A recurring joke amongst archivists (at least back in the day when I was a practicing archivist) centers around issues of National Geographic. Many, many people have stored the entire run of National Geographic is attics and basements and (usually when moving an elderly relative) decide to donate the issues to their local archives because they think they are priceless artifacts. The archivist must keep a serious face, thank the donor for thinking to share this treasure with them, and explain that the local library already has a complete run of National Geographic (doesn’t nearly every library?). I’m not saying that the National Geographic is worthless kindling, but how many copies are too many copies?
I have been struggling with the question of how to archive journals for quite awhile now. Although I don’t know if I have the right answer, I have come to a comfortable decision of sorts. My institution has a forest of bound journals in the basement; hundreds of thousands of volumes that, for the most part, are accumulating a thick layer of dust. My library does not have space for this still growing forest, and the need to weed out titles is ever looming. This realization enables me to step back and think that it’s fine if we don’t keep everything because scholarship is constantly evolving. My institution is not a major research university. We need to keep a certain amount of current scholarship accessible for our faculty and students and no more.
While my institution is somewhat off the hook: we won’t be saving the world’s scholarship; libraries around the world do need to come up with a plan. I see OCLC’s WorldCat database as playing an important role in this plan. I think each institution needs to step up and not only preserve the journal titles most important to their curriculum and history, but they need to indicate (via WorldCat) that they are going to keep print copies (or participate in CLOCKSS to preserve electronic content) for a particular title. This plays out in Wisconsin via a policy known as “last copy.” If your institution holds the only copy of a journal run, your library is expected to keep it. This policy has no formality, however, and without a way of indicating that a library is the last copy holder, this great idea has languished. I think American libraries need to get serious about formalizing this system.
In the bad old days (oh the simple joys of the 1980s!) librarians purchased individual journal issues. After a bunch of issues accumulated, we bound the issues into a colorful volume and placed it on a shelf. And thus was journal archiving. Only theft, fire, or rain could possibly interfere with this simple process.
But the Oughts have brought us new questions about archiving journals. We no longer receive printed journal issues for most titles. Should we care about archiving? Should librarians figure out a way to safely store digital information? Publishers haven’t wasted much time figuring out that they can charge libraries content that already been paid for at least once, but we all know that libraries cannot continue to make these hefty payments.
I just read about Journal of Cell Science, whose publisher has digitized and made available for free its entire 155 volume run. Should I keep the brief holdings that my library has retained (1967-1980)? Should I send the volumes to Madison? Should every state have a complete print run of Journal of Cell Science? How do we determine which libraries preserve which titles?
I worry that all librarians have as many questions about journal archiving as I do and that the questions are not getting answered. Is it too late for these questions?