Preserving research for the future

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Cash and a lack of responsibility hinder the progress of digital preservation initiatives, reports Rebecca Pool

In 2008, the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers (ALPSP) surveyed its members to find out what they thought about the long-term preservation of digital content. More than 90 per cent of the publishers surveyed believed this issue needed to be addressed urgently, bringing much relief to resource-stretched, cash-strapped librarians.

Two years on, Oxford University Press (OUP) has replicated the survey. This time though the respondents were its customers, the librarians. As the publisher’s senior marketing manager, Colin Meddings, says: ‘We wanted to ask the librarians the same questions and get a complementary view of what they think and what they are doing.’ And it would appear that librarians and publishers have, on the whole, similar concerns.

In both surveys, preservation refers to ensuring electronic scholarly literature remains accessible to future scholars, researchers and students. So, if a publisher ceases operations, a title closes down, back issues are no longer offered or a publisher’s delivery platform fails following catastrophic events such as flooding or earthquakes, the content is preserved.

According to Meddings, OUP’s survey results indicate that the question of responsibility is definitely at the forefront of librarians’ minds. ‘The thing that really stood out was who should take responsibility for this,’ he said. ‘It’s no surprise that collaboration between libraries and publishers came out on top, but many librarians said they can also see a role for national libraries and not-for-profit organisations.’

This output echoes the ALPSP survey, in which more than 70 per cent of publishers believed that national or legal deposit libraries should take responsibility for long-term preservation. And as Meddings adds: ‘What is coming out from our results is that this has to be a trusted party, not a full-profit publisher.’

The thorny issue of money was also broached in the OUP survey. According to Meddings: ‘We really wanted to draw out the sticky question of who’s going to pay for this. Funding is the elephant in the room whenever we talk about this, but somebody has to pay for these initiatives.’

To this end, the survey presented librarians with three options, with which they could either agree or disagree. First, should publishers fund initiatives with libraries having the option to subscribe at a lower rate in exchange for no reassurance of long-term preservation of digital content? Second, should libraries contribute to publisher preservation initiatives, whose costs may be rolled into subscription price? And third, should libraries take on the costs of digital preservation themselves?

Unfortunately the results were inconclusive. Meddings states that there was a clear preference for libraries and publishers to work together on funding preservation initiatives. Meanwhile, an equal number of librarians agreed and disagreed that publishers should take sole responsibility for payment. And similar numbers agreed and disagreed that libraries should fund initiatives.

‘We don’t have a clear answer,’ says Meddings. ‘And especially with libraries’ funding pressures, there’s no clear picture emerging of who’s going to fund this. Maybe the middle-ground is the way to go, but it’s hard to see. Right now, cost issues are more significant than technical issues.’

Leading activities

Neil Grindley, digital preservation programme manager at JISC, (the UK’s Joint Information Systems Committee), is not surprised by the librarians’ mixed reactions on both responsibility and funding. He also acknowledges views that national libraries and not-for-profit businesses could take responsibility for long-term digital preservation, but is keen to highlight the leading roles the British Library and the UK’s National Archives have already taken in a vast array of activities.

One example is the British Library-led ‘Planets’, Preservation and Long-term Access through Networked Services. This four-year project was co-funded by the European Union under the Sixth Framework Programme and aimed to address core digital preservation challenges. The recently-completed initiative resulted in several web tools including its ‘Planets Testbed’ that allows the user, such as a design team or IT department in a library, to analyse different tools for digital preservation and assess which approach is best for them.

In addition to such initiatives though, Grindley advocates a stronger role for governments. ‘There is no national digital preservation strategy in place in the UK... and government needs to ensure digital preservation is something for which it has an answer,’ he says. ‘Yes, there is a limit to what we can reasonably expect governments to do, but perhaps it might take more of an interest in the legislative challenges, such as copyright issues [modifying copyright laws to enable digital preservation].’

