Some 10 years ago, libraries were withdrawing enough of the journal backfiles that were being steadily digitized such that many could foresee a fairly complete print to electronic transition for these materials. There was a precedent for groups of libraries to ensure that among them the “last copy” of a given item would not be discarded, but the pace of withdrawals was clearly accelerating as individual libraries sought to find efficiencies in their use of space and related resources. In his 2001 book, Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, Nicholson Baker argued that research libraries had mismanaged the transition from newsprint to microfilm. Many observers wondered if history was repeating in the print to digital transition.

Against this background of uncertainty, my colleagues and I at ITHAKA wondered about what a print to electronic transition might ultimately look like from a system-wide perspective. Even if it made sense for every library individually to withdraw a print item that had been well-digitized, surely there were underlying preservation considerations that would lead the library community to wish to retain some number of versions of the print artifacts. As the amount of overlap across individual library collections began to decline, how could the library community ensure that it did not fall below the minimum number of copies needed?  And, on reflection, what was an acceptable minimum from a risk management perspective?

To address this question, we turned to Candace Arai Yano, a scholar of related engineering and operations research issues at Berkeley. With ITHAKA’s support, Yano and several colleagues developed a quantitative modeling framework that “accounts for the fact that extant copies of journals are unlikely to be in flawless condition and that both environmental and catastrophic risks must be considered – along with economic factors – in making these decisions.” Their work has made it possible for those concerned with these stewardship issues to model various scenarios, risks, and time horizons to determine the number of copies that would need to be retained. Yano et al’s work, although previously circulated informally, has now been published in the International Journal of Production Research as “Optimising the number of copies and storage protocols for print preservation of research journals.”

Several years ago, Ithaka S+R contextualized this work and modeled one set of scenarios in our report What to Withdraw: Print Collections Management in the Wake of Digitization. Since then, the library community has grappled with the need collectively to preserve the print versions of digitized collections through initiatives run by WEST, ASERL, CIC, CRL, and others. While the transformation of print preservation from a local library concern to one that is in some sense a shared community-wide imperative is incomplete, the system-wide perspective that this body of work has helped to establish can help the library community maintain its preservation commitments against a backdrop of technology and organizational change.