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A Summary of a Report Published by the Council on Library and Information Resources

Access in the Future Tense

by Abby Smith
April 2004

In May 2003, CLIR convened a meeting of librarians, technologists, scholars, legal experts, and funders to discuss the ability of the current preservation infrastructure to support long-term access to information. This executive summary focuses on key issues that emerged from the meeting. The report on which it is based, entitled Access in the Future Tense, includes papers presented by Daniel Greenstein of the California Digital Library, Anne Kenney of Cornell University, Bill Ivey of Vanderbilt University, and Brian Lavoie of OCLC. CLIR’s Abby Smith contributes an introductory overview of the preservation landscape and a concluding essay that summarizes the views of the presenters and respondents, identifies issues raised during discussions, and highlights the implications of the day’s deliberations.

Libraries and other “memory institutions,” long entrusted with the stewardship of information, are facing new challenges in fulfilling this valued role. Traditionally, libraries managed the preservation of their largely print-based materials with some autonomy; it was relatively easy to treat physical materials they owned. But in today’s environment, characterized by an explosion of digital information, an accumulating body of fragile audiovisual materials, a copyright regime that is struggling to keep abreast of technological developments, and an escalating demand for access to cultural heritage resources, libraries often do not have the human or financial resources, nor do they have the legal and policy support necessary, to fulfill their stewardship mission.

The fundamental questions of stewardship-what are we to collect and preserve, for whom, for how long, and who should assume responsibility for preservation-have changed dramatically in recent decades. What are the implications of these changes? How do we answer these basic stewardship questions today? Key considerations, as discussed by meeting participants and presenters, include the following:

Selection and fixity. There is debate over whether it is possible-or even desirable-to select, or curate, the rapidly growing and changing body of Web-based resources. Great research collections have been built on the evaluation and selection of materials deemed to have enduring value. Many people want the library to retain this function in the digital realm. Others believe that this would be impossible, even with automated tools; there is just too much information. Disk storage is cheap; what’s more, some assert that human judgments about what has enduring value may be flawed.

“Saving everything” is a storage strategy, but it is not preservation. It will not guarantee access in the long term. Is it even possible to guarantee long-term access when information objects themselves are seldom fixed or bounded? Or when one licenses, rather than owns, material? There are as yet no answers to these questions; however, the archival approach may offer a model for the interim. Archivists often hold large bodies of documentation for years before they appraise and select material for long-term retention. Broadcast archives, for example, work by keeping elements of a production-in addition to the final production-so they may be reused and recombined to form new productions, not unlike the way people prefer to use digital objects.

Interlibrary cooperation. Collections need a stable organizational environment to survive for more than one generation. But memory organizations are already stretched thin. The potential benefits of collaboration among institutions-whether for collection development, metadata creation, or specialized preservation-treatment services-are becoming more obvious. At the same time, collaboration carries its own costs and risks. A high level of trust would be needed, for example, for collaboration in developing a repository of common imprints widely held among institutions.

Today, libraries have an opportunity to reduce the redundancy of their holdings through the delivery of electronic text and to use the savings to enrich their collections or enhance their services. The size of its physical collection is no longer the primary indicator of a library’s greatness. In the twenty-first century, a library’s value, as well as its competitive advantage, will lie in its ability to serve as a trusted source of highly reliable information.

Memory institutions and stakeholders must recognize their increasing interdependence, see it as a strength, and consciously build on that strength. Stakeholders may be faculty members, who are both users and creators of information; they also include publishers, policy makers, and budget administrators.

Policy environment. In the new digital-rights regime, institutions that have been relied on to take the long view are now struggling to find their sanctioned ability to maintain this perspective. Increasingly, libraries license, rather than own, information resources and therefore have no right to preserve them. Analog audio and visual resources, such as recorded sound and moving images, are governed by complex bundles of rights and pose similar barriers to preservation. Rights issues, together with the extension of copyright protection, effectively force the burden of preservation back on the owners, who are often unaware of or unable to provide for the preservation of their resources.

We must have laws, regulations, and enabling agreements to support partnerships between commercial and noncommercial entities to ensure the preservation of cultural heritage. We must also recognize the failure of business models that are too dependent on copyright revenue, and the threat to the concept that information is a public good that fuels innovation and creativity.

Libraries are well positioned to advocate for good stewardship of intangible heritage-materials that are both cultural heritage and corporate assets. The demand for access will drive the allocation of resources to preservation. Bill Ivey notes that if libraries are to succeed in their preservation mission, they must stake out a public right to access. Libraries can make common cause with museums, scientific societies, indigenous peoples, and other communities also struggling with the threats to heritage that the property and rights regime poses.

Economic issues. How do we pay for preservation in the digital age? Can we envision a rights regime that provides incentives for good stewardship?

A number of possibilities exist. A preserving institution might serve as a trustworthy repository of complex media objects that can be repurposed for access but that need to be preserved at the highest-possible resolution or sampling rate. Publishers will not maintain these for long; perhaps preserving institutions could provide a service and receive compensation from the digital-asset owners for that service. Commercial firms could be rewarded by tax credits.

Understanding the nature of the preservation challenge and the larger context in which preservation must operate is the first step to identifying and promoting practical solutions. By publishing this report, CLIR hopes to broaden understanding of how creators, publishers, distributors, and information seekers can work more actively with libraries and archives to ensure the usability and accessibility of recorded information into the future.


Access in the Future Tense
by Abby Smith, April 2004.
ISBN 1-932326-09-X. 82 pages.

The text of the report is available free on CLIR’s Web site at Print copies can be ordered at this URL for $20 per copy plus shipping.

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