Over the last several years, a consortium my library belongs to tried to work out an agreement to maintain a distributed print repository for all the JSTOR journals held in member libraries. The plan was to make sure we held at least one copy of every journal somewhere in the consortium. We got the agreement written and signed, but then bogged down in the implementation. Finally, the collections librarians just said, why bother with a JSTOR repository? We completely trust that as an archive. We decided to look toward other things for a shared repository, but to give up, more or less, on the JSTOR project.
Turns out the library directors are not so much in agreement with that decision. They didn’t seem to be in the loop. Now they are asking why we have given up on JSTOR. At this point there may be many journals that have already been flipped to electronic-only subscriptions. We may no longer have complete print runs of many journals. As we move toward an electronic publishing world, there may be many journals that have no print component. Is that a bad thing? I think the answer depends on how much we trust electronic archiving projects like JSTOR and Portico.
Is it the duty of as many libraries around the world as possible to maintain print archives? Does the preservation of our intellectual history depend on it? Are we going to rue the day we disposed of the print backfiles for these journals? I don’t think the picture is that bleak. I think, in fact, that many libraries are maintaining their holdings of print materials despite JSTOR and Portico. The distribution of those print archives is probably pretty even across the country and the world, even without any formal organization. It just happens because librarians don’t like to throw things out. Maybe it is dangerous to leave these things to chance, but I’m not especially concerned about our historical record being lost. Things that are born digital may, in fact, be in greater danger. We haven’t yet worked out the best archival practices for most of that material.