Martha V. Henderson, Ed.D.
Ada D. Jarred, Ph.D.
Northwestern State University of Louisiana


Studies reveal that information needs of historic preservationists are unmet by current resources. This paper analyzes the Educational Resources Information Center system and parallels the need for analogous services to the field of historic preservation. Emerging technologies enable partnerships connecting information, entities, and individuals in all preservation disciplines.


Data from recent studies of communication patterns and information uses of specialized researchers reveal a spectrum of complex issues, ranging from identification of available information to acquisition of critical resources. Addressing these problems in a rapidly changing technological environment is highly complex. Connections enabled by networking activities and collaborative endeavors provide both challenges and opportunities for information specialists to creatively affect concerns. One field that can benefit significantly from connecting information, systems, organizations, and people is historic preservation.

Establishment of the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training at Northwestern State University of Louisiana led to a research study by Watson Library faculty to identify and design information services for the Center and its specialized clientele. Data from the study (Jarred and Henderson, 1994) provided the following information about the field of historic preservation:

These facts plus materials obtained from ongoing research (Jarred and Henderson, 1995) motivated this proposal for information services patterned on the Educational Resources Information Center (ERIC) model. Described as "The Library of Tomorrow--Today" (Kent 1962, 28), ERIC originated in June 1962 as a pilot information center for detailed analysis and selective dissemination of education-related research documents, emphasizing the interests of the user population. Many of the information issues now confronting historic preservationists were addressed by the agencies involved in the design, definition of role, and identification of objectives for ERIC.

Brief History of the ERIC System

A study (Tauber & Lilley, 1960) in the late 1950s examining existing methods of dissemination of the literature, systems of classification, and techniques used to gather information in the media field served as the first step toward a coordinated information service to embrace all educational research, including studies in other disciplines with implications for educational theory and practice. An inhouse committee of the United States Office of Education (OE) agreed that a central point for access to all educational research information was needed and that the OE was eminently suited for this service (Divisional Committee, 1960). Committee members, concerned about proceeding too rapidly, recommended that information services should first comprise the abstracting, indexing, and disseminating of current research in media, cooperative projects, and library services.

ERIC's background is described as a logical sequence of events: the formative idea, study contracts, the OE inhouse monitoring, and recommendations to set up ERIC as an organizational entity. However, a concurrent information activity, the establishment of the Clearinghouse of Studies on Higher Education, probably impacted its development. The clearinghouse director, Winslow R. Hatch, believed that the classical justification for an information system was elimination of duplication of effort, and this concept became significant to the development of the ERIC system (Clearinghouse, 1959).

ERIC opened on May 15, 1964 under a framework of six goals identified by the Divisional Committee on Research Information Services (1960): (1) location, acquisition, and evaluation of source materials; (2) indexing, abstracting, reporting, storing of materials; (3) retrieval of information upon request; (4) dissemination of information in the form of references, annotated bibliographies, abstracts or reports; (5) preparation of alerting publications and trend studies; and (6) rendering of technical and consultative services.

The first year saw a barrage of demands for reference and consultative services, exceeding even the most extravagant estimates. A major decision was made to "accelerate all operating functions and provide machine search and rapid dissemination techniques" (Program 1964). During the next few years, the ERIC Document Reproduction Service was established, clearinghouse proposals were sought, and activities developing the Thesaurus of ERIC Descriptors were initiated.

ERIC Today

Conceived as a system to track and disseminate federally sponsored educational research, ERIC evolved into a worldwide information network. Sponsored by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement through the U.S. Department of Education, ERIC is a network of clearinghouses, support components, and partnerships providing access to databases, microfiche collections, publications, and other products and services to increase understanding of educational issues. ERIC is the world's largest educational database and serves both as a repository for materials and an active synthesizer and distributor of information (ERIC Annual Report 1992, 5).

The structure of ERIC is decentralized and consists of:

In addition, the various clearinghouses offer a wide variety of specialized activities such as providing reference services and producing monographs, annotated bibliographies, trends and issues papers, and short overviews called digests.

