The Paradox of Preservation

By elanascaglia

I would like to address Michèle Valerie Cloonan’s idea around the paradox of preservation. Archivist, preservationist, and conservationist have the difficult job of trying to keep an object the same as when it was made. Keeping with this paradox of what and how to preserve something I would also like to talk about Joan M Schwartz and Terry Cook’s concept surrounding the power of the archivist, to choose the objects that represent our history. Today’s struggle is on what to do with digital material, and how digitizing old material makes information readily accessible to society. The questions we must continuously ask are what to hold onto, how to maintain them, and why, to continue building a history for the future.

The paradox of preservation can come at a cost to the creation of history. “To conserve, preserve or restore is to alter” as stated by Cloonan.[1] The objects of history that represent a period of time are slowed down in their aging process to last as long as they can for our needs as librarians, historians, scientist, etc. To conserve something is the process of handling the physical material and to preserve is to house the object in a controlled environment. The paradox that Cloonan addresses is this exact issue, how to maintain an object or material when it was naturally meant to deteriorate overtime. Paper was not meant to last forever in the state that it was made or originally used. In my own lifetime I have seen my own projects, on paper, turn yellow or fade due to exposure to sunlight and air. How have we affected the material that was made over 200 -1,000 years ago? Have we altered history by saving and learning from these objects that the creator did not imagine reaching this millennium? What we know and learn today was chosen by archivist of the past for future use.

While reading Schwartz and Cook I began to question the history that I have studied and will study. What information is missing? What an archivist chooses to maintain, preserve or conserve is kept to inform the future of what has happened in the past. What about the objects that were not saved, based on the archivist personal influence? We cannot take individual feeling and thought out of the archivist, but when it comes to the choice of what will represent a time, place and people neutrality sounds like it would be a good position to take. Yet an archivist cannot be neutral in their actions of preservation as they are cognitive thinkers, making an important decision. Which does not mean they choose to omit historical material for the purpose of erasing the information from history. The power of the archivist has profound impacts on all aspects of society. “Control of the archive…means control of society thus control of determining history’s winners and losers”, which is a scary prospect when thinking about what our society would look like today if an archivist had saved one more object or chose something different.[2]

In this modern era we have are creating digital objects and materials that are meant to last forever due to a process that is in fact harmful to its preservation. Trying to keep up with preserving material being continuously generated and altered by multiple contributors brings us to recognize the paradox. These are objects that have been created digitally, like a photograph, video, website etc. One-way to archive and preserve these is to transfer the information onto a CD, DVD or hard drive. Which begs us to ask the question, is this worth holding onto, due to the issue of space. Digital material that has been created as long lasting intangible electronic files will increasingly be in need of a holding space. As archivist with the power to choose what to save, digital information is a new concept that is hard to grasp. At what point do we save something for an archive that could be changed at any moment with open source accessibility. We have to consider that “…digital documents force us to preserve them on their own terms,” making us think about what to preserve for further use and what can be let go.[3] Although digital materials make us question the future of archiving how can we use digitizing material to aid in preserving the past?

I would like to point to another paradox in the use of digital material as suggested by Paul Conway in the Cloonan article. While digital archiving is a difficult concept to grasp Conway states that the “application of digital technology: protects originals, represents originals and transcends originals.”[4] With the use of digital media the creators have to be cautious that their information will be inconsistent or altered throughout its existence. There is an optimistic use for digitizing material. Throughout the world objects have been archived for the purpose of preservation, allowing limited accessibility due to age and material instability. The older the object, the more damage can occur with the least amount of physical contact. Yet as Cloonan points out from a study done “the public believes that a key function of these institutions is to preserve cultural heritage than merely make it available.”[5] The British Library’s extensive collection of manuscripts, materials and objects from their worldwide conquest throughout history, has developed a project called Turning Pages. This project has digitized their collections while simultaneously limiting the close proximity of the public to the physical resources. Turning Pages has reconsidered the users contact in accessing information. As Conway states “…digital preservation brings the user into the picture,” which is what the British Library considered when making their collection available to the world. Along with open available access this digital tool allows the preservationist and archivist to do what they need at their own pace to maintain the material the way it is, without being interrupted by researchers interrupting their process.

The paradox of the field makes the job that more exciting. While constantly receiving material the archivist must choose what to keep, with the hope that the decision will be made to represent an encompassing amount of history. While the issue of power and neutrality are clear in this field the idea needs to be addressed, so that information is not lost and that history will be understood from all perspectives. Yet we cannot ignore the new digital future of history, but with proper use we can explore materials from the past that will not be with us much longer. Due to this contradiction the material saved has lived longer than it was meant too, surpassing its natural existence.


[1] Cloonan, Michele, Valerie. “W(h)ither Preservation?” The Library Quarterly 71.2 (2001): 231-242. 235.

[2] Schwartz, Joan M., Terry Cook. “Archives, Records and Power: The Making of Modern Memory,” Archival Science 2, (2002): 1-19, 4.

[3] Cloonan, 237.

[4] Cloonan, 236.

[5] Cloonan, 234.


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