Colin Meddings spoke about preservation challenges at this year’s UKSG meeting in Edinburgh

Like Meddings, Grindley is very aware of the issue of payment for digital preservation activities, but points to a recent report ‘Sustainable digital preservation and access’, published by the Blue Ribbon Taskforce, a US digital preservation organisation. The report asks ‘how do we pay for preservation?’ and outlines a number of existing funding mechanisms that can work, including internal budgeting within a business for proprietary digital content and fee payment to providers of preservation services, such as Portico.

But as the report also states: ‘Even the most compelling incentives to preserve do not generate resources... and there is no single “best” funding model for digital preservation.’ Grindley agrees, adding: ‘There are always bright people around that can work through the technology, but funding issues can be more of a problem.’

Despite the problems, Grindley is confident about the future. ‘There’s been a lot of analysis over what digital preservation might be, what it achieves and what the benefits are,’ he says. ‘However, solutions emerge and models and frameworks emerge that all seem much more simple than they did five or 10 years ago. Trusted organisations are also emerging and I think at this point people will start to think it’s OK, digital preservation isn’t a problem now.’

Collaboration is king

To ensure sustained progress in the field of digital preservation, both Meddings and Grindley are adamant that collaboration, be it between publishers, librarians, national libraries or not-for-profit organisations, is crucial. As Meddings points out, the OUP survey revealed, at the very least, that librarians are keen to collaborate with publishers on a wide range of preservation issues, particularly in method and funding.

‘I have also been asked at conferences what we can do to educate the libraries and publishers that are not currently involved in digital preservation,’ he says. ‘I haven’t had a great answer for this other than keep doing what we’re doing; talk about it at conferences and write papers so more people will understand and take action.’

Likewise Grindley states: ‘Wherever I go to talk about digital preservation I always stress that it is key to have partnerships and alliances. If, say, you’re a local government archive and you’re struggling to deal with your records, join up with another government archive the next tier up.’

He does believe, however, that involving too many players in digital preservation activities would be counter-productive and states that all an organisation really needs to do is recognise it has a problem and devolve that problem to somebody else.

‘Somebody in an organisation needs to have ownership of information management problems. You don’t actually need everybody to be worried about digital preservation,’ he laughs. ‘It’s not an activity to panic about; instead, it’s an activity that needs a strategy.’

From documents to databases

By 2009 more than 100GBytes of data had already been created for every single person on the planet, according to estimates by researchers involved in the European Union funded project ‘Planets’ (Preservation and Long-term Access through Networked Services). Seamus Ross, a professor at the Faculty of Information, University of Toronto, Canada, says our awareness of the importance of digital preservation has rocketed in the last 10 years.

‘When we started, nobody really knew what digital preservation was, what it was for and why we needed to do it,’ he explains. ‘Today, many more people are aware of the problem and we’re sharing ideas about best practices more widely.’

But while organisations worldwide focus on how to preserve precious documents, Ross believes a more important issue is going unnoticed. ‘Documents are the least significant problem we face; the preservation of databases is much more important,’ he asserts. ‘There isn’t a single thing you do in your daily life that isn’t influenced by a database. Insurance, tax, patient records and so on are the records of society, and in the future, access is going to be needed; there are going to be big, big preservation issues here.’

Seamus Ross

As Ross explains, databases contain huge volumes of data and represent many processes, making them very complex to preserve. And while he points to some research already underway including projects at the University of Edinburgh, Scotland, and the Swiss Federal Archives, he claims much more is needed.

‘We’re still trying to understand this problem space and there’s not as much going on to tackle this as there should be,’ he says. ‘The best way to keep this material accessible for the future is to keep using it; active use is a very powerful preservation mechanism.’

Ross also believes that, right now, planning is crucial to getting digital preservation right and every single decision made needs to be documented. ‘Even a decision to use Portico or join a LOCKSS consortium should be based on planning, not an ad hoc decision,’ he stresses. ‘When you talk to people about digital preservation and the mistakes they make, it’s generally the fact that they haven’t got a plan.’