Tyra Grant leads KU Libraries' efforts to preserve information, whether it is in book, electronic, film, audio or other formats.
CAMPUS CLOSEUP Tyra Grant - Director, Preservation Department, KU Libraries
Years at current job: Two and a half years. I previously served as head of preservation and digital technology at Northwestern University and before that, I headed preservation at the Wisconsin Historical Society and taught preservation at the University of Wisconsin. I also headed preservation at Arizona State University for 10 years.
Job duties: I manage KU Libraries' program and work alongside expert members of my department and colleagues throughout the Libraries' to preserve collections in all formats including books, paper, still and moving images, audio recordings, visual materials, optical and digital media. I spend time surveying and assessing risks to collections and developing solutions or advising others in order to minimize deterioration or loss. Our primary operations include a conservation lab, a bindery program and operations to replace and reformat collections at risk. We're currently developing a media preservation program for audio, video and film collections.
What is the biggest challenge to preserving library materials? Our No. 1 challenge is preserving film, audio, video and digital collections. KU owns noteworthy media collections that are actively deteriorating and requiring immediate preservation attention including the nationally recognized Centron Film collection, the James Seaver Opera collection with the original "Opera Is My Hobby" radio program tapes and an extensive collection of early jazz recordings. These are just a few examples, and I also should include KU's athletic department films and tapes in this category of "collections at risk." These collections and others at KU are the most fragile and at greatest risk for immediate loss and these will be most challenging to preserve. In many ways, they are less visible than traditional collections and consequently tend to be forgotten until they are needed; often, this is too late. Many of these collections are unique and represent significant past investments, monetary as well as cultural, on the part of the University. We are challenged to support their preservation, mostly because they require the commitment of significant resources and collaborative effort to preserve and then maintain for ongoing access.
Why is it important to protect and preserve this information, especially that which might not be frequently used? Information that's used most tends to be preserved. Consider works of great thinkers, authors and researchers that remain in-print and are automatically replaced in libraries when they begin falling apart. Less frequently used information is not necessarily less deserving but is certainly less likely to be preserved and therefore at some risk for loss. In fact, libraries often hold the only known copy of works in their stacks; many of these are unassuming-looking volumes. KU is no exception in this regard. And insofar as infrequently used collections go, we also preserve vast and potentially rich archival and manuscript collections that may sit unused for years before being discovered, explored or used. This goes to the mission and critical role of research libraries which includes preserving information for access by current and future users.
What can the average library user do to aid the preservation of the library's valuable resources? This is easy and everyone wins -- library collections belong to one and all. They are shared resources that feed our minds, spirits, culture, and ultimately, our future. Library users should care for these valuable resources so they will be useful to others in the future.
We live in an age when information is increasingly "born digital." How is digital information preserved? First, let me emphasize that preserving digital information requires serious commitments of resources and expertise. When we create digital information we also must accept responsibility to develop programs and the capacity to preserve and maintain those digital assets over time.
There are at least two kinds of digital information. First is information we digitize from analog source materials for example: when we at KU or Google Books scan books; digitizing backfiles of journals previously available in print only; or digitizing audio programs from original source recordings. For these, we not only have to preserve the digital content that we've invested to create but also we try to maintain and preserve the original source collections as master sources or "back-ups."
The second kind of digital information is called "Born digital" information; this is far more problematic because we do not have analog or hardcopy backups to go to if we fail to preserve the digital. Born digital information includes vast categories: Web sites, e-mail, digital images, feature length movies shot in digital formats, digital audio, interactive digital content such as videogames, as well as electronic records with legal retention requirements and enormous and dynamic digital databases. I could continue this list; these are complex and preserving them requires that we first recognize their value and then by applying expertise and thorough planning for their preservation at the time of creation and then supporting them over time with well-developed preservation policies and standards and, most importantly, the commitment for ongoing resources.Digital preservation is, and will continue to be, an amazingly complex, expensive, endlessly fascinating and absolutely hot area for future development, especially when you consider the value of the cultural investment and what's at stake if this information is lost. I could go on forever discussing digital preservation which will continue to challenge us as long as digital information technologies continue to develop.
What do you enjoy most about your profession? My job combines the best of many worlds, intellectual as well as practical, focusing on the past, present and future; it's infinitely challenging and rewarding. I love working in a profession that's so vital; far more so than most people would suspect. Over the years I've worked with many extraordinary collections. At Northwestern, I led a major innovative project to digitize and design the e-publication of the full 20 volumes and 20 portfolios of Edward Curtis's "The North American Indian" for Internet access. I've preserved last-existing maps of coal mines that were subsiding under major cities; preserved original plans for major U.S. bridges that included critically important penciled calculations by the designing engineer; I've treated and preserved collections of Frank Lloyd Wright plans and many others. The most interesting item I've worked with was a lock of Beethoven's hair. In the early ‘90's I was called upon to lead major earthquake recovery operations at the University of Costa Rica and Costa Rican national libraries and subsequently worked to develop preservation programs there and in Mexico where I also conducted research and worked with papermakers and publishers to improve the quality of paper used in book publishing.
The Preservation Department has a Reformatting and Replacement program. What is this program, and how does it work? In the strictest sense, preservation is the buying of time for our collections, whether we value them as artifacts or for the information they contain. "Replacement and Reformatting" are two of the many ways we preserve collections -- we can replace them or reformat them.
We "reformat" collections, that is we copy them to more stable and usable formats in order to extend their useful lives. Microfilming is one way to reformat collections. These days however we most often reformat collections digitally in order to protect original or artifactual collections and also to enhance access to the information they contain. Once digitized, the information can be printed to film or paper or made available to others in digital form.
We "replace" brittle or deteriorated collections by purchasing new collections or, if we cannot purchase a replacement, by digitizing them in order to create facsimile copies.
What are some aspects of your job others might not realize you're involved with? Well, I'm involved with our buildings, constantly monitoring their environments because collections deteriorate more quickly if they're kept in warm and humid conditions. And copyright law remains critical to preservation reformatting programs; this has always been the case, starting way back with microfilming programs, but has become particularly interesting with the advent of digital information and the Internet. Most recently, I traveled to Peru to survey collections and recommend preservation initiatives for the University of San Marcos Libraries. There's a serious need and demand for preservation ambassadorships to other countries and especially now as we see mutually rewarding possibilities to exchange and share expertise and collaborate to preserve access to extraordinary collections. I welcome and look forward to pursuing similar international development opportunities in the future.