From its inception, ERIC employed emerging technologies to access databases and resources beginning with online services through commercial vendors, adding Compact Disk Read-Only Memory (CD-ROM) technology, and immediately capitalizing on the use of electronic communication networks. For example, AskERIC is a prototype Internet-based electronic question-answering, help, and referral service targeted to K-12 educators. All clearinghouses now have toll-free numbers and Internet addresses.

Implications for Historic Preservation

Dr. Delmer Trester (1979), an active participant in the development of ERIC, provided a historical overview of the agency that is intriguing, enlightening, and inspiring. His treatise reveals the principles undergirding the development of ERIC which are applicable to other fields of study and leads the reader to believe that the agency's successes certainly can be duplicated. Major tenets pertinent to the field of historic preservation and recommendations for implementation follow.

1. Location, acquisition, and evaluation of source materials. Efficient access to information remains one of the greatest impediments to effective management of cultural resources. When one considers governmental data archives alone, the vast amount of information available to historic preservationists is so extensive that current techniques are often inadequate for locating and evaluating the files. "Preservationists in all preservation disciplines share problems of obtaining access to information about technologies, training, and coordination of research on technology" (U.S. Congress 1986, 35). ERIC's origins focused on the need for a system to track and disseminate federally sponsored educational research. However, the scope was quickly enlarged using the 1867 legislation creating the OE and mandating the diffusion of information relative to the organization and management of schools and school systems, methods of teaching, and promotion of the cause of education (Divisional Committee 1960).

ERIC abstracts and indexes journal articles, research reports, conference papers, evaluation studies, state and local reports, instructional materials, teaching guides, monographs, statistical summaries, handbooks, manuals, measurement devices, tests, bibliographies, and other materials of interest. Significantly, an early ERIC decision to include what was called "fugitive" literature, obscure materials which did not exist in the conventional bound and published form, was of major importance in providing access to a wealth of materials representing "cutting edge," preliminary, and/or emerging research, trends, innovative ideas, and issues.

The disparate fields involved in historic preservation occasion problems similar to those confronted by ERIC. Even though all ERIC informational resources relate to education, specialized areas within the field are represented by clearinghouses operated by either an educational institutional or a government entity. A similar structure could benefit historic preservationists. A wide variety of practitioners--scholars, federal managers, architects, scientists, and craftsmen--require data for projects. The preservation of prehistoric and historic cultural resources depends on the use of records, technical information, and other historical information existing in diverse formats and located in a variety of places. Often these materials are obscure and represent a large body of resources commonly referred to as "grey literature." New technologies are providing an impetus for the development of electronic databases, and the academic community is expanding services in these areas. Governmental agencies, educational institutions, and other entities continue to place relevant gopher servers and listservs on the Internet. However, a comprehensive effort to provide standardization of and widespread access to these databases is not underway.

2. Indexing, abstracting, reporting, and storing of materials. The vocabulary and indexing terms used in the humanities, with the exception of names of people and works, are described as vague and imprecise (Wiberley 1988). Bates, Wilde, and Siegfried (1993) urged that more attention be given to the humanities in developing distinctions between disciplines in relation to subject literature, vocabulary, and indexing strategies. Case (1991, 79) also emphasized that historians are not well served by present classification and indexing systems and that a problem-oriented model of knowledge may be more useful. In a survey (Jarred and Henderson 1994, 276-277) of historic preservationists, fifty percent of the respondents indicated that inadequate indexing was a major frustration in locating information . Michelson (1987, 194) stated that "extreme inconsistency in describing materials presents the key problem facing archival reference."

In the development of ERIC, a preliminary proposal (Kent 1962) submitted to ERIC offered to study the concept of an information system and provide thesaural, indexing, abstracting, and other operational guidelines. In 1964 ERIC reported that a major task was the design, maintenance, and evaluation of a classification system to process information. Because the Office of Education, various universities, and commercial contractors were involved in indexing and abstracting, a decision was made to choose a versatile taxonomy accommodating research literature of all types and in all subject areas. Later ERIC moved toward the "development of a centralized process for indexing and abstracting this literature" (Trester 1979, 17). This was also the first indication that ERIC might become competitive with Education Index.

