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Issues in Science and Technology Librarianship
Spring 2006 Supplement

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Preserving the Past for the Future: The Importance of Archival Information in Forestry

Roger Mills
Bio- and Environmental Sciences Librarian and Manager
Oxford Forest Information Service
Oxford University Library Services, Plant Sciences Library


Trees include some of the longest-lived organisms on Earth and gathering comprehensive data about them may take decades or even centuries. The long-standing problems of identifying, preserving and making accessible printed or hand-written information, which will be of use to future generations, have now been joined by new challenges in the handling of electronic and multimedia sources, in often short-lived formats and in overwhelming volume. This paper reviews some of the initiatives at local, national and international level, which are seeking to support sustainable forest management through sustainable management of information, illustrating with a case study of the century-old Oxford Forest Information Service.


The vital role of trees and forests in the maintenance of a stable global environment is now recognized at the highest intergovernmental levels and is studied in thousands of universities and research institutes worldwide, in disciplines ranging from forest and plant sciences, taxonomy, climatology, environmental change, geography, ecology, earth sciences, biochemistry and medicine and through development studies and economics to social sciences and law. The data needed for this research cover a similarly wide range and very long time-scales; many tree species have life-spans covering several human generations and records, which may be centuries old, may prove vital to our understanding of forests and the development of sustainable management practices.

The Problem

The importance of maintaining long time-series of data to permit reliable modeling is increasingly recognized. It was, for example, highlighted in Ariel Lugo's keynote address to the 2005 IUFRO World Congress (Lugo 2005), where he demonstrated that the loss of even short periods of data on environmental conditions could significantly change the conclusions on best practice for sustainable forest management in a given area. In general, we have far too little historical data and can certainly ill afford to lose what we have. Unfortunately much has already gone. For example, field trials are a source of much valuable data but have often been interrupted by commercial pressures, political change, war or social unrest, and organizations holding the data collected have closed or been subsumed within others, sometimes geographically remote. Often of colonial origin, records of experiments may have found their way to governmental records offices 'back home' rather than to scientific establishments, and if retained, scattered by political or geographical area rather than collocated by common subject matter; or simply discarded without recognition of their potential importance. Many records will have been produced originally in tropical areas, perhaps hand-written on poor quality paper with no thought of long-term preservation in mind, and may have disintegrated or suffered irreparable damage from pests, water, light, etc. Thus the task of attempting to track down all data ever gathered in a particular area or on a particular species, while perhaps an agreeable challenge for the historian, tends to form an insuperable barrier for the forest scientist.

The problem was recognized by the International Union of Forest Research Organizations [IUFRO] as long ago as 1906. IUFRO formed an International Committee on Forest Bibliography that agreed it would use the 'bibliographical system of Melvil Dewey', and that a permanent secretariat of forest bibliography should be established in Switzerland at the Swiss Federal Institute of Forest Research (IUFRO 1936). Literature from 1750 to 1900 was to be recorded in a published book, and literature from 1900 on was to be recorded in a card catalogue, with additions published in a 'quarterly magazine'. The First World War put paid to these plans but, in the UK, the government set up the Imperial Forestry Institute [IFI] in 1924 to serve as a central training school and information centre for the British Imperial Forestry Service [IFS], where the growing flood of reports and plans could be deposited and indexed (IFI 1925). Based at the School of Forestry at Oxford University and using its library (originally founded in 1905), the IFI began producing a card catalogue and subsequently a printed subject index to its collections in 1934. This Current monthly record of forestry literature (IFI 1934) was distributed throughout the IFS and was an immediate success, but unsustainable by the then 1.5 library staff. The University, with IUFRO's support, approached the abstracting organisation Imperial Agricultural Bureaux [IAB], which at that time was setting up abstracting units covering different agricultural topics at centres of excellence across the UK. IAB agreed to set up the Imperial Forestry Bureau [IFB] in Oxford in 1938. It took over the Current Monthly Record, adding abstracts and changing the name to Forestry Abstracts in 1939 (IFB 1939). Forestry Abstracts continues to this day, now containing over half a million abstracts covering every item in the Oxford forestry collection, and available world-wide in web (Forest Science Database) and CD versions.

Evolving Solutions

Although IUFRO's idea of an international clearing house was never formally implemented, the IFI/IFB collaboration effectively provided the necessary infrastructure, and in the 1950's, IUFRO approved a resolution that 'authors should generally send a copy of their work to Forestry Abstracts' for subsequent deposit in the IFI library. By and large the forestry community is aware of the importance of information and has supported this resolution, and to this day, the majority of forestry material abstracted by CAB nternational (as IAB became) and deposited at Oxford is supplied free. Even so, there are significant costs in cataloguing, maintaining and making available a collection of this size, leading to regular reassessments of its usefulness, purpose and relevance to Oxford University. The first came in the 1960's when the library became completely full. To continue to allow the collection to grow in the same space, a major microfilming programme was planned, but the University could not fund it. With the strong support of an 'external' user, Frank Wadsworth, noted forest scientist in the USDA Forest Service, funds were obtained from the Ford Foundation, which allowed about one-third of the collection to be microfilmed in the mid-60's. Microfilming continued until the mid-90's, and is now succeeded by the Oxford Digital Library for Forestry [ODLF], due to launch in 2006 and making a small but growing selection of the library's holdings readily available in full text on the web.

