California Preservation Program

Helping preserve heritage collections

Preservation Needs Assessment

A preservation needs assessment identifies problems. More important, it results in recommendations for strategies and actions that address the problems. This assessment should be part of a larger planning process that includes the following steps:

  • Set parameters. (Are there factors that might restrict what is possible? For example, if your institution does not have a preservation program, what kinds of resources are you willing to devote to establishing one?)

Ideally, needs assessment takes place after step 1

  • Identify limiting conditions based on your needs assessment. (Do you have a small staff? small budget? inadequate space? unsympathetic administrators?)
  • Change limiting conditions when possible. (Engage existing staff; recruit and train volunteers; apply for grants; improve the space.)
  • Design a plan of action and a timetable. (Start with projects that are easy to accomplish and build on those. Try to set realistic goals and timetables.)
  • Carry out the action plan.
  • Evaluate what you have done on an annual basis.[1]

A preservation assessment is carried out using an instrument of some sort—usually a survey—which evaluates policies, practices, and environmental conditions affecting the preservation of collections. Once the survey is complete, the institution has the necessary information to allocate resources to implement preservation programs.

Needs assessment is a managerial tool that is a necessary component of developing and implementing a preservation program. In the words of Susan Swartzburg, “it is the responsibility of every institution that holds unique collections, regardless of its size and resources, to properly care for its collection.”[2]

A preservation survey usually consists of five components: pre-survey preparation, the on-site visit (if an outside consultant is used), the report, implementation of the recommendations, and follow-up.

Pre-Survey Preparation

Pre-survey preparation facilitates the work of the surveyor. The library or archives staff should compile documentation for policies and procedures that relate to all aspects of the survey (see below). Some examples are: building and floor plans, circulation and interlibrary loan policies, collection development policies, exhibition practices, etc.

The Survey

A preservation survey can be conducted in-house, or an outside consultant can be hired. Sherelyn Ogden discusses the pros and cons of each approach in herPreservation Planning: Guidelines for Writing a Long-Range Plan,[3] and in her work Preservation of Library & Archival Materials.[4]

An outside surveyor is probably more experienced than anyone on staff. Some outside surveyors have conducted numerous surveys in diverse institutional settings. An external specialist may also have more credibility with senior administration. Also, the surveyor is less likely to be hampered by institutional politics. Finally, an outside surveyor is a professional who will spend an adequate amount of time on the survey and finish it in a timely manner.

On the other hand, the outside surveyor is not free. And an outsider does not know as much about the history and practices of the institution as does an insider. An inside surveyor knows the institutional practices and procedures and therefore may actually be able to complete the survey more quickly. The insider may also be able to elicit more inside support and participation. Using in-house staff can save the institution money.

Money alone, however, should never be the sole justification for using in-house staff. Funding for surveys is available from state and federal agencies; among them are the Conservation Assessment Program of Heritage Preservation in Washington, D.C., and the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS), also in Washington. (See Ogden, “Needs Assessment” for addresses and phone numbers.)

A computer-assisted self-study program, CALIPR (California Preservation Program) is available from the University of California at Berkeley.[5] This survey provides a useful starting point because the instrument focuses on a broad overview of the collection. Another source is the paper that Maria Holden presented at the 1996 Society of American Archivists meeting.[6]

For a more comprehensive assessment, several regional centers can provide consultants. Sometimes these centers can grant funds and provide a consultant for a relatively modest cost. For more information, consult the websites for the
Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC), the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts (CCAHA), the Southeastern Library Network (SOLINET), and AMIGOS. Of these centers, only AMIGOS offers special rates to California institutions. NEDCC has a self-survey guide, Assessing Preservation Needs: A Self-Survey Guide available both electronically and in print. One assessment tool might be the Conservation Assessment: A Proposed Model for Evaluating Museum Environmental Management Needs for evaluating museum environmental management needs, produced by the Getty Museum. Although this is geared specifically for museums, some of the information could be applicable to other institutions as well.

Regardless of whether surveys are conducted by outside consultants or in-house staff, key components of the survey include: a rigorous building inspection; an evaluation of the environmental conditions (temperature, relative humidity, and light, as well as the geographical climate); housekeeping practices (or lack thereof!); storage and handling practices; disaster preparedness; fire detection and suppression; security; exhibition practices; and collection management.

The Report

A successful site survey is a collaborative effort. The Report should reflect the group effort; if it does not, the recommendations may be difficult to implement. Administration and staff should go over the report carefully and ask the surveyor for clarification and/or revision when needed. Ideally, the consultant will return to the institution for a follow-up after everyone has had an opportunity to review and correct the survey.