Initial guidelines for indexing activities, a form for preparing abstracts, and a document for the development of a thesaurus were developed. Trester (1979, 203) described the development of a thesaurus, word list, as the sine qua non or key to an information system. Becker and Hayes (1963, 38) expressed similar sentiments:

"To develop a classification scheme that will meet the needs of all potential users in any given organization is exceedingly difficult if not impossible. It is noteworthty that no two such specialists, even when working together in precisely the same field, can come to 100% agreement on how their data should be categorized." A manual outlining vocabulary philosophy, thesaural principles, and step-by-step-procedures developed by the Executive Committee became a major contribution to bibliographic control of the literature.

In the case of historic preservation, increasing access to online information and the proliferation of electronic publishing exacerbates the need for accurate descriptors. Dooley (1992, 344) stressed that integration of archival materials into online catalogs provides a new urgency to direct subject access. Both the Working Group on Standards for Archival Description (Working Group 1989) and the Canadian Working Group on Archival Descriptive Standards (Bureau 1985, 14) recommended that "access to the content of archival holdings is dependent upon detailed subject indexing." However, Bearman (1989, 288) concluded that consistent subject indexing of archival materials is unattainable. The Art and Architecture Thesaurus, an operating activity of the J. Paul Getty Trust Art History Information Program, is widely used in indexing and abstracting preservation resources. Other thesauri and subject heading lists, such as Library of Congress Subject Headings and Form Terms for Archival and Manuscript Control, are also employed for this purpose. Nevertheless, differences in vocabulary within the disparate areas encompassed by historic preservation still must be accommodated. Advances in online support for bibliographic file maintenance and authority control provide some solutions. For example, the UTLAS Catalogue Support System (CATSS), originally designed as a cataloging system for the University of Toronto Libraries, links logically separate authority files to headings in individual bibliographic databases and provides support for technical processing (Mandel 1987, 43). Additionally, advancements in the fields of linguistics and natural language make automatic abstracting a promising and developing research area (Morris 1991, 719).

3. Retrieval of information on request. The ERIC Clearinghouse on Information and Technology operates AskERIC. Targeted primarily to K-12 educators, AskERIC responds to anyone with a question about learning, teaching, information technology, or educational administration. An average of 250 electronic mail inquiries are received weekly. Using the extensive resources of the ERIC system plus comprehensive knowledge of other resources available on the Internet, information specialists respond with an e-mail answer within 48 hours. Also, a growing file of full-text resources, AskERIC Electronic Library, is available on the ftp/gopher site. This resource receives approximately 15,000 visits per week. ERIC Clearinghouses also locate and provide requested information in specialty areas. In addition, ACCESS ERIC, the System's outreach component, addressed more than 1,200 requests per month during 1993. Most inquiries come through a toll- free line (Brandhorst 1994,175-179). In a 1994 survey (Jarred and Henderson, 275), preservationists reported that they need information most often for projects or reports and that documentary research conducted at the outset of a project helps define the approach and focus of the preservation effort. Significantly, this same group stated that they lack access to resources, familiarity with electronic databases, and connections to electronic networks. These factors indicate the importance of time and deadlines which necessitate an immediate source for retrieval of information. Commercial vendors are providing information on request. Presently, these services are limited, expensive, usually confined to trade literature, and do not adequately address the specialized needs of the preservation community.

4. Dissemination of information. In 1986 the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment recognized, "The preservation community needs a variety of information on preservation technologies and sources of expertise, delivered expeditiously" (U.S. Congress 1986,116). Numerous ERIC units are involved in disseminating educational information. The various clearinghouses, for example, are responsible for dispersing knowledge about a specific aspect or subject area (Krekeler 1989, 7). These include such designations as Adult, Career, and Vocational Education; Counseling and Student Services; Educational Management; Elementary and Early Childhood Education; Disabilities and Gifted Education; and Higher Education. Preservation is also a field that could be logically divided into subject-specific areas such as archaeological sites and structures, historic structures, underwater archaeology and maritime preservation, planned landscapes, prehistoric and historic sites, materials preservation, and numerous others. Decentralized units already concentrating on designated aspects of preservation could be contracted or new ones created to spread preservation information about their assigned specialty in ways analogous to those of ERIC.

