Valuing the Intangible

Last week in my digital preservation class the topic was: Value. As in, how do we get librarians, administrators, and the public to value digital preservation efforts? And not just passive value, as in, “oh yes, that’s a good idea,” but participatory value, as in “yes, I will contribute sustainable funding towards that preservation endeavor.” It’s one thing to think preserving our digital heritage is a good idea and quite another to actually provide the funding necessary for ongoing maintenance and conversions.

In one of the articles we read for class (“Investing in Value: A Perspective on Digital Preservation,” by James Currall & Peter McKinney, in D-Lib Magazine 12, 4), the authors brought up an interesting dilemma: “how difficult it is to value that which is not tangible.” This sums up, in essence, one of the major problems that digital preservationists, especially those that work with digital-born material, are facing today. Because digital preservation is a newer issue for most of the institutions that are currently tackling it, there is no funding precedent; thus it is an extra, costly expense. Also, most patrons and even many library administrators do not understand the fragility of digital resources.

Value the Matrix!
Value the Matrix! (Image Source: Jamie Zawinski)

As the class discussion blossomed I found myself thinking: this issue isn’t restricted to preservationists; many LIS professionals spend large parts of their day instructing others about the value and potential of intangible resources. For instance, academic librarians are always looking for ways to promote the rich wealth of information that serve under boring names like “Online Journals” and “Literature Databases.” Likewise, public librarians promote e-books and e-reading and have to explain the complicated value assessments and pricing models that lie beneath the supposed ease of digital lending.

And the more I thought about it, the more I realized that teaching others how to value the intangible has always been part of library science. If we are to be anything more than book/information warehouses, then our stock-in-trade is the intangible: reference services (librarian time, expertise, and guidance), instruction (about library resources, community resources, digital literacy topics, etc.), and imagination (through literature, during story-times,  and through cultural programming) are just a few examples of the intangible resources that we promote and provide every day.

So I guess my point is: the next time someone challenges the relevancy of libraries or questions a student’s decision to study library science, the appropriate response should be: “I teach people the value of intangible entities. Yes, we are books and a building, but we so much more than that. We are information, education, wisdom, imagination, and creativity for all!”

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