Preservation of Library Materials in Mauritius

During the period  September  27 to October 01, 2010, Ms Claire  Dekle, Preservation Specialist and Senior Book Conservator at the Library of Congress was in Mauritius on an invitation of the US Embassy. Ms Claire delivered three lectures on the topic of preservation and conservation, organised two training sessions at the National Library and had a round table with members of the library associations. People working in the LIS field in Mauritius were exposed to the techniques of preservation and conservation as practised in the US. During the round table,  various points were raised and discussions were not limited to preservation of library materials only.  It would be good if we reflect on the various issues raised.

Preservation role of libraries: In Mauritius, all libraries are not involved in the long term preservation of library materials. To avoid any confusion, let us define the terms first. In the LIS profession, ‘preservation’ is “concerned with maintaining or restoring access to artifacts, documents and records through the study, diagnosis, treatment and prevention of decay and damage” [Wikipedia]. The term should not be confused with ‘conservation’  which “refers to the treatment and repair of individual items to slow decay or restore them to a usable state.” Keeping library collections in sound environment (including temperature, humidity, air quality, and light levels under control) helps in the preservation process and extends the life of the collection by slowing down its rate of physical deterioration. Usually preservation is intended to keep books and documents in the collection permanently. If some libraries do not pay much attention to any of these basic measures to keep their materials in good conditions, they should start doing it. However, the mission to keep materials for posterity, for eternity, at least as long as it is possible to extend the life of a document is vested with very few libraries and cultural institutions. These institutions are the National Library, the National Archives Department, the Mahatma Gandhi Institute and to some extent, the Aapravasi Ghat Trust Fund, the Mauritius College of the Air and the Mauritius Broadcasting Corporation  (for local productions).  Other libraries barely have this preservation role….preserving for posterity.

What to preserve? One of the fundamental questions in any preservation programme/ policy is to determine what materials to preserve. Small States like Mauritius cannot afford to preserve materials that are already being taken care of by big institutions in developed countries. Replication or duplication in this area is completely unjustified since sharing of digital contents is so easy in our time. Mauritius cannot compete with lets say the British Library or the Library of Congress in preserving world literature. These institutions are big players in the field. We have neither the expertise nor the technologies to embark on such preservation programme. The only viable option  would be to digitise  materials confined to Mauritius only. Indigenous literature, original works of local authors, local productions (multimedia), official records of the colonial administration and reports, historical and rare documents pertaining to Mauritius alongside the newspaper archives of the country may be subject to preservation. Anything else would be unnecessary duplication and wastage of resources. Given the size of the country, libraries may well coordinate their actions and work towards a national preservation centre to preserve the cultural heritage of the nation.

Digitisation or Microfilming? One of the technologies successfully used for quite long time for preserving print materials, more particularly newspaper archives, is without any doubt microfilming. Microfilming technologies have matured over the years and  have been accepted in the LIS world as a reliable technology for preserving print media. However, recent developments in digital technologies have open new avenues and many organisations are resorting to digitisation technologies for both long term preservation and easy dissemination of information using Web-enabled applications. Digital technologies is still evolving and no one is sure about its long term viability as technology changes very rapidly and become outdated. Better performing and more sophisticated technologies will for ever pose a challenge to libraries.  Can we for this reason scrap microfilming technologies as outdated and embrace digital technologies? The question requires deep investigation.

Preservation problem in the digital era: Preservation of digital contents (resulting from conversion of analogue media to digital media and the sheer increase of digitally born materials)  poses serious problems. Many institutions nowadays resort to “collective bargaining” by forming consortia to buy access to e-journals or e-databases. As compared to print media where buying library materials operated a transfer of ownership to the purchaser, subscribing to e-databases does not make this change of ownership possible. The materials remain the property of the e-database owner. The purchasing library in fact only acquires the right to access the materials, not the ownership. Moreover, the archived materials remain in the database of the owner. Under such circumstances, whose responsibility is it to preserve the e-documents. Current legislation is not clear on this. As long as the database is commercially exploitable and has a money value, the owner will keep it. But what about its long-term preservation,  for eternity? It is not binding on commercial enterprises to carry this preservation role. With the digital  publishing, we are running the risk of loosing for ever important chunk of human culture, thus impairing future scholarship and research.

For Mauritius, there is an urgent need to formulate a national policy to preserve for posterity both the print heritage and the digital contents related to our country.

P. Hauroo