ERIC support units also function in the arena of information dissemination. ACCESS ERIC distributes products and services by advertising; issuing press releases; maintaining mailing lists; producing brochures, directories, and newsletters; and publishing the ERIC Review. The ERIC Document Reproduction Service propagates knowledge by producing and selling paper and microfiche copies of educational documents. ERIC Partners, a variety of cooperating organizations, also assist in distributing products to their constituents (Thomas 1991, 9-13).

In recent years ERIC moved to heavy use of electronic communication. Examples include network access to the ERIC database and AskERIC. Also, ACCESS ERIC provides outreach to other online services such as America Online, GTE Education Services, and America Tomorrow. Each ERIC component utilizes the Internet to respond to user requests by e-mail, and the various clearinghouses also employ the electronic information infrastructure for information dissemination (ERIC 1992,15-17). Similarly, the field of historic preservation has numerous Internet gophers, World Wide Web servers, listservs, news groups, fulltext databases, and index and citation databases, as well as online fee-based services such as AIA-Online and Canadian Heritage Information Network; however, they all operate independently and provide little or no connections to each other. Current technologies decrease the need for consolidation of resources but concurrently heighten the criticality of both facility of access and document delivery.

5. Preparation of alerting publications and trend studies. A major objective of ERIC is to inject information about developments, research results, and exemplary programs into educational planning, policymaking, and implementation. The field of historic preservation needs an information system that will accomplish the same goal; it also requires one that will unearth information on techniques and processes that may be buried in personal or agency files or collections of historic documents. In pursuit of this mission, ERIC develops and distributes an extensive and varied range of publications, each designed for a target audience which originally consisted of parents, teachers, or researchers. During the 1986-87 redesign the group was expanded to include policymakers, journalists, practitioners, and the general public (Bencivenga 1987, 11-12). Examination of ERIC publication types reveals: (1) digests, two-page documents summarizing knowledge or specific topics; (2) monographs/reports, lengthy items of 30 pages or more, synthesizing research, featuring recent studies and their implications, or dissecting trends and issues; (3) searches and annotated bibliographies directing users to specific documents on materials or specific areas; directories and sources guides, compilations guiding users to primary sources of information, service institutions or associations, or exemplary programs and practices; and (4) systemwide publications, brochures, newsletters, fact sheets, and booklets introducing individuals and organizations to the resources of ERIC (ERIC Annual Report 1992, 31-32). Needless to say, most of these publication formats are also appropriate for historic conservation.

6. Rendering of Technical and Consultative Services. In 1982 Hoover observed, "ERIC offers to provide technical assistance to organizations, such as State education agencies, interested in developing files compatible with ERIC" (Hoover 1982, 8). Four years later the U.S. Office of Technology Assessment cited " the application of computer technology to historic preservation information needs." Among the obstructions enumerated were "lack of computer networks for historic preservation" and "lack of communication and coordination among database designers, leading to duplication of effort" (U.S. Congress 1986, 115). Compatibility between databases is no longer a major issue due to software and hardware advancements. One wonders where information services in preservation would be today if some entity had provided visionary leadership through cooperation and coordination. Duplicated efforts could have been avoided, and technical and consultative services could now be in place.


In summary, the ERIC information system has proven itself effective over a period of more than thirty years. Its notable strengths include: a decentralized structure, communication with a varied audience, the diversity of its database, use of emerging technologies, and a flexibility that accommodates changing times. In addition, ERIC is now gaining an international aspect as it processes and disseminates information from a worldwide educational community.

Preservation information, like that of education, is useful to numerous sectors of society; and its relevance crosses national boundaries. Although each field has its own problems and peculiarities, enough commonalities exist to recommend that ERIC be adopted as a model for development of a partnership connecting historic preservationists.


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