Threats from Institutional Change

In the 1980's, undergraduate teaching in forestry at Oxford was absorbed first into agricultural science and then general biology, and the former separate departments of forestry, botany and agriculture merged to form a new Department of Plant Sciences, with the Oxford Forestry Institute as a section within it. The three libraries were merged into the space occupied by two; fortunately, in the extensive programme of weeding and de-duplication that followed, it proved possible to retain all abstracted forestry material within the space available. In 1987, CAB International (CABI) moved its abstracting operation from Oxford to new headquarters some ten miles way at Wallingford, and the continuation of the relationship with the University came into question. After extensive negotiations at the highest level in both bodies, it was agreed that all operations should continue as before with abstracted material deposited at Oxford. Forestry was the only subject area in CABI's portfolio where such arrangements were made, due undoubtedly to the world-wide knowledge of the collections and support from their users.

Happily after those doubtful days, the CABI/Oxford relationship has continued to flourish. However, the loss of undergraduate teaching and the closure of the Department of Forestry led to rather negative press coverage - 'Oxford Fells Forestry' said The Times (Geddes 1981), memorably though inaccurately - with far-reaching effects. This publicity, coupled with the creation of the Plant Sciences Library, which although offering all the collections and services of its forestry predecessor, did not have 'forestry' in its name, led to widespread rumour that Oxford was no longer interested in forestry and its library was closed. To this day we still find people who thought we shut down in 1985. As a library dependent on voluntary deposit, this could have dealt a fatal blow, parried only by long campaigns to contact existing suppliers to assure them of our continuing interest and to encourage researchers and, particularly, IUFRO members, to spread the word on their travels.

Computerisation of services in the late 1980's and 90's provided opportunities to offer traineeships and short courses, contribute to external conferences and courses in forest information, and undertake consultancies, particularly in developing countries. Gradually the word began to spread that trees still mattered in Oxford. By 1995, following no less than three external reviews, all of which concluded that the collections were of international importance but failed to identify any long-term funding solutions, the library was re-launched in refurbished accommodations with additional staff. All seemed plain sailing - for just under one year! New formulae for distributing funds to University departments resulted in a severe shortfall for Plant Sciences, and it became clear that its traditional support of library services could no longer be afforded. By 2000 the staff of 8 was reduced to 2.5 with further reductions planned, and the cessation of all external services was seriously mooted. Fortunately, this was also the year of a complete re-organisation of University library services, bringing most of the main collections under a single management for the first time, with a new Director. After somewhat last-minute discussion by the University's governing body, control of the Plant Sciences Library was transferred to the new Oxford University Library Services [OULS] in November 2000. At the same time, the new name Oxford Forest Information Service [OFIS] was adopted for the library's forestry-related activities, and a new agreement signed with CAB International to keep all existing collaborative activities going and expand into new ones, including training and digitisation.

This case study of Oxford's experiences is very typical of other institutions in our subject area. Many organisations have undergone mergers, changes of name, role, ownership or location in the past decade, often moving to commercial rather than government funding sources. Library collections have often been fragmented or disposed of, and information services 'privatised', available only to subscribers. This picture is not entirely bleak; many more resources are available electronically and much previously 'hidden' data revealed. However, printed records have undoubtedly been lost and, equally importantly, 'corporate memory' of the organisations as information staff have gone, taking with them knowledge of whose desk might contain useful unpublished data of continuing relevance. Ironically, many of these organisations have now set up 'knowledge management' regimes to try to prevent this happening again; but the historical record has often gone for good.

Present and Future

Today, part of Oxford's role is to support endangered collections, and, where possible, incorporate unique material which would otherwise be lost into its own collections. In recent years, this material has included items from the former collections of the Princes Risborough [Forest Products] Laboratory, the Commonwealth Development Corporation and the Building Research Establishment in the UK. In 2006, the UK Department for International Development [DfID] will close its 40-year old Forest Research Programme, whose entire archive is being transferred to Oxford for long-term preservation. This is possible only because of the development by the university of a new 8.5million volume depository, a fully-automated off-site facility which, when complete in 2007, will provide permanent storage for lower-use material, with a rapid retrieval system linked to the university catalogue, allowing delivery to the central Oxford reading rooms within 2 hours. Such large-scale projects are one of the benefits of newly centralised management in a traditionally de-centralised university, where the policy is now to bring all collections together in fewer buildings, but retain specialist services appropriate to their diverse user communities; OFIS is one such example.

