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Update on the National Digital Infrastructure Initiative

Laura Campbell

For more than a decade, the Library of Congress (LC) has been trying to build a digital library. We now have more than 7.5 million items of historical significance online and available at no charge to schools and the general public. These materials represent a rich archive of American history, culture, and creativity. In addition, the LC has recently added material from five other countries. We intend to expand this program greatly. We have more than 102 archival collections online, and we will put another 20 collections online in 2002. These collections contain all kinds of new material.

In late 1998, the LC was thinking about the future. Were we ready to be in the digital business and to serve customers with new and different services? As part of that process, we brought together program managers from across the Library, which consists of the Copyright Office, the Congressional Research Service, the National Library Service Program, and the Law Library. We asked questions about how those managers saw their business changing. What kinds of programs and services did they envision for their customers in the future? Was the Library ready to stand up to the digital challenge of the twenty-first century?

Out of that process came a five-year plan that we presented to Congress in fiscal year 2000. The plan asked for $21.3 million to extend content, to enhance our infrastructure-our technology backbone-to build the components of a repository to house this material, to increase online access services (including digital reference services), and to continue our work with teachers online. Congress gave us about a third of what we asked for, but said, “Come back next year, and we will try to make you whole.” We are now three years into that five-year plan, and the Congress has honored its commitment to provide what we originally requested.

Our focus has been sharpened and our efforts strengthened by the results of a report that had been commissioned in 1998 by Dr. James H. Billington, the Librarian of Congress. For that study, the National Research Council and the National Academy of Sciences assembled experts in the archival and information technology communities and the scholarly community to investigate whether the Library was well positioned to take on the digital task in the twenty-first century. That report, delivered in August 2000, was constructively critical about things we needed to pay attention to and the kinds of programs and activities we needed to put into place to learn from the broader community: digital content creators, distributors, and users-stakeholders with whom we had not traditionally dealt.

In the fall of 2000, representatives of the LC, along with Ken Thibodeau from the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), presented a briefing to Congress. Supported by our five-year plan, the results of the National Research Council study, and our partnership with NARA, the Library was able to convince the Congress to authorize a $100-million special appropriation to be used to collaborate with the Department of Commerce, the National Archives, the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, the other two national libraries (Agriculture and Medicine), the content community, the archival community, and the research community, as well as the technology community, to create a national strategy to collect, archive, and preserve digital content.

That legislation provides $5 million immediately for creating a master plan and $20 million contingent on approval of another plan that is targeted for submission late in 2002 to five congressional committees. As much as $75 million more may become available if it is matched, dollar for dollar, from non-federal sources. Thus, if the Library raises $75 million from private sources, Congress will also provide $75 million, bringing the total to $175 million. This match may be in-kind contributions or donations of services as well as cash. We believe that the matching component is most likely going to come from partnerships developed in the next phase of this effort to test potential models and options for long-term preservation.

The Big Picture: A Three-Phase Plan

Our plan has three phases. They are

  • a preliminary phase, just described, resulting in a master plan to request Congress to approve the release of funds for investment in the broader community to test various approaches to the national strategy
  • development of partnerships with the archival community and the content distributor/creator community
  • a major effort to test and evaluate those partnerships and models that will enable the LC to go back to Congress in five to seven years to talk about the most sustainable options for long-term preservation

Our preliminary steps have included establishing a 26-member National Digital Library Advisory Board to which Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) President Deanna Marcum is a consultant. CLIR is helping us facilitate and work with the board, which is made up of many of the people cited in the legislation as well as experts in technology and publishing and people from the creator and distributor communities.

The board members have helped us develop ways to learn from this diverse stakeholder community and talk about the barriers to long-term preservation from their perspective. We have done a number of things to bring this group together, including coordinating with other federal agencies on a national research initiative. We have also undertaken systematic surveys and have examined other technical repository and preservation efforts, both domestic and international.

To organize our stakeholder community, we commissioned with CLIR six “environmental scans” of digital video, television, music, the Web, e-journals, and e-books. The results are available in print and on the Web (CLIR and LC 2002). Those scans, as well as about 20 confidential interviews with key members of various industry groups, helped us prepare for “convening sessions” conducted in the fall of 2001 in Washington, D.C. We held three two-day workshops that were identical in format, although very different in terms of discussion, to ask basic questions about barriers to the creation of a national strategy for long-term preservation.

