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Knowing the need: a national assessment of preservation need in libraries and archives

The work of the Preservation Advisory Centre’s predecessor, the National Preservation Office (NPO), was recognised at the awards ceremony for the Conservation Awards 2007 held at the British Museum on 27 September 2007 with the NPO being shortlisted for the Collections Care Award.

Dame Liz Forgan, Chair of the Judges said:

  • The National Preservation Office’s survey of preservation needs was variously described by my fellow judges as fantastic value for money, a springboard for action and the place where everyone should start.
  • It provides an exemplar of perhaps unglamorous but utterly essential data-gathering and analysis for the library and archives sector and beyond. We cannot commend it too highly and would like to see a similar approach adopted by all concerned with preservation of the heritage.
  • The NPO is to be congratulated on producing an authoritative report that sets the direction for future strategies both nationally and locally.

Library and archive material is at risk from problems such as brittle paper, pests and mould, and the risks of fire and flood. Poor or fluctuating environmental conditions can cause paper and leather to deteriorate rapidly. But without proper assessment, it is difficult to know which are the most pressing issues, both in individual collections and across the country. This assessment has now been achieved, thanks to a programme of preservation surveys managed by the National Preservation Office (NPO) in a large number of UK libraries and archives. Over the past five years, the NPO has been collecting data from libraries and archives throughout the UK. We use a standard survey method, the Preservation Assessment Survey, to look at the condition of collections, and how well they are managed. The data from 97 surveys, representing over 28 million items, has now been analysed to create a national picture. This is the first large-scale national survey of its kind undertaken, and provides a firm evidence base for targeted action. The survey results were published in February 2006.

The Knowing the need report summarises the preservation needs of the UK’s libraries and archives. It provides firm evidence that action is needed in key areas. We need to improve environmental monitoring and control, storage and packaging. We need to plan for emergencies and disasters. We need to stabilise and conserve deteriorating material, especially bookbindings. We need to address the needs of poor quality nineteenth and twentieth century paper. We need to make sure that there is a skilled workforce in both in preservation and conservation. The NPO now targets its services towards the key action areas we have identified, and provides advocacy for the support of collections. Many of the libraries and archives which have taken part in these surveys have used their own results for local improvements and to obtain funding for the care of their collections.

Durham University Library picked up the Collections Care Award. The project, with funding from the Museums Libraries and Archives Council (MLA) North East, helped 50 organisations across the region equip themselves with the know-how to preserve vital documents, books and manuscripts in buildings ranging from a castle tower to an industrial unit.