In Medias Res: How to Protect Media and Mixed Media in an Age of Transition

By Oliver Cutshaw

The Latin term meaning to start a story in the midst of things— a favored tradition for Homeric epics and more recently for the Star Wars saga. Being in the midst of things is not always easy, especially for preservation librarians who are trying to make practical decisions in a changing era while maintaining professional standards grounded in historic precedent and best practice. It has, however, always been our job to deal with existing technologies and maintain older formats while anticipating future innovations.

Today’s librarians are confronted by a wide array of evolving challenges: online catalogs with rapidly expanding links to commercial databases, larger digital collections, the increasing use of off-site storage facilities, and ever changing media formats and technologies. How much time and expense should we devote to protecting media that might be obsolete by the end of the decade? As Thomas Mann described in a recent issue of American Libraries, there is considerable debate in our field even regarding the most fundamental issue: the future structure of academic libraries.1 Will they maintain a somewhat traditional model, open stacks and browsing collections, or become an internet café social center served by off-site storage?

At my desk in the basement of Widener Library at Harvard University, I am not in a position to predict where these massive changes will take us. While more information is accessible on the web, our libraries continue to purchase videos, DVDs, CDs, and books with accompanying media which our users want now. As Uwe Joachim summarized in his excellent article “The Gnosis of Media:”

This brings us back to the corporeal library and its necessity. Whoever opts for the real life in this world, and not for a utopian transformation of our world into a non corporeal and electronically shining and translucent cosmic spirit, has to opt for real books and libraries.2

Although we are in an age of transition, we still must find practical ways to preserve the media we have collected and will continue to collect and make it accessible.

Practical Steps for Preservation and Access

A number of articles discuss the wide range of concerns that we face on a day-to-day basis when working with media and mixed media:3 How to house? What type of security strips or targets to use? To label or not to label? Ultimately these decisions are driven by the nature of an institution’s policies and practices for housing media and mixed media. Answers to the following questions should guide your decisions:

  • Does your library house CDs with their accompanying books and bound periodicals?
  • Does your library store media and mixed media in the general stacks or are they housed in a media resource center or special collections area?
  • Is your media housed at an off-site storage facility?
  • And lastly, is your circulating media collection viewed as an integral part of the core collection or merely a convenient tool for the patrons to use and then be discarded when the next format revolution comes along?


A practical concern is how to protect the media that are part of a library’s circulating collection. The housing protocols and choices outlined below are the ones we make at Widener Library and may be applicable to other institutions.

The original condition of media enclosures is often poor. A CD or DVD that costs the University $30 will be housed in a fragile plastic case that costs only pennies. It is my experience that many of these containers break at the corners and have cracked or damaged hinges. Instead consider housing or re-housing media in polypropylene containers. These are tough, dependable and cost efficient.

Mixed media are more complex. Each library has to find its own solutions depending on how and where the media is stored. The first decision is whether the media is to be separated from the text material and stored in a media center, or will it be somehow stored together. At Widener Library, most media is housed at our off-site storage facility, the Harvard Depository, so we want it to remain with its accompanying text. Our goal is to keep the media component protected, and readily usable. One option is to insert safe, easy-to-use pockets or to house it in polypropylene containers.

It is important to inspect each publisher’s media pocket to see if it is readily useable.

Widener Library is fortunate to have a large in-house conservation laboratory with facilities to make custom enclosures. The foundation enclosure is a standard phase box adapted to accommodate a wide array of media materials. These different types of media provide opportunities for various levels of decision making. Kate Rich, Senior Conservation Technician at Widener Library, emphasized the following points:

  • Decision making is dictated by the piece. Size, weight, and ease of use will determine appropriate housing choices.
  • Always use “archival quality” (chemically stable) materials.
  • Pockets in publishers materials are often weak, damaged, or impractical and will therefore need to be replaced.
  • Often when a publisher’s media pocket has to be removed, the book will require repair. Great care should be exercised when removing paper pockets from the text in order to minimize damage to the media and the book.
  • With more publishing of mixed media and a wide array of mixed media combinations, it is necessary to come up with standard solutions and an inventory of materials to expedite processing and ensure quality.