Internationally, the trend to amalgamation has made it increasingly difficult to locate forestry collections and staff. IUFRO has a new online International Directory of Forest Information Services, aiming to facilitate contact between staff and encourage sharing of professional expertise, so that subject knowledge does not decline as responsibilities widen. The long established US Council on Botanical and Horticultural Libraries [CBHL] and its now 10-year old counterpart European Botanical and Horticultural Libraries [EBHL] have been very successful in creating informal networks for problem-solving, and within IUFRO we hope to emulate this in Europe with the fledgling group Forestry Libraries and Information Services in Europe [FORELISE]. Certainly, e-mail and the web have made personal contact very much easier and this must be the basis of successful information management in the future.

Building on this, the new Global Forest Information Service [GFIS], an initiative first mooted at the 1992 UN Conference on Environment and Development in Rio, with a prototype developed by IUFRO and now supported by the Collaborative Partnership on Forests [CPF], aims to create a network of people and systems to permit information resource discovery from a wide variety of sources and of data types (statistical, geospatial, image, print etc). Although still in its early days, over 45 major information providers, including Oxford University and CABI, have signed Memoranda of Understanding with GFIS to supply data to the system, and in Africa considerable strides have been made in identifying and cataloguing valuable resources hitherto only available locally.


Great challenges lie ahead in providing secure repositories of catalogued materials in every country, including 'digital-born' material for which, as yet, no standard procedures for archiving are in place. There is a growing public recognition of the need for action, and in 2005 the BBC broadcast a number of features highlighting the difficulties caused by rapidly changing technologies (BBC 2005). Plans for a national electronic archive at the British Library are in development with the extension of legal deposit legislation to include non-print materials. An important new cross-sectoral initiative, the Research Information Network, promises to provide a forum where such issues can be addressed by subject, looking at national needs rather than individual sectors; this is particularly important in forestry where relevant data is held by universities, government departments, research institutes, learned societies etc., all with different objectives and funding streams. A report prepared by OFIS for DfID summarized some of the many opportunities for developing a more robust approach to the long-term management of forest-related information [Mills 2006].

The Oxford Forest Information Service is, despite many vicissitudes, still very much alive, and celebrated its centenary in 2005. However, living is invariably fatal, and we can only hope to ensure information immortality through collaboration and co-operation, involving all who provide information on trees in a global network. The future of forests, and thus the future of our own species, may well depend upon it!

Further information

CAB International (CABI). [Online]. Available: [May 23, 2006].

CBHL. [Online]. Available: [May 23, 2006].

Collaborative Partnership on Forests (CPF). [Online]. Available: {} [May 23, 2006].

EBHL. [Online]. Available: {<} [May 23, 2006].

Forest Science Database. [Online]. Available: [May 23, 2006].

Global Forest Information Service (GFIS). [Online]. Available: [June 19, 2006].

International Directory of Forest Information Services. [Online]. Available: {} [May 23, 2006].

IUFRO. [Online]. Available: [May 23, 2006].

Oxford University Library Services, Oxford Forest Information Service. [Online]. Available: {} [May 23, 2006].

Research Information Network. [Online]. Available: [May 23, 2006].

UK Legal Deposit Libraries Act 2003. [Online]. Available: [May 23, 2006].

UK national electronic archive. [Online]. Available: [May 23, 2006].


BBC. 2005. Newsnight, Digital time warp, transmitted 8 Nov 2005.

Geddes, D. 1981. Oxford's forestry felled. The Times, Wednesday, Dec 02, 1981; pg. 4; Issue 61097; col H.

IFB. 1939. Forestry Abstracts. Oxford: Imperial Forestry Bureau, 1939-

IFI. 1925. Annual Report (University of Oxford. Imperial Forestry Institute). Oxford:Imperial Forestry Institute, 1925-1961.

IFI. 1934. Current Monthly Record of Forestry Literature. Oxford: Imperial Forestry Institute, 1934-1938.

IUFRO. 1936. Forest Bibliography with the Index Number 634.9F. An International Decimal Classification on the Basis of Melvil Dewey's System / Adopted on the Recommendation of the International Committee on Forest Bibliography, 1906-1933. Oxford: Imperial Forestry Institute.

Lugo, A. E. 2005. Conservation challenges to tropical forestry. Keynote presentation, XXII IUFRO World Congress, Brisbane.

Mills, R. 2006. Preserving the past for the future: ensuring a sustainable information infrastructure for forest research. Forest Research Programme ZF0206: Feasibility study on costings and mechanisms to be carried out to assist in compliance by DfID with the Government Policy on Archives, knowledge management and Freedom of Information (Act).

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