Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Fate of the Digital Record

The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access, a group launched last year with support from the National Sciences Foundation, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Library of Congress, the Joint Information Systems Committee, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the Council on Library and Information Resources, has released an interim report on its work. The report, Sustaining the Digital Investment: Issues and Challenges of Economically Sustainable Digital Preservation, is available from:

The preface of the report begins with a discussion of “a stable, agreed-upon record,” which consists of the documentation and communications of the methods, evidence, findings, and implications of human inquiry. This record enables advances in research and practice over time. “The practical outcomes of this long historical process and their contributions to the public good are obvious in fields from epidemiology to entertainment.”

“The notion of the record was never confined to explicit publication,” the report points out, and in the digital age “information technologies have revolutionized notions of the record, evidence and analysis.” Materials that are added to the record today “vary in their level of formality and anticipated audience, but the central tendency is obvious: there is more and more heterogeneous digital information of importance to society and in the public good.”

The traditional recordkeeping systems used “in the centuries of analog … are inadequate for the digital age.” Because of the pace of technological change, the proliferation of data and information, and the expanding use of the record, “preserving data for use tomorrow requires decision today” (4). There are significant technical issues, but the greater challenges are organizational and economic. The issue of sustainability comes down to two questions: “How much does it cost? and Who should pay?” (5).

This report is the first of two that the task force will publish. The purpose of this interim report

is to frame the general contours of economically sustainable digital preservation as a topic of both practical importance and intellectual interest. To this end, we have explored and synthesized past studies and analyses pertaining to the economics of digital preservation, the perspectives of domain leaders and subject experts in the field, and discussions within the Task Force. The findings of this report will serve as a basis for the Task Force’s work over the coming year; it should also contribute to the broader discussion of economic issues regarding digital preservation and access.

The task force's second and final report, to be published at the end of 2009, “will identify and analyze a range of economic models suitable for achieving economically sustainable digital preservation activities” (69).

From the executive summary of the interim report:

During 2008, as the Task Force heard testimony from a broad spectrum of institutions and enterprises with deep experience in digital access and preservation, two things became clear: First, the problem is urgent. Access to data tomorrow requires decisions concerning preservation today. Imagine future biological research without a long-term strategy to preserve the Protein Data Bank (PDB), a digital collection that drives new insights into human systems and drug therapies for disease, and represents an investment of 100 billion dollars in research funding over the last 37 years. Decisions about the future of the PDB and other digital reference collections -- how they will be migrated to future information technologies without interruption, what kind of infrastructure will protect their digital content against damage and loss of data, and how such efforts will be supported -- must be made now to drive future innovation.

Second, the difficulty in identifying appropriate economic models is not just a matter of finding funding or setting a price. In many institutions and enterprises, systemic challenges create barriers for sustainable digital access and preservation.

These barriers include:
  • Inadequacy of funding models to address long-term access and preservation needs. Funding models for efforts that incorporate digital access and preservation are often not persistent …
  • Confusion and/or lack of alignment between stakeholders, roles, and responsibilities with respect to digital access and preservation. … costs are not necessarily shouldered by those who enjoy the benefits …”
  • Inadequate institutional, enterprise, and/or community incentives to support the collaboration needed to reinforce sustainable economic models. ... there are few incentives to develop the persistent collaborations and uniform approaches needed to support access and preservation efforts over the long-term.”
  • Complacency that current practices are good enough. … There is general agreement that leadership and competitiveness, if not institutional survival, in the information age depends on the persistent availability of digital information, making preservation of that information an urgent priority. Yet that urgency is often not translated or institutionalized into individual or group behaviors. …”
  • Fear that digital access and preservation is too big to take on. … digital preservation is a big problem, incorporating technical, economic, regulatory, policy, social, and other aspects. But it is not insurmountable. …”

Emphases in bold and italics are in the original report.