While technological obsolescence is the fate of all contemporary formats in our digital age, content of many of the accompany media items have long-term value.

Sample Solutions

Ms. Rich described some options that she routinely employs while working on a wide variety of Harvard College Library materials.

  • Sometimes the simplest solution is the best: put a fragile box of CDs in a phase box of 60 pt. blue/gray board, a stable and easy solution in a lab equipped to do box making.
  • Four flap enclosures work well for smaller or thin mixed media items. Often these smaller items present unique challenges and this enclosure is a versatile solution.
  • Another useful solution is to build a sink mat into the standard foundation enclosure. The sink mat is made of archival corrugated cardboard and is used to house the accompanying video, cassette or CD. This solution is illustrated below.

These solutions meet Widener’s criteria for mixed media: (1) that the media be kept with the book; (2) that the book and media be easy for the patron to use; and (3) that the housing of the media be dependable and sturdy to withstand transporting to and from the Depository.

These solutions have been developed in coordination with our Technical Services and Access Services staff. In all aspects of media preservation, whether it be access, security, or storage, it is vital to have a good working relationship and ongoing communication with your library partners. Procedures and storage solutions must be appropriate to the institution and meet the needs of its patrons. Good policy is not made in isolation.

Security and Access

Let me point out a few things that seem to work well in Harvard College Library:

  • Security strips are built into the containers or applied to the containers of all non-magnetic media. However, if your media or mixed media are housed in open stacks collections you may wish to use the security strip overlays for your stand-alone CDs and CDs in pockets that accompany other materials.3
  • Specific notes concerning accompanying media are built into the item level records of our Integrated Library System (ILS). These records alert the Circulation Services staff to the presence and the nature of accompanying media making it easier to verify that the media is intact.
  • Cataloging teams add notes to the bibliographic records of our ILS, indicating the type of media, its number and condition. These serve the dual purpose of alerting the patron to the accompanying materials and helping the Circulation team track media and verify that returned items are complete.
  • Our emphasis on durable cases and housings means that the media or accompanying media is likely to survive a bit longer.
  • Easy-to-use enclosures are essential for access. If the patron cannot readily use and re-house the media they are less likely to request it in the future

Care and Handling

Although outside the scope of this article, a few practical reminders regarding care and handling are worth mentioning. It is important not only to train your preservation staff in good handling and care but to offer classes and workshops to the other library staff. Circulation and Technical Services staff might welcome or at least benefit from a few reminders on the structural and chemical composition of magnetic and non-magnetic media and how that composition impacts on the storage and use of media. Consider offering a class with practical and simple tips like handling discs by their outer edge or center hole.

Ultimately the needs and tastes of our patrons and the advances of technology will remain the crucial forces that both form and inform our decisions.


While technological obsolescence is the fate of all contemporary formats in our digital age, content of many accompany media items have long-term value. We cannot assume that just because ongoing massive digital initiatives are underway that everything “new” or born digital will be readily available to future generations. Existing media collections and new acquisitions must be processed and stored properly even if we suspect that they will be considered antiques in a few decades.

For example, even though a floppy disk may appear in the back of a recent commercially published book, is it always reasonable to conclude that the files on that disc have been safely preserved by any entity. Whose responsibility is it to preserve them? The author? The publisher? The academic community?

The nearly overwhelming tasks of making our print collections available online and reformatting our older materials on tapes and disks are concerns for the whole library profession. Ultimately the needs and tastes of our patrons and the advances of technology will remain the crucial forces that both form and inform our decisions.

As for those in collections care, our task is a bit simpler. It is our job, in this age of transition, to make sure that the media and mixed media objects in our care are safely housed, properly handled, and readily accessible to our patrons.


1. Mann, Thomas. “Google Print vs. Onsite Collections.” American Libraries 76 (7) August 2005.2. Jochum, Uwe, “The Gnosis of Media” Library Quarterly 74(1) 2004.3. Weimer, Katherine H, et al. “Security and Access to CDROMs Accompanying Books.” LRTS 44(4) October 2000.

Oliver Cutshaw is the Binding Librarian for Harvard College Library. He can be contacted at Photographs in this article are courtesy of Shannon Phillips, Conservation Services Intern.

This article appears courtesy of LBS Archival Products.