Thursday, May 14, 2009

Libraries choosing to end preservation programs

I attended our User Group meeting last week and one of the programs was a panel presentation on preservation that I had organized. It was well attended and, of course, for both the panelists and me, this was very gratifying. After the presentation, Sandy Card from the State University of New York in Binghamton approached me and said, “Any credible library has a print preservation program. If they do, then why would they not have a digital preservation program?” She went on to point out that digital is part of a continuum and should not be considered a special and foreign entity entirely separate from print.

I have to admit, it’s a great question. Unfortunately, the reality is not so great. It is a bit shocking and depressing how many libraries have yet to start on any kind of digital preservation program and thus my reason for the headline on this post. If your library is not underway in planning and running a digital preservation program, your library has chosen to end its preservation program.

Why are so many libraries apparently choosing this alternative? Many find the complexity of the problem overwhelming. There are a myriad of issues and complicating factors including technical and legal, not to mention the need to plan for preservation, generate sustainable business models and find ways to fund the cost. Yet the reality is that enough libraries have started down this pathway that there is a lot of information now available to help libraries through this process and to solve these problems. Answers are being found or developed. There are conferences, blogs, wikis and numerous online resources that will also help (see the list below for a quick set of references).

If you’re totally new to digital preservation and want to get started and have a bit of a chuckle while learning about digital preservation, I highly recommend the video that one of the panelists, Ed Corrado of the State University of New York, Binghamton used at the start of our panel presentation mentioned above. It’ll help you understand what digital preservation is, why you need it and how to get started.

Whether you’re new to digital preservation or not, there are definite steps you, on behalf of your organization, should be undertaking. These include:
  1. Learning about all the new and emerging developments, best-practices, workflows and solutions being developed in this field. Read the references cited below and/or sign up to monitor blog and website feeds on the topic. Attend local seminars and conferences on the subject. Sign up for a training class in digital preservation ( See here for more info.)
  2. Start inventorying the total digital content your organization has, formats, sizes, counts and what is not being preserved in any way shape or form currently (which will become the starting point of your efforts).
  3. Remind colleagues that preservation begins with the start of any new digital initiative in your community. Granted, you may decide that the content may not pass the criteria for being preserved, but the question must be asked.
  4. Start developing the policies and guidelines you’ll use in running a digital preservation program. This can’t be overstated and it was interesting on the panel discussion last week how many times this theme recurred. Develop these early as they’ll set the parameters by which you’ll be able to determine how much you’re going to be responsible for preserving, under what conditions, for how long, etc. All of these are essential to understanding the budget that will be needed.
  5. Finally, a point that is made in the document “Sustaining the Digital Investment” is to be sure your funding authorities understand that preservation isn’t just about ensuring access to content 50-100 years from now, it is about ensuring access to content 3-5 years from today. (If you own 3” floppy disks, you know what we’re talking about here).
The bottom line reality is this: due to the lack of active, sustainable digital preservation programs, we are losing access to valuable and important cultural information, right now, today. As librarians and archivists, if we allow this to happen, we are falling down on the job. If we don’t reverse this trend quickly, the gap in the human record is going to be large and unrecoverable and the headline at the start of this post will be proven to have been true.

Selected References:
  1. Sustaining the Digital Investment; Issues and Challenges of Economically Sustainable Digital Preservation. December 2008.
  2. The Preservation of Digital Materials; A Library Technology Report. February/March 2008 issue.
  3. Digital Preservation Management; Implementing short-term strategies for long term problems.
  4. The ESPIDA Project.
  5. The SUN sponsored Preservation and Archiving Special Interest Group (PASIG).
  6. The Ex Libris Digital Preservation System (Rosetta).