"Where are the snows of yesteryear?" the poet once asked. But, more importantly, in the third millennium, "Where is the digital content?" And where will it be in 20 years time or 50 or 100? If we don't start preserving it now, it will vanish and diminish humankind's memory of its past. The technological challenges to long-term retention of digital content are great, but perhaps even greater are the economic and institutional challenges. Defining those challenges and outlining possible solutions, the Blue Ribbon Task Force (BRTF) on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access has published its final report titled "Sustainable Economics for a Digital Planet: Ensuring Long-Term Access to Digital Information" (http://brtf.sdsc.edu/biblio/BRTF_Final_Report.pdf). The 116-page report represents a 2-year effort with the sponsorship and support of the U.S. National Science Foundation, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Library of Congress (LC), the U.K. Joint Information Systems Committee, the Electronic Records Archives Program of the National Archives and Records Administration, and the Council on Library and Information Resources. On April 1, the Task Force will hold a symposium in Washington, D.C., followed by another on May 6 in the U.K.
Most of the 17 members of the Task Force come from academia, research libraries, or government. They focused their attention on four key areas of content-scholarly discourse, research data, commercially owned cultural content (movies, music, etc.), and collectively produced web content (blogs, Flickr, Facebook, Wikipedia, etc.). The report focuses on how to pay for preservation in the long term. It provides general principles and actions, context-specific recommendations tailored to specific scenarios for the four key content categories, and an agenda for priority actions and next steps organized by the type of decision maker deemed best suited.
Dealing with the economics of digital preservation, the report identified three "necessary conditions" for stakeholders: recognizing the value of data in selecting materials for long-term preservation; providing incentives for decision makers; and articulating the roles and responsibilities of data preservationists. The best insurance for preservation will involve demand for access, enough to lead to the perception of content as a digital asset. According to Francine Berman, vice president of research and professor of computer science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and co-chair of the Task Force, "It's about creating a ‘data economy' in which those who care, those who will pay, and those who preserve are working in coordination."
In orienting the study, Brian Lavoie, research scientist at OCLC and Task Force co-chair, says that they "decided to aim primarily at senior decision makers, though that is a vague category. It also should be of interest to people underneath, even day-to-day management. We hope all the readers will gain a broad understanding of the issues and a high-level understanding of major obstacles, the conditions that need to be met to achieve preservation, the obstacles in the path. Our findings and recommendations, we hope, can show how to get around some of those obstacles."
Recommendations by Category
Final recommendations by the Task Force are grouped into four categories:
- Develop public-private partnerships, similar to ones formed by the Library of Congress
- Ensure that organizations have access to skilled personnel, from domain experts to legal and business specialists
- Create and sustain secure chains of stewardship between organizations over the long term
- Achieve economies of scale and scope wherever possible
- Build capacity to support stewardship in all areas
- Lower the costs of preservation overall
- Determine the optimal level of technical curation needed to create a flexible strategy for all types of digital material
Public Policy Actions
- Modify copyright laws to enable digital preservation
- Create incentives and requirements for private entities to preserve on behalf of the public (financial incentives, handoff requirements)
- Sponsor public-private partnerships
- Clarify rights issues associated with web-based materials
Education and Public Outreach Actions
- Promote education and training for 21st-century digital preservation (domain-specific skills, curatorial best practices, core competencies in relevant science, technology, engineering, and mathematics knowledge)
- Raise awareness of the urgency to take timely preservation actions
The report also divides recommendations according to four types of stakeholders and interests:
National and international agencies (trusted international, national, and public institutions, i.e., libraries, archives, museums, research institutes, and consortia)
- Create mechanisms for public/private partnerships to align or reconcile commercial and cultural forms of benefits
- Convene expert communities to address the selection and preservation needs of materials of particular interest to the public for which there is no natural stewardship (web-based materials, digital orphans)
- Take expeditious actions to reform national and international copyright legislation to address digital preservation needs
- Create financial incentives to encourage private entities to preserve digital materials on the public behalf
Funders and sponsors of data creation (private and public agencies and foundations)
- Create preservation mandates when possible, ensuring they adhere to community selection criteria, specifying roles and responsibilities either to individuals or, more appropriately, to institutions
- Invest in building capacity-The need to seed stewardship capacity and to develop sustainable funding models should be a high priority for all funders.
- Provide leadership in training and education for 21st-century preservation
- Fund the modeling and testing of preservation strategies such as options, working out domain-specific understandings of the life cycle to create a timeline of predictable risks, strategies to meet them, and triggering mechanisms to address them
Organizations with a stake in long-term access (universities, research institutions, private companies, third-party archives, professional societies, and trade organizations)
- Secure preservation of high-value institutional materials by making explicit roles and responsibilities across organizational boundaries
- Develop preservation strategies that assign responsibilities for achieving outcomes-Service-level agreements, MOUs with third-party archives should include contingency plans for handoffs; and putting such monitoring systems in place internally.
