Documents and Collections at Risk?

Even as Congress moves to increase total budget for the humanities endowment, preservation programs face cuts, alarming scholars.
June 20, 2008

Archivists from the nation's libraries and museums are sounding the alarm over proposed cuts to the budget supporting the National Endowment for the Humanities' Division of Preservation and Access.

Despite an overall proposed increase to the budget, which a House of Representatives appropriations subcommittee approved this week, the preservation division is facing cuts beyond the president's budget request for fiscal year 2009, which the endowment suggests reflects changing priorities, an increased focus on digital humanities scholarship and the completion of a major archival program last year. At the same time, at least two people in the division have left.

"Among the important ways the endowment provides national leadership in the humanities is by adjusting our mix of grant programs periodically to reflect current realities, needs and opportunities in the humanities," according to a statement the agency released Thursday. "The proposed budget reduction for the Preservation and Access division is an illustration of this dynamic at work, as we had witnessed declining interest and activity in several of the division's funding programs."

At the beginning of the year, President Bush and the endowment requested a budget of $144.355 million, about even with the amount enacted for fiscal year 2008. The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior, Environment and Related Agencies approved an increase last week, to about $160 million -- but with the blessing of the NEH, it shifted funds from Preservation and Access programs to other functions it considered more vital, including digital initiatives. In total, the appropriations bill would supply $10 million to the division, almost $8.4 million less than this year's amount and below the president's 2009 budget request of $13.861 million.

The Society of American Archivists, which represents those both in and outside of academe, is urging its members -- in the wake of the House full committee's likely approval of the cut -- to contact their senators to restore the funding. The Committee on Appropriations' originally scheduled full markup session was postponed from Wednesday to make way for other lawmaking commitments, including disputes over war funding and offshore drilling for oil.

Mark Greene, the society's president and director of the University of Wyoming's American Heritage Center, said that archival work doesn't "in any way preclude digital projects. There’s a great deal of access work in particular that’s being done digitally."

"From our perspective, this is not an academic issue," he continued. "This is a matter of being able to make historical materials accessible to the public. Most of our members serve members of the public and students in far greater number than they serve professors and other academics. We represent institutions that are committed to making the documentary heritage of the U.S. available and accessible to everyone."

Earlier this year, the organization Heritage Preservation released a statement stating that the "cut is to be implemented in large part by the elimination of grants for Stabilizing Humanities Collections, an important program that addresses critical issues for America’s museums, libraries, and archives." According to the archival society, additional cuts made since that statement endanger all of the endowment's preservation projects.

Last year, the U.S. Newspaper Program completed the task begun in 1982, which entailed cataloguing and archiving periodicals on microfilm from the 18th century to the present. With the National Digital Newspaper Program partially taking its place, funds from the Preservation and Access division that supported the earlier program may no longer be needed for that purpose. Still, archivists argue that other projects that are just as legitimate are in danger of losing support.


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