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CPA Newsletter #90, Jun 1996

Commission on Preservation and Access

The Commission on Preservation and Access


June 1996

Number 90

Final DATF Report Proposes Strategies for Digital Archiving

“Nasty, brutish, and short.”

 [Image of report cover]

Preserving Digital Information, the final report of the Task Force on Archiving of Digital Information, recognizes that these adjectives, borrowed from Hobbes, could characterize the life of digital information unless the creators and custodians of that information exercise responsible stewardship.

The task force conducted an intensive exploration of issues involved in the long-term preservation of digital information and concluded by recommending specific actions that the Commission on Preservation and Access, the Research Libraries Group, Inc. (RLG), and other organizations could undertake to help develop reliable systems for preserving access to digital information. Donald Waters, Yale University, and John Garrett, CyberVillages Corporation, co-chaired the task force.

The Commission and RLG jointly constituted the task force in December 1994 to investigate the means of ensuring continued access indefinitely into the future of records stored in digital electronic form. The Task Force issued a draft report in August 1995 and solicited comments, which have been incorporated into this final version.

Although much work is being done to digitize textual and other analog documents, the task force focused its work on materials already in digital form–that is, those for which no hard copy original exists and which are thus fully vulnerable to media deterioration and technological obsolescence.

A considerable portion of the report–and the section that differs most significantly from the August 1995 draft–explores the nature of “information objects in the digital landscape.” For readers steeped in the analog and largely textual tradition, the careful analysis of the nature of digital information is particularly instructive. It provides a useful tutorial on subtler issues involved in preserving the content, fixity, reference, provenance, and context of digital files. Both the mechanisms for and the costs of migration will be markedly different for complex information objects–such as geographic information systems (GIS), evolving databases such as those created in
the Human Genome Project, and full motion video–than for comparatively simple files of text and data. The analysis makes clear that preservation of digital information is not simply a matter of “refreshing” data or of copying it onto new media or formats, but entails a whole nexus of migration issues if the information is to retain its usefulness.

As in the draft report, the final report recommends creation of a distributed structure for collecting digital information resources, protecting their integrity over the long term and retaining them for future use. This objective would be achieved by developing a national system of digital archives, comprised of some existing libraries and archives, along with corporations, federations and consortia ranging over regional, national and international boundaries.

The task force proposes that there be a system by which digital archives would be independently certified. The report does not advance particular models, but urges interested stakeholders to develop the standards and criteria for certification to assure that a digital archive will provide secure storage and access for the long term. Certified digital archives would have a “fail-safe” mechanism, a safety net to ensure long-term access to at least one instantiation of any valued digital information object, which would give them the legal right to take aggressive steps to save culturally significant digital information at risk of being inadvertently lost or intentionally destroyed.


In addition to the distributed system of digital archives, the task force proposes it may be feasible and cost-effective to develop processing centers that specialize in migration and reformatting of obsolete materials. Such centers, or even a national lab for digital preservation modeled after the National Media Laboratory, might maintain older versions of hardware and software and provide software emulators that would allow users to read and view digital information with the same “look and feel” as the digital original.

The task force concludes that the significant challenges in preserving digital information are not so much organizational or technological as legal and economic. That is, key issues to be explored relate especially to intellectual property rights and the question of who pays for the storage of and access to digital information.

The proposed system of certified digital archives and the analysis of related intellectual property rights are based on the task force’s premise that the U.S. has an important policy goal of ensuring the progress of the arts and sciences. In the absence of legal rights, the report warns, preservation of the nation’s digitally encoded social, economic, cultural and intellectual heritage would likely be overly dependent on marketplace forces rather than on public interest criteria.

The report includes an analysis of the costs of storage and access in digital archives and in traditional depository libraries. It questions the assertion that declining technology costs will make cheap storage and easy access uniquely available in the digital environment.

