Preserving the Digital Heritage of Mankind

We haven’t discussed the joint US/UK Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access which last week published its final report titled “Sustainable Economics for a Digital Planet: Ensuring Long-Term Access to Digital Information”.

This is the most sustained attempt to deal with the long-term problem of data deluge to ensure that researchers and scholars in the future can access our knowledge heritage in the same way that can now be done at the Bodleian or the Library of Congress.

The size of our stock of digital knowledge doubles in less than two years. This is a daunting problem that needs coherent thinking.

An elegant paper for the ACM by task force member Dr. Fran Berman, director of the San Diego Supercomputer Center defined the issues a couple of years ago.

An op-ed for the Washington Post (Saving Our Digital Heritage
Barksdale, J., Berman, F.; The Washington Post, May 16, 2007; Page A15) summarized the problem through real examples:

An estimated 44 percent of Web sites that existed in 1998
vanished without a trace within just one year. The average life
span of a Web site is only 44 to 75 days. The gadgets that inform
our lives — cellphones, computers, iPods, DVDs, memory cards —
are filled with digital content. Yet the lifetime of these media is
discouragingly short. Data on 5 1/4 -inch floppies may already be
lost forever; this format, so pervasive only a decade ago, can’t be
read by the latest generation of computers. Changing file and
hardware formats, or computer viruses and hard-drive crashes,
can render years of creativity inaccessible.

The Task Force is drawn from academia, research libraries, and government. It focused 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.

Organizational Actions

* 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

Technical Actions

* 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, hand-off 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 Stakeholders

The recommendations focus on 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

The Report has prompted a sold-out symposium on April 1, entitled A National Conversation on the Economic Sustainability of Digital Information , which we can only hope is broadcast – or at least preserved.

For those of us in the law, AALL has been working diligently in the area of preserving the legal information space through the Legal Information Preservation Alliance, whose strategic objectives are set out here. There is an important pilot project here.

OUP is conducting a survey this month here.

Here are some of the key Blue Ribbon Task Force papers

Sustainable Economics for a Digital Planet
Ensuring Long-Term Access to Digital Information

Final Report of the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access
February 2010

Blue Ribbon Task Force Interim Report
Sustaining the Digital Investment: Issues and Challenges of Economically Sustainable Digital Preservation, December 2008.

A Selective Literature Review on Digital Preservation Sustainability
Eakin, Friedlander, Schonfeld, Choudhury; December 2008.

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