First Steps in Starting a Preservation Program

Do you have one-of-a-kind collections? Manuscripts? Archives? Rare or hard-to-replace books? If so, what is their condition? Are they overused? Damaged? In need of repair? How vulnerable are they to environmental threats like heat and humidity, infestations, or natural disaster? Is your physical plant a cause of concern? Is your disaster plan out-of-date or nonexistent? If you answer “yes” to any of these questions, you probably need to increase your preservation efforts.

Preservation programs are expensive. Most small and medium sized institutions do not have the resources for full-time conservators, major reformatting efforts, or state-of-the-art facilities. This does not mean that effective programs for protecting collections are out of the question. Even the smallest library, archives, or historical society can develop an ongoing and adequate preservation program. Before getting started, here are some basic principals. Identify issues, set priorities and focus efforts accordingly. Start small and work up. Be patient. Developing an effective program takes time. Be prepared for the long haul.

Be flexible. Adapt your plans and strategies to new data and changing circumstances.

Make an Assessment

This does not need to be a major effort. Start from memory. Brainstorm with staff and volunteers. Examine available documentation. Make a rough list, consisting of item, collection, or series, with brief statement of condition, frequency of use, and other summary data. Make a first cut at prioritizing in terms of relative value of item and urgency of problem. Then make a physical inspection of collections, starting with your existing list, moving on to less familiar items or collections. Make your survey as comprehensive as possible within your time constraints. Don’t look at everything. Sample heavily used, less familiar, and previously unexamined collections. This should be a “quick and dirty” job. A more comprehensive needs assessment should be carried out once your program has been established and adequate resources have been obtained.

Establish Priorities

Compare your initial prioritization with your more comprehensive data. Update your priority list accordingly, balancing the same criteria of relative value and urgency.

Identify Needed Resources

Using your priority list, try to determine costs for addressing your preservation needs. For example, if you have books in need of repair, you can begin by viewing the document on basic book repair. Additional research, including discussions with conservators and binderies, will probably be required. All the priorities you have established should be matched with rough estimated costs of addressing them to arrive at total estimated resources needed. You and your funders should know that this amount will change as your assessment and prioritization process develops over time.

Identify Short & Long Term Funding Sources

Some priorities may be fairly easy and inexpensive to address. They may even be accomplished with existing resources. Others will require substantial additional resources. Start small and work up. But keep the big picture and long-range goals in mind. Funding sources may include city councils and other levels of government, corporate or other private donors, and government and foundation grants.

Some steps can be made inexpensively or with existing resources. For example, creating awareness of preservation issues among staff, donors, and volunteers can be a simple matter of holding brief meetings and creating message bookmarks or simple poster campaigns. Creating or upgrading a facility disaster plan can increase awareness while reducing vulnerability, if it is kept simple. Don’t get bogged down reinventing the wheel. Collect basic data and plug it into a pre-formatted disaster plan like the one provided in the Disaster Planning pages on this website. Then identify inexpensive disaster training for staff and volunteers such as those provided by California’s regional preservation networks. A more sophisticated plan should be developed as resources become available.

Develop a Strategy to Increase Resources

This is the hard part. You may be able to get started with existing resources and energy, but in the long run everything will depend on how much additional support you get and maintain. This requires a long-term commitment and lots of patience. Do your homework. Talk to knowledgeable people. Develop expertise about where the money is and who controls it. Become a good politician. Talk to people about your program and its needs. Develop presentations to sell your program to groups of potential supporters and funders. Once you have your initial needs and costs assessment completed, begin to present your data to those whose support you will need. The best place to start is with staff and volunteers. The whole organization, whether it is large or small, should become aware of its preservation needs, so that all concerned can become involved in selling your program.

If you are a staff member or volunteer, rather than head of the organization, you may be in the position of selling the project to your manager or director. Sometimes an unresponsive manager can be a source of frustration, so stay calm. Be as professional and tactful as you can. Be patient. The first essential step of winning over a key but skeptical manager may take time. Emphasize the benefits as well as the costs. And be sure to emphasize the costs of inaction! Also consider the method of delivery. Sometimes a formal presentation, written report, or memorandum works where simple verbal discussion fails. A proposal can focus and clarify your arguments. It may also be more difficult for an institutionally-minded manager to ignore.

Build Community, Institutional, Political Support

Once the organization is committed to the project, it is time to build alliances in the community and political structures. Both public and private funding will depend ultimately on an institution’s ability to reach out to natural constituencies and allies. If you have a board of directors or advisors, begin with them. Most often, these are public spirited community leaders who can raise funds, influence political decisions relating to a public library budget, or assist in obtaining foundation grants. They can also be a source of invaluable advice. So getting your board to become involved in your efforts is key. Most likely, they will respond enthusiastically. If you don’t have a board, consider forming one.

Another important initial source of support is volunteers. These are also often influential in the community. If you don’t have a volunteer or “friends of the library” organization, consider forming one.

Your efforts may take many forms. You may be asking a City Council or Board of Supervisors for a grant or a budget increase; launching a fund drive; or applying for foundation or government grants. Whatever sources you pursue, consider seeking support for a specific project rather than a general program enhancement, especially at this stage. An initial pilot or other project should focus on some problem or collection that will generate a lot of attention and support. If a project fits well within a well-articulated long term strategy, all the better.

Be Persistent

These are only a few of the ways to get started with your preservation program. More ideas will occur to you as you go along. Some ideas will arise in response to mistakes or set-backs. Set-backs, roadblocks, and frustrations are inevitable in any serious undertaking, so don’t be discouraged. For example, you may not succeed the first time you apply for a grant or fight for a budget increase, even if your proposals and ideas are competitive and will ultimately gain funding. Remember: Don’t give up; be persistent; and never be afraid to seek advice or ask for help. Contact the California Preservation Program,

Good luck!