collection priorities.  We need them to participate in these conversations to help inform our treatment priorities and decision making, disaster salvage priorities, and digital preservation policies.  To guide the discussion we could consider using visual tools like a four-square matrix that compares impact with feasibility for preservation activities, or value with sensitivity of materials when dealing with disaster salvage.  It’s cost-benefit analysis.  Yes, these are over simplifications of the process, but are helpful tools to start the conversation.

Simple disaster salvage priority matrix comparing value to sensitivity of materials.

What about digital preservation priorities?  We obviously think about the risk of loss when considering prioritizing born digital vs. converted digital, value of content, and collection priorities, but again, how do you present this to curators?  Generally speaking, establishing digital preservation priorities is the same thought process for creating any preservation priority; the format should not drastically change the conversation.  Value and complexity of the digital object, and feasibility and impact of storing and managing objects are variables to consider.  It’s still cost-benefit analysis.  Most would agree that born digital is a higher priority than converted digital assuming the original is still available.

Last week I was at the Iowa Regents joint Library IT and Special Collections meeting where we were just beginning the conversation on collaborative digital preservation initiatives between the three Regent libraries (Iowa State, Northern Iowa, and University of Iowa).  Paul Soderdahl, Senior AUL over U Iowa Library IT and other stuff, drew a simple graph on the whiteboard comparing the deterioration of original analog materials over time to the improvements in digitizing technology and best practices.  The cost-benefit question became whether or not to put preservation resources into previously converted digital files that do not meet today’s best practices in terms of quality and file format.

Cost-benefit of preserving converted digital objects.

Or in keeping with the matrix approach:

Comparing level of deterioration of original to improved technology and standards over original scan of the original.

Comparing level of deterioration of original to improved technology and standards over the original scan.

Clearly we do not want to base our digital preservation practices on re-digitizing analog objects because of the costs involved and the wear and tear on the object, not to mention the fact that some of our collections are approaching their last possible use like magnetic media experiencing sticky shed.  But is it worth spending more resources on preserving files that do not meet our standards and could safely be re-digitized at higher specifications?  And if the answer is no, and knowing standards will evolve with technology, when is the answer yes?

How have you started conversations and educated your curators about establishing preservation priorities?  Do you have good working relationships with your curators and have you established preservation priorities with their input?