Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Assignment #7: Preservation Funding Trends

For better or worse, it seems as though much of the cultural preservation work undertaken in the USA is funded by various granting-agencies. There are some obvious pitfalls with this arrangement: organizations and institutions may be forced to tailor their projects to the (often quixotic) desires of the funding agencies rather than its own needs, the difficulty of assuring continuity or perpetuity for projects meant to survive beyond the grant-funded period, copious amounts of paperwork, and intra- and inter-institutional competition which can preclude cooperation.

Greater triangulation between funding agencies, institutions, and the public (users) could likely minimize the first problem, but the latter three constitute systemic flaws in the system, pointing to the deeper issue of cultural heritage institutions being chronically underfunded. The situation is analogous to malnourished children who are occasionally awarded dessert: the treat is pleasant while it lasts, but it heightens awareness the profound lack of food once consumed. The needy children instinctively presume causal relationships between their behavior and the receipt of the dessert, and do their best to earn one again, only to discover the capricious nature of the dessert-dispensing entity. At the risk of overburdening this cliche metaphor, just as this pattern fails to nurture the childrens' growth, institutions dependent on the succor of granting agencies cannot thrive as well as if sustenance was constant and predictable.

Recognizing the reality of the situation entails that institutions hoping to secure funding for their preservation efforts keep abreast of trends--what types of grants being offered, and what types of projects are winning them--in order to increase the odds of getting money. Prominent funders of cultural heritage preservation include: IMLS, Heritage Preservation, National Park Service, NHPRC (National Archives), Getty Conservation Institute, and the Andrew Mellon Foundation. Most of these have extensive information available through their websites. Reading through them all is as overwhelming as it is informative. Broadly speaking, agencies are concerned with certain key imperatives: increased responsiveness and interactivity between users and institutions; researching and implementing new technologies for providing access or for preservation methodology; promoting environmentally sound practices, and for preserving the significant cultural heritage material produced underrepresented but vitally important groups, especially Native American Tribes.

In addition to proposing projects that fall under these broad goals, grant-seekers must be keenly attuned to methods for asserting the merits of their collections, and the ability to integrate the project into their overall mission. Finally, we cannot help but observe several paradoxes at play: striking a balance between emphasizing a collections uniqueness (and therefore important to preserve) while simultaneously positing the project as extensible to other collections (reproducible); trying to embrace the cutting-edge while assuring the timelessness and sustainability of the project, just to name a couple.


Rebecca S. said...

The relationship between competition and cooperation between institutions striving for grants seems related to the Greene/Meissner argument, and leads to the question of whether it's better for two institutions to have the resources to incompletely care for their collections, or for one to be able to do a more thorough job at the expense of the other.

Elspeth said...

Liz, I agree with you about the difficulty of institutions' having to rely on fickle funding agencies for their support. It's extremely hard to develop and pursue long-term preservation goals when one's funding is constantly under threat. Most grants last only for 1-3 years, and without further assurance of monies, it is difficult to maintain initiatives. As Sonya mentioned in class this week, it's challenging to conduct important preservation activities when one's program, one's job security, and the job security of one's employees is constantly under threat. Many managers wind up spending as much time writing grants as they do executing preservation strategies. Is there a way to escape the lack of security inherent in the grant funding system?

Elizabeth Seramur said...

In response to Rebecca's comment, I think that you are right that it is a seemingly intractable dilemma. It has lead some Archivists to propose what's known as "Documentation Strategy"; although this idea has lost its currency to some extent in archival literature, there are traces of it in other theories, including those espoused by Greene in his "pragmatic" approach (his appraisal strategy was formalized in what's known as the Minnesota Method), as well as ideas promoted by Helen Samuels, and generally speaking within the Macro-Appraisal model. I think a lot of the ideas behind Documentation Strategy will be resurrected for two reasons: 1) lack of funds will make cooperation and strategic dispositions necessary; 2) The ascendancy of digitization as a means of providing access to collections, as well as the trend of bringing geographically disparate collections together virtually. One of the basic premises of DS is that institutions should examine their strengths and weaknesses against the needs of their stakeholders and collect/preserve accordingly. Practically speaking, according to this model, there should not be three different repositories in the same city or geographical region (ahem, Central Texas) competing for/representing the same types of materials. I see the kinds of decisions behind archival appraisal to be absolutely part-and-parcel to preservation selection (and on some level, they are effectively synonymous). Getting different repositories to put their heads together and think about the big picture has thus far proved a bit of a Utopian fantasy. Nevertheless, I hold out hope. Maybe if granting agencies decide the time is right it will happen [wry smile].

Maria said...

Universal library or archival approaches have always been pursued and have existed in different forms (exchange of microfilms, reproductions, World cat, ead )and are active right now through conglomerates of digital libraries across states or universities. I can attest that the Digital Curation conference was all about cooperative projects. These involve lengthy negotiations, marketing, grant seeking, etc. Cooperation is driven by the fact that money is scarce and access can be distributed so there is no reason not to cooperate. However, smaller institutions keep falling through the cracks, and proprietary information exists and keeps emerging in the same proportion than open access one.