We’ve now released a summary of the final LIFE-SHARE Case Study, and we think this will be of great interest to the wider library and archives community. We’ve put a great deal of effort into comparing the initial and long term costings of physical conservation, versus digital preservation, of the same paper materials. In fact, we’ve tried to estimate costing trends for six different ‘preservation pathways’ in total.

The key finding is that to destructively digitise* a collection of monographs in-house is the most cost efficient method of preserving it over time, despite being several hundred percent more expensive than physical conservation in the first instance.

We went through an extremely elaborate process to calculate the potential costs of each pathway. This included working out timings to the second, calculating their cost at the appropriate grade, and factoring associated financial burdens such as the National Insurance / Pension contributions for staff undertaking the work. Preservation actions which were costed up included the following (asterisks refer to actions only applicable to monographs rated poorly for condition and usability):

List of preservation actions

Preservation Actions

Once the initial costs were calculated, long-term storage (both physical and electronic) were factored in, using figures compiled by Nielsen and Courrant in their paper On the cost of keeping a book (.PDF) – their chapter starts on page 84. This led to the revealing figures hinted at above.

I won’t go into any further details here: you can read the summary report via the Case Studies page of our website (Case Study 4), or you can go to the report directly, here. We hope you find it interesting reading!

For now I’d like to focus on the implications this may have for libraries. We would recommend that libraries do their own calculations using their own costings, but we believe the figures discussed in the report are indicative of trends over time. Within around 50 years of a collection being ‘preserved’ in the first instance, it becomes more expensive to maintain the paper copies than the digital copies, even with the massive difference in initial costings taken into account. So for monographs with little or no intrinsic value, it is a better long term strategy to digitise them and dispose of the ‘analogue’ paper copy. This has ramifications for the way the library is promoted, the way it is run, and of course the way users access information.

For those going through the schools system today, the issues some of us have with reading on screen will not be a problem. It will be part of their expectations of how they ingest information, rather than seen as a compromise over reading paper copies. Even so, it would be a fairly radical shift in the way libraries operate if the majority of stock without intrinsic value were only to be available online. Perhaps some of the space saved on shelving would need to be filled with yet more computers for users to read on.

The National Archives and others have reported a ‘halo effect’ when digitising content, in that when they digitise one collection it increases interest in their stock generally to such an extent, that over all physical consultation increases. So if we are to go down the route of preserving digitally, that may actually entail an increase in the physical conservation required for those objects with intrinsic value.

Although many libraries currently provide huge amounts of electronic content already, it is usually born digital. Which is to say, it is e-journals, e-books, databases and so on which are subscribed to or purchased, linked to from the catalogue, but stored elsewhere (usually on the provider’s own website). To provide huge amounts of digital material which we libraries produce ourselves might require a closer marrying of ‘catalogue’ and ‘digital repository’ than is necessarily the case now.

There is also the possibility of close collaboration between institutions. The works that would be digitised would need to be out-of-copyright (for the most part – the ins-and-outs of that particular area are too complicated to go into here) so there would be no legal issue with sharing digitised materials, as long as two or more institutions can agree to do so.

All of this is speculation at this stage. Above all, what we hope our findings will do is better enable libraries and archives to make informed decisions as to how to approach the issue of preservation in the future. Let us know what you think in the comments.


*Destructive Digitisation is simply digitising materials where the physical originals are disposed of afterwards. This has a big effect on the price because a: you can more easily scan the materials (with a flat-bed scanner) rather than having to go down the more expensive and time-consuming route of non-contact digitisation via a digital SLR camera, and b: you only have to bear the cost of storing the electronic copies afterwards, rather than also having to bear the cost of keeping the books on the shelves.