- Leverage resources and create economies of scope and economies of scale by partnering with related organizations
- Work with domain and preservation experts to ensure that personnel are fully equipped with needed technical skills in selecting and curating materials
Individuals (principal investigators, data creators, individual authors, creators, and scholars)
- Provide nonexclusive rights to preserve content they create in the public domain or distributed on publicly accessible venues
- Partner with preservation experts early in the life cycle of their digital data, to ensure data are ready to hand off to an archive
- Actively participate in professional societies and relevant organizations in the development of stewardship best practices and selection priorities
Look to the Future
As to future plans, Lavoie stated that they hoped the report would serve as a foundation for future research and action. To that end, they have scheduled two symposia to discuss the report, one in Washington, D.C. (which has already sold out-in a day and a half-at 135 seats, according to Lavoie) and the other in the U.K. on May 6 at the Wellcome Collection Conference Centre in London (www.jisc.ac.uk/events/2010/05/brtf.aspx). The U.S. symposium will have representatives from the Executive Office of the President, Google, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and others interested in the issues involved. According to Lavoie, although the event will not be webcast live, they do plan to record the event and make the conference available on the Task Force website (http: brtf.sdsc.edu), probably in the week following the symposium.
Commenting on the report on the NewsLib list, Victoria McCargar, consulting digital archivist, stated:
The task force undertook a thorough examination of the economics of digital preservation (which ain't pretty, even in a good economy) and emerged with some important recommendations, some of which will eventually affect publishers of "cultural content." In my view, this is the beginning of a national infrastructure, with a combination of public, private, and partnership organizations emerging to take in and preserve digital information. The "who's going to do this" is obviously a big one, and this report treats it seriously. "What gets preserved" is another one, and the economics surrounding that question are fascinating.
There also is discussion of rewriting copyright law to include a "right to preserve" that would allow authors to establish a conduit to preservation, and to protect preserving organizations from infringement suits. Also, the BRTF raises the issue of mandates that would require producers (like newspapers) to deposit electronic material of public importance. That, to me, is akin to the carrot/stick preservation model of depositing microfilm and registering copyright with LC.
We're a long way from having any assurance that digital news content won't be lost, but this is a huge step toward a national effort, and one I've been hoping for going on fifteen years.
Though she approves highly of the study, McCargar has some reservations about its impact. "The problem is that when it comes to digital preservation, it's often the same people talking to each other. You get that problem in any insular research space. But the larger taxpaying public that you need to build the infrastructure has problems understanding the problem. Preservation is expensive and difficult in an era where people are drowning in data and seemingly limitless access. It's very counter intuitive. It's a tough sell to the public, but this report shows what it takes, beyond the technology, the funding models."
Interest in the topic does seem to be persistent, if not prevalent. On May 25-26, the Northeast Document Conservation Center will conduct and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Libraries will host The Tectonics of Digital Curation: A Symposium on the Shifting Preservation and Access Landscape at MIT in Cambridge, Mass. For information and registration, go to www.nedcc.org.
And archive solutions are emerging for specific types of content. For example, OCLC is working with law librarians to set up the Legal Information Archive (www.aallnet.org/committee/LIPA). The archive is "a collaborative digital archive established to preserve and ensure permanent access to vital legal information currently published in digital formats. It represents an opportunity for the law library community to use a premium suite of hosted tools and services through resource sharing and a supportive organizational infrastructure all at an affordable, consortial price."
In another development, the Oxford University Press has issued an online survey to librarians asking for their views on digital preservation. "In particular, we would like to know your thoughts on long term preservation of content which you have licensed-how important this is to you, who should assume responsibility, and how should the process be funded." Go to www.surveymonkey.com/s/OUPpreservation.
Sounds familiar. Let's hope that all these efforts can lead to some solutions for the knowledge welfare of our children and our children's children. When asked for his general prediction of where matters would stand in 50 or 100 years, Lavoie was optimistic. "The ability to see into the past will improve. Even in an analog world there are tremendous efforts being made. I see the same in digital materials. One of the major differences between analog and digital preservation is that the digital has less leeway for mistakes and procrastination. You often have to intervene early in the digital life cycle. There's a growing awareness about the problem in general. While we haven't solved all the aspects, we know there is a problem. So down the line, I expect things to get better and better. But what's really neglected and the gap we've tried to fill is economic. If the most elegant technical solution in the world is not sustainable, then it's no solution."