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portal: Libraries and the Academy 2.4 (2002) 676-678
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The Evidence In Hand: Report of the Task Force on the Artifact in Library Collections. (CLIR Reports, no. 103) Washington, D.C: Council on Library and Information Resources, 2001. 123 p. $20 (ISBN 1-887334-88-2) Full text (HTML and PDF) online <http://www.clir.org/pubs/abstract/pub103abst.html>
In recent years, the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) has published a series of timely and well-regarded reports and white papers on subjects at the forefront of debate in academic libraries. It is not surprising that many of them deal with topics associated with digital efforts, but none was as eagerly anticipated as the work of the Task Force on the Artifact in Library Collections. Chaired by Stephen G. Nichols, the James M. Beall Professor of French and Humanities and Chair of the Romance Language Department at Johns Hopkins University, the task force comprised fifteen distinguished scholars and librarians charged "to articulate for scholars and librarians a general context or framework for formulating and/or evaluating institutional policies on the retention or disposal of published and archival or unpublished materials in the form the works were created." While giving primary attention to the world of print, CLIR also asked the group to focus on non-print and electronic research sources. In the course of its deliberations, the members not only heard testimony from practitioners, but also conducted a series of forums around the country with scholars and faculty, in order to gather both opinions and approaches from as broad a segment of stakeholders as possible.
When Nicholson Baker's book, Double Fold, appeared in early 2001, the task force's work took on added importance. Baker's naiveté and ad hominem attacks irritated many librarians, but he, nevertheless, drew attention to the value of original documents, the desire of those who use libraries to interact with primary resources, and the failure of society to fund libraries sufficiently to enable them to adequately carry out their archival missions. When the eagerly anticipated task force report appeared in November 2001, it did not disappoint and was immediately widely read, circulated, and discussed.
In fresh and direct prose, the report begins with a statement of the preservation challenge that has stalked libraries for well over a century—the tensions between the amount of information produced and what can be acquired, preserved and made accessible—and the impact of digital technology on the field. "Preservation has . . . become an unfunded mandate, the more pernicious for often being implicit," (p. 3) state Nichols and Abby Smith, CLIR's Director of Programs, who co-authored the report. Recognizing preservation as a critical component of good stewardship, the report emphasizes the interplay of issues related to sheer quantity of information, the inherent instability of media, the strain of economics, and the challenge of deciding how to set priorities for preservation. What makes this report especially timely, however, is the task force's recognition that "the problems facing non-print materials . . . [are] certainly larger in scope, and probably more urgent than those facing print materials." (p. 6) [End Page 676]
In separate chapters, the report summarizes the testimony of experts from library and archival fields. Starting with the difficulties of selection for preservation and the frameworks used by practitioners to determine the relative value of artifacts, the report moves to a review of the state of the artifact, 1800-2000. These sections cover topics from print to audiovisual (still and moving images, recorded sound, and broadcast media) and finally to digital media. These sections are invaluable for their succinct statements of the characteristics of the formats, their problems and issues, the history of attempted solutions, and the many questions raised by past practices and the woeful lack of information on practical solutions. These descriptions will help every librarian both understand and translate the issues to their constituents, whether academic administrators or donors.
Following the descriptions is a group of case studies to illustrate various approaches...