Among the recommendations:

  • Solicit proposals for a cooperative project to place information objects from the early digital age into trust for use by future generations.
  • Secure funding for proposals to advance digital archives, particularly with respect to removing legal and economic barriers.
  • Foster practical experiments or demonstration projects in the archival application of technologies and services.
  • Coordinate organizations and individuals in the development of standards, criteria and mechanisms for identifying and certifying repositories of digital information as archives.
  • Engage actively in national policy efforts to design and develop the national information infrastructure to ensure that longevity of information is an explicit goal.
  • Sponsor the development of a white paper on the foundations needed in intellectual property law to support the aggressive rescue of endangered digital information.
  • Organize representatives of professional societies in a series of forums designed to elicit creative thinking about the means of creating and financing digital archives of specific bodies of information.
  • Commission follow-on case studies of digital archiving to identify
    current best practices and to benchmark costs:

Preserving Digital Information, Report of the Task Force on Archiving of Digital Information, is available for $15.00 (prepayment required) from the Commission, and on RLG’s web site:

Commission Board Elects Chodorow as New Chairman

Stanley A. Chodorow, Provost of the University of Pennsylvania, will become the new chairman of the Commission. A medieval historian, Chodorow has continued to teach and do research during his tenure as the chief academic officer of the University of Pennsylvania. The Board elected Chodorow at its May 10, 1996, meeting. He joined the Commission in 1995 and will begin his term as chairman in the fall.

Chodorow succeeds Billy E. Frye, who served as chairman since the Commission’s founding and was instrumental in helping shape an agenda for preservation and access as an integral activity of higher education. He will be recognized at the Annual Meeting this fall for his many contributions.

Commission and Council Boards Confirm Merger

The Boards of the Commission and the Council on Library Resources confirmed their plans for an administrative merger at their respective meetings May 10 and April 23, 1996. Citing the success of the affiliation that began one year ago, the two Boards agreed to proceed with the merger and to hold a first cojoint meeting in the fall of 1996. Program activities and initiatives will be continued without change or interruption. Sponsorship of the Commission will continue to support preservation and access activities and programs. 

UNESCO Issues Preservation Guidelines

UNESCO (the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) has taken another step to advance the worldwide preservation effort with the publication of Memory of the World: General Guidelines to Safeguard Documentary Heritage. The document outlines UNESCO’s Memory of the World Programme, established in 1992 to identify and preserve the world’s most significant materials of documentary heritage. The report was prepared in English, with translations in Arabic, Chinese, French, Russian, and Spanish. For background on the Memory of the World Programme, see the July/August 1995 (no. 81) and April 1994 (no. 66) newsletters.

While a significant portion of the Guidelines deals with administrative issues such as organizational structure and nomination procedures, it may also serve as an educational tool, especially in countries where preservation awareness and expertise are not yet widespread. The document calls attention to the wide panoply of issues ranging from environmental control, storage, and handling to binding, reformatting, and conservation. It urges custodians to develop rational plans for preservation management of entire holdings and calls for development of expanded training opportunities, bibliographic and archival control systems, and technical standards.

The Programme views reformatting–and especially digitization–as a key strategy for increasing awareness of and access to significant documentary heritage. Guidelines lauds the “enormous access opportunities provided by digital technologies,” but also notes the anticipated short life expectancies of digital files. A Subcommittee on Technology has been established, and an appendix lists its recommendations for digitization of texts, sound, and still and moving images. The guidelines presume that “digital storage provides the means of preserving the information in an undistorted form for millennia,” and the Subcommittee on Technology recognizes further discussion of its specific recommendations.

Memory of the World: General Guidelines to Safeguard Documentary Heritage is available from UNESCO, Division of the General Information Programme, 1 rue Miollis, 75732 Paris Cedex 15 France.

Update on Seville Project –

The Archivo General de Indias (Seville, Spain) has completed the initial phase of its project to scan 9 to 11 million documents (pages) to form the core of a massive image database for scholarly research. As it moves into the operational phase, the Archivo is confronting issues of maintenance and distribution of the digital files. Staff of the Archivo discussed accomplishments and prospects during a recent visit by Hans Rütimann, Commission International Program Officer.

The Archivo collection includes some 45 million documents and 7,000 maps and blueprints that record Spain’s role in the Americas from the 15th through 19th centuries. From this collection, the Archivo selected for digitization the 10% of its materials that account for 40% of the research use. (For background, see Computerization Project of the Archivo General de Indias, Seville, Spain, by Hans Rütimann and M. Stuart Lynn, published by the Commission in March 1992.)

Project staff used flat-bed scanners to digitize the documents at a resolution of 100 dots per inch. In its next phase, the Archivo will use digital cameras instead of flat-bed scanners to reduce wear and tear on old and fragile items.

