Introduction: The Changing Preservation Landscape

Deanna Marcum

The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) and, later, the Digital Library Federation (DLF) have been exploring the topic of preserving digital information for a long time. Don Waters and John Garrett wrote their landmark report, The Preservation of Digital Information, in 1996. In describing the problem, they wrote

Rapid changes in the means of recording information, in the formats for storage, and in the technologies for use threaten to render the life of information in the digital age as, to borrow a phrase from Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short.”

Today, information technologies that are increasingly powerful and easy to use, especially those that support the World Wide Web, have unleashed the production and distribution of digital information. . . . If we are effectively to preserve for future generations the portion of this rapidly expanding corpus of information in digital form that represents our cultural record, we need to understand the costs of doing so and we need to commit ourselves technically, legally, economically, and organizationally to the full dimensions of the task. Failure to look for trusted means and methods of digital preservation will certainly exact a stiff, long-term cultural penalty.

In the summary of their report, Waters and Garrett concluded that

  • The first line of defense against loss of valuable digital information rests with the creators, producers, and owners of that information.
  • A critical component of the digital archiving infrastructure is the existence of a sufficient number of trusted organizations capable of storing, migrating, and providing access to digital collections.
  • A process of certification for digital archives is needed to create a climate of trust about the prospects of preserving digital information.
  • Certified digital archives must have the right and duty to exercise an aggressive rescue function as a fail-safe mechanism for preserving valuable digital information that is in jeopardy of destruction, neglect, or abandonment by its current custodian.

These conclusions were reached after an 18-month study by a task force composed of librarians, archivists, technologists, government officials, publishers, creators, lawyers, and museum directors. The group issued nine recommendations in the areas of pilot projects, needed support structures, and best practices.

Six years later, what is the state of preservation of digital information? We have looked at many institutions and organizations to understand what has been accomplished.

Our first observation is that a great variety of projects have been undertaken, both in the United States and in other parts of the world. I cannot begin to describe all that is being done, but will list some significant work that has been done since 1996.

  • In the United Kingdom, a Digital Preservation Coalition has been established.
  • The National Library of Australia has established PADI (Preserving Access to Digital Information), a subject gateway to digital preservation resources.
  • CLIR and the DLF have published several reports designed to increase awareness of the problem and what research is being done to address it.
  • Organizations have worked hard to establish standards and best practices. The Online Computer Library Center (OCLC) and the Research Libraries Group jointly have developed two working documents to establish best practices: Attributes of a Digital Archive for Research Repositories and Preservation Metadata for Long-Term Retention.
  • Practical experiments have been funded. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has funded seven universities to work with publishers to plan for digital repositories for e-journal content. Through PubMed Central, the National Library of Medicine acts as a digital archival repository for medical publications and other medical information.
  • The Library of Congress is developing a national strategy for preserving digital information. With an extra appropriation of $100 million from the U.S. Congress, the Library has formed a national advisory board and is working with a number of governmental and private agencies to develop this plan.
  • The commercial and entertainment sectors have made great advances in understanding digital preservation, because they must manage their digital assets if they are to have products in the future.

Our aim in organizing this first DAI Institute for Information Science was to look at some of the most interesting developments in the preservation of digital information. We hoped that by bringing together so much talent, we could identify some of the barriers that impede progress and figure out ways to overcome them. The symposium speakers provided a rich mix of lessons learned, perspectives on recent developments, and analysis of the challenges ahead. These are reflected in the following pages. We are grateful to each presenter for helping advance the discussion and leaving us with much food for thought.

We are also deeply grateful to Documentation Abstracts, Inc. (DAI), which has provided support for CLIR to organize a new series of symposia on timely information science topics. We are encouraged by the success of this first program and look forward to subsequent symposiums in the DAI Information Institute series.