We Do Not Preserve, We Sustain

By May 1, 2014Blog

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

Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Kevin says:

    Yup, I too have some dissatisfaction with the P word – and I too have it painted on my shingle. It is the connotation of frozen state that feels most inappropriate to me.

    Sustain is an improvement, but I think I need an even more active verb. Although I haven’t yet found nice sounding and concise verbiage I like the idea of carrying forward, or ferrying collections into the future. (I also like the verbs schlep or sherpa – Perhaps I should change my title to cultural heritage sherpa.)

    Preservation has the sense of working against time – which is a dumb thing to try to do. What we need to do is bring things along – or sustain things – across time.

    • Josh says:

      You’re right, Kevin, sustain is less of an active verb. It works better if you’re talking about larger collection management and policy concerns, but it doesn’t quite get down to the nitty-gritty of active work like conservation. New words never fit well in the mouth or the ear to start, but it’s hard to tell if they just need a lot of repeating to feel better or if they’re just wrong from the get go. S

      herpa does make it sound like we’re doing something dangerous that very few people are skilled enough or brave enough to handle…Though in my case I don’t think there’s much glory to inhaling acetic acid all day.

  • Good post Josh. I too have issues with the word, particularly when applied to what should properly called reformatting (as in: “This item needs to be preserved”, and the implied solution is a digital copy –which, in fact, needs to be preserved as much as the original).

    I love your analogy of pickled vs fresh produce. Why do we pickle? Because, although it is seldom as satisfying as fresh produce, in many cases (though not all) it has shown to be more energy-efficient (i.e. sustainable) than, say, trying to maintain fresh fruit on ice brought from elsewhere. I think there are some parallels there with our long-term prospects.

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