Now coming to the fore are issues related to hardware and software obsolescence and the migration of data onto newer platforms. Most obviously, this move is required because of the phase-out of the 5 1/4-inch WORM (Write-Once-Read-Many) disk format. The Archivo’s files are stored on about 7,000 of these disks, and migrating them to CD-ROM may increase significantly the number of disks required. The Archivo also is addressing problems in mapping files from one system to another, particularly when proprietary software has been used.

Currently, the digital files are available only at the Archivo. Various distribution mechanisms–including distribution on CD or through a “mirror site” at which a subset of the files could be mounted–are being discussed in tandem with intellectual property concerns. Charles Faulhaber, Director of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, accompanied Rütimann to discuss possible collaboration.

The Archivo is not alone in grappling with these issues of rapidly changing technology, a paucity of standards, distribution, and intellectual property, but it is further into production than many other organizations. Similar questions are under consideration by the National Digital Library Federation.

The Commission is working to include the Archivo in the filming of Into the Future, the documentary being produced on the management and preservation of information in the electronic environment. For background on the production, see the May 1996 (no. 89) newsletter.


Force on Hispanic Resources Announced The Commission has finalized the membership of the scholarly task force charged to articulate a strategy for identifying and preserving Hispanic materials in the U.S. (For background, see the May 1996 newsletter, No. 89).

The following have accepted appointment:

  • Lynn Ellen Rice Cortina, Project Coordinator, Recovering theU.S. Hispanic Literary Heritage Project, University of Houston
  • Laura Gutiérrez-Witt, Head Librarian, Benson LatinAmerican Collection, General Libraries, University of Texas at Austin
  • (Chair) Nicolás Kanellos, Director, Recovering the U.S.Hispanic Literary Heritage Project, University of Houston
  • Clara A. Lomas, Associate Professor, Department of RomanceLanguages, Colorado College
  • Helvetia Martell, Research Coordinator, Recovering the U.S.Hispanic Literary Heritage Project, University of Houston
  • Nélida Pérez, Director, Centro Library andArchives, Centro de Estudios Puertorriqueños, Hunter College
  • Gerald E. Poyo, O’Connor Chair in Spanish Colonial History ofTexas,
    St. Mary’s University
  • Roberto G. Trujillo, Curator for Mexican, Mexican American, andIberian Collections, Stanford University Libraries

Preservation Display at the Library of Congress

The Commission participated in the first Library of Congress Preservation Awareness Workshop in April 1996, jointly sponsored by the Center for the Book and the Preservation Directorate. The workshop, open to the public and well attended, was a highlight of the Library’s celebration of National Library Week.

The Commission displayed its brittle book exhibit, which dramatizes the problem of crumbling books in a graphic way. An eye-catching exhibit, it drew many comments from attenders, other exhibitors and LC employees on how successfully and frighteningly it presents the dilemmas associated with brittle books. This display can be provided by the Commission for a $100 fee. The fee is waived for Commission sponsors. The requesting organization pays all shipping costs, which normally range from $85 to $100.

Reported by Alex Mathews (
contact for exhibit loans


Planning Task Force Establishes Website In late May, members of the Planning Task Force of the National Digital Library Federation discussed subcommittee final reports that will be presented to the Policy Board this month. The recommendations of the task force will be announced on a new Website established to report on NDLF progress. The Website, developed and maintained by the Library of Congress, can be visited at the following address: For background on this initiative, see the Commission newsletters of March 1996, and of June, July-August, October, and November-December 1995

The Commission distributes this newsletter at no charge to a selective list of 1,600 organizations and individuals around the world. Subscriptions are limited to key constituencies working to preserve and provide enduring access to the historical and cultural heritage.

Commission on Preservation and Access
1400 16th Street, NW, Suite 740
Washington, DC 20036-2217
(202) 939-3400 Fax: (202) 939-3407

The Commission on Preservation and Access was established in 1986 to foster and support collaboration among libraries and allied organizations in order to ensure the preservation of the published and documentary record in all formats and to provide enhanced access to scholarly information.

The Newsletter reports on cooperative national and international preservation activities and is written primarily for university administrators and faculty, library and archives administrators, preservation specialists and administrators, and representatives of consortia, governmental bodies, and other groups sharing in the Commission’s goals. The Newsletter is not copyrighted; its duplication and distribution are encouraged.

Deanna B. Marcum–President
Maxine K. Sitts–Program Officer, Editor

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