These sessions helped us set priorities. Participants agreed about the need for a national preservation strategy. People from industry were receptive to the idea that the public good, as well as their own interests, would be served by coming together to think about long-term preservation. They also agreed on the need for some form of distributor-decentralized solution. Like others, they realize that no library can tackle the digital preservation challenge alone. Many parties will need to come together. Participants agreed about the need for digital preservation research, a clearer agenda, a better focus, and a greater appreciation that technology is not necessarily the prime focus. The big challenge might be organizational architecture, i.e., roles and responsibilities. Who is going to do what? How will we reach agreement?

Intellectual Property Remains a Concern

Other priorities were intellectual property and digital rights management. Defining the scope is likewise a concern: What is to be preserved, by whom, and at what level?

There are those who argue for “dark” archives; others are in favor of completely open access. Obviously, we have to strike a balance between preservation and access.

There are no widely used economic models for sustaining long-term preservation. Who is going to pay? Is preservation solely a government responsibility? Are there other ways to think about the economics of long-term preservation? Who will be the users?

We took the information from those sessions and created an agenda for what we call “scenario planning and analysis.” This activity will be conducted by people who are skilled in looking at the future and the forces that may affect preservation, including such great uncertainties as government regulation.

Working with representatives of the Global Business Network, we created an agenda to bring before yet another group of industry experts. We talked about a timeframe of roughly 10 years. (It did not seem useful to go farther because we are struggling with what even the next three to five years might look like.) We talked about three possible scenarios: a “universal” library that collects everything, a library that is more selective, and a highly selective “world’s-best” library.

Our planning with industry representatives has created a sense of urgency. We call it the “just do it” approach; its aim is to start collecting things before they are lost forever.

There was also a great emphasis on the need for distributed network technical architectures. In our first scenario-planning workshop, held in February 2002, we assembled a small group of technical experts who developed a hypothetical layered technical architecture. In the next step, we will think about how to fit into this architecture the functions and services that would be performed on a national level.

What Will People Take on Next?

We have tried to create a shared responsibility among the communities. What are people willing to take on next in planning? One of the initiatives has great momentum. Margaret Hedstrom, from the University of Michigan, Donald Waters, from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, and a number of other people have made it possible for us to bring together, working with the National Science Foundation, some 50 experts from 15 federal agencies and the private research laboratory, technology, and computer science communities. This group is shaping a focused agenda on digital preservation, leveraging our collective resources, and bringing together funding from various agencies to put digital preservation research within a framework that can serve many of us, not just some of us.

That effort led to a number of informal meetings and to a formal workshop that was held in Washington, D.C., in April 2002. It was a good beginning: the executive branch of the government was represented by individuals from the Central Intelligence Agency and the Department of Defense; the LC represented the legislative branch. Also attending were representatives from other national libraries, the scientific community, and the library community. Margaret Hedstrom is the principal investigator. We will end up with a call for proposals this fall and, we hope, provide funding to the best initiatives.

As part of our early planning, we have developed a conceptual framework to think about the components-the political, economic, social, legal, technical, and organizational concerns-that need to be considered in a national strategy. Information about this framework is available on our Web site, referenced below. We have also tried to identify a set of critical technical issues on the basis of what we have heard in the surveys and our benchmarking. A summary of this work is also available on our Web site.

Later this year, we hope to incorporate what we have learned from the industries-the roles they are willing to play and issues on which we should be focusing-into our national strategy for preservation. This strategy will include credible scenarios and models based on our sense of who is willing to do what, with whom, and for what purpose. Our goal is to make progress toward a national preservation strategy and a research agenda that are grounded in an investment framework that Congress will understand.

The process will yield a “master plan.” Once the plan has been developed, we will present it to five congressional committees. Our presentation will also include expert testimony. We trust these efforts demonstrate that the LC is being responsible-bringing the right parties together to recommend the areas in which we should invest to meet the national need to preserve material for the future.


All URLs were valid as of July 10, 2002.

Council on Library and Information Resources and Library of Congress. 2002. Building a National Strategy for Digital Preservation: Issues in Digital Media Archiving. Washington, D.C.: Council on Library and Information Resources and Library of Congress. Also available on the Digital Preservation Web site,


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