Inhouse or Vendors

Many libraries and archives use vendors to meet their preservation needs, and in some circumstances, this may be the most sensible way to proceed. Vendor services include the binding of periodicals and monographs, microfilming, and certain forms of reprography. These are the services that lend themselves most easily to routine contract pricing and uniform handling. In many cases, the more routine and uniform the work, the more likely that vendors can perform it more cheaply and efficiently than the library. Why? Because of low vendor wages, capital investment in sophisticated high-production equipment, cheaper materials with high-volume purchasing, and the greater productivity that results from economies of scale.

Preservation functions typically performed in house by library and archive staff include standard care of collections, minor paper repair, replacement photocopy, binding preparation, simple pamphlet casing and paperback processing, microfilm preparation, and book repair. These functions are considered inappropriate for vendors for several reasons. Some sensible criteria can be applied to help you determine whether to use vendors.

Competence and standards

One of the most important considerations in making the "in or out" decision is a vendor's level of competence. For example, although a commercial binder may produce bindings quickly at low cost, if the bindings are poorly executed, commercial binding is not a bargain. If a microfilm vendor produces microfilm at low cost but is unwilling to conduct tests to ensure proper chemical processing, and does not meet recognized standards for the production of quality film, then clearly this is not a good avenue to pursue.

The preservation professional must establish performance criteria based on national or international standards and/or the specific performance needs of the library. In examining periodical binding requirements, for example, the binding design must be articulated by the preservation professional based on patterns of use, shelving, storage configurations, and longevity needs. These should be incorporated into a pre-contract document or request for proposal (RFP). The RFP is presented to the prospective vendor, and if the vendor agrees to execute the work in accordance with the RFP, then a contract for services is written up. If there are no vendors in the region capable of or willing to respond to the RFP, an in-house operation should be established.

Many large libraries and archives have in-house microfilm operations precisely because the commercial micrographics industry was for many years unwilling to respond to the archival standards demanded by libraries and archives. With the increased use of computer data bases and digital imaging in the business world, however, the micrographics industry's customer base has dwindled, and there is now far more willingness to address the needs of libraries and archives.

The issue of competence applies also to in-house operations. If an in-house unit cannot be staffed by trained staff or there is a lack of appropriate equipment and materials, steps must be taken to upgrade these. One of the main advantages of the in-house option is the ability to control the operation and bolster it when needed.

Decision-making and service

Sometimes the service costs of working with a vendor are not fully taken into account. For example, to prepare a paperback monograph for commercial binding requires that a decision be made on the form of binding; the decision be documented on an instruction slip for the binder; the library's circulation record be changed to reflect the location of the book; and on return from the bindery the work be inspected and the circulation and binding records be changed. The time taken to perform these functions should be accounted for.

If paperbacks are instead to be stiffened in house, the work is performed with minimal preparation. In this case, decisions are made purely on a format basis with no instruction slips, and all paperbacks are stiffened. The work can be turned around in under 48 hours, so no adjustments to the circulation record are needed. Paperbacks can be bound in house at less than it costs simply to prepare them for commercial binding. Paperback stiffening does require some capital equipment investment (a power paper cutter and a gluing machine), but the equipment is easy to maintain, the technology stable, and the process simple enough that staff can be quickly trained.

In contrast, periodicals may be much more suitable for commercial binding because of the need for sophisticated machinery to fasten the loose leaves together. In many industrialized countries, much mass binding equipment is automated, and it is not always possible for libraries to purchase and maintain it because of problems of scale and the fast rate of obsolescence. Moreover, vendors favor working with a large volume of uniform items, since processing is more predictable and staff training and wages minimal. As a result, the number of processing options offered by vendors is few.

Vendors are rarely able to offer major remedial conservation treatment. For such treatment, staff have to be professionally trained and experienced. The work itself covers an extremely wide range of treatment options, which are not amenable to mass production. Moreover, libraries and archives are extremely reluctant to move rare and unique research materials off the premises, beyond direct control.

There is also a more subtle reason why the major treatment of rare and unique materials is generally not treated by commercial vendors. Periodicals, new pamphlets and monographs, and rebinding must be processed routinely to properly maintain the library and its services. Thus funding is usually automatically allocated on an annual basis to deal with these categories of research materials. The treatment of rare and unique materials however, is much less likely to have budget lines set for vendor work, despite the cultural significance of the materials as treatment can more easily be deferred because of relatively low use. For this reason and many others, in-house treatment is to be preferred.