The survey should also be well written and organized so that the information can be easily located. A good index will help. A difficult-to-use report is likely to be shelved—permanently!

Remember: the report is the first step in creating a preservation plan.


Usually, a survey will include suggestions for implementation. It is not unusual for staff and administration to feel overwhelmed by the range and extent of the recommendations. Tasks can be broken up into short-term, medium-term, and long-term; urgent, important, and recommended; cheap fixes, moderate; and expensive ones, or any other split that makes sense. By focusing on inexpensive and easy fixes first, staff will gain a sense of accomplishment. It is important to get to work as soon as possible while the momentum is there. To maximize the work—if money is an issue—grants should be sought soon. Remember, though, that funding agencies look more favorably on institutions that have already undertaken surveys or written disaster recovery plans, though some agencies will award small grants for surveys.

For institutions that are truly strapped, and where urgent work needs to be done (e.g., nitrate films not stored in an air-conditioned environment; items damaged in a disaster), the National Endowment for the Humanities offers emergency grants. Consult their website.


One way to facilitate follow-up is for the chief administrator to establish a preservation committee to implement the survey recommendations and issue regular reports. Ultimately, staff and administration must work together to implement an effective program. Preservation is never finished; it is an ongoing process.

A Few Words on Digital Preservation

Digital preservation is a strategy to retain digital collections in a usable form for the long term. Yet, electronic library and archival resources present a host of preservation problems. Most of the literature has focused on technical matters or the preservation-versus-access debate, and not much has yet been written about needs assessment for digitization. Only a handful of institutions have developed digital preservation programs, so the dearth of information is understandable. There are several collaborative projects under way, such as Cedars (CURL Exemplars in Digital Archives, part of the UK Electronic Libraries Programme),[7] and the Collection-Based Long-Term Preservation project (the San Diego Supercomputer Center scientists and NARA)[8] that are currently studying cost, staffing, copyright, and other elements that are central to implementing a digital preservation program. An excellent, brief overview of the needs assessment issues is, Abby Smith’s, “Real-Life Choices.”[9]

The Northeast Document Conservation Center has just published its Handbook for Digital Projects.[10] The content is based on NEDCC’s annual “School for Scanning” conferences that have been held since 1995. Particularly useful for needs assessment and planning is the section on selecting materials for digitization.

Many institutions begin with one digitization project. Reasons for initiating such a project are to prominently showcase a prominent collection, or to reduce wear-and-tear on a heavily used yet fragile collection. The important point to keep in mind is that digital preservation initiatives are most effective when they are carried out as part of a general preservation program.

And, in the End…There Is No End

Planning is an ongoing process. We used to plan for three- to five-year cycles. Today—with the tremendous changes not only in libraries and archives but also in society and technology—eighteen months seems like a long planning cycle. Most managers agree that planning never ceases. How, then, do we focus on our program needs?

It is easiest to focus on levels of planning, some of which may take place sequentially, but most will occur simultaneously. Levels include:

  • Purpose or mission (why an institution is implementing a preservation program)
  • Goals (what direction should the program take)
  • Objectives/targets (needs assessment; disaster recovery plan)
  • Actions (hire a consultant; establish a preservation committee)
  • Evaluation (have you established your goals? Is there room for improvement?)[11]

The preservation needs assessment will start you on your journey.


[1] Thomas Wolf, Managing a Nonprofit Organization (New York: Simon & Schuster), 233-39.

[2] Susan G. Swartzburg, Preserving Library Materials: A Manual, 2nd ed. (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1995), p. 25.

[3] Sherelyn Ogden, Preservation Planning: Guidelines for Writing a Long-Range Plan (Washington, D.C.: American Association of Museums and the Northeast Document Conservation Center, 1997).

[4] Sherelyn Ogden, “The Needs Assessment Survey,” in Preservation of Library & Archival Materials: A Manual (Andover, MA: NEDCC, 1999). For the web version see:

[5] (

[6] Maria Holden, “Customized Tools for Accessing Preservation and Access Needs,” at the Society of American Archivists meeting in San Diego, on August 30, 1996. Abbey Newsletter 20 (7) 1996.



[9] Abby Smith, in Moving Theory into Practice: Digital Imaging for Libraries and Archives, ed. by Anne R. Kenney and Oya Y. Rieger (Mountain View, CA: Research Libraries Group, 2000), pp. 2-3.

[10] Handbook for Digital Projects: A Management Tool for Preservation and Access (Andover, MA: NEDCC, 2000).

[11] Wolf, 239. See also, Jeanne M. Drewes and Julie A. Page, eds., Promoting Preservation Awareness in Libraries (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1997), section 3, Evaluating Preservation Education Programs for Staff and Library Customers. The articles in this section consider components of evaluation.

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