Task force takes on data preservation challenge

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Industry representatives are working together to help ensure that future generations can access today's digital information,writes Bob Murphy of OCLC, which is one of the members of the new preservation task force

The information age has created a global networked society in which access to digital information has revolutionised science, education, commerce, government, and other aspects of our lives. This technology has also created some unique challenges. Unlike earlier forms of recorded information, tiny electronic bits of data often stored in memory sticks, hard drives, and on magnetic tape are far more fragile and susceptible to obsolescence and loss.

With literally every bit of information now being digitally processed and stored, our computer-based society is faced with a great challenge: how best to preserve and efficiently access these vast amounts of digital data well into the future – and to do so in an economically-sustainable manner.

This challenge is considerable. For this reason, a task force has been launched by US and UK funding bodies (see box). Its two-year mission is to examine issues and challenges relating to economically-sustainable strategies for long-term digital preservation and access, as part of a broader interest in ensuring that today’s data will be available for further use, analysis and study.

The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access is co-chaired by Francine Berman, director of the San Diego Supercomputer Center at University of California, San Diego and a pioneer in data cyberinfrastructure; and Brian Lavoie, a research scientist and economist with OCLC, the world’s largest library service and research organisation.

Keeping pace with the rapid change in technology is just one concern to be addressed by the task force. Establishing economicallysustainable infrastructures and global standards to ensure that massive quantities of digital information are efficiently migrated to new mediums is also critical. Yet another challenge will be managing the storage of such vast amounts of data so that a wealth of scientific, educational and business information is not lost.

‘Digital preservation is not just about technical solutions for combating bit rot and technological obsolescence,’ said co-chair Lavoie of OCLC. ‘It is also about ensuring that digital preservation activities are provisioned with sufficient resources to ensure that preservation objectives can be met in an ongoing, sustainable way. Even the most elegant technical solution is no solution at all if it is not economically sustainable.’

‘Libraries, publishers, and researchers have accumulated vast collections of data, text, images, and other forms of digital material,’ he continued. ‘These collections are of immeasurable value to research and learning, both now and in the future. We need to allocate resources to support the long-term preservation of these collections. The work of the task force will help decision-makers evaluate and choose alternative economic models within which resource allocation for digital preservation can be organised and sustained.’

This new task force is made up of international leaders offering a variety of interests and areas expertise. Using these members as a gateway, the task force will convene a broad set of international experts from the academic, public and private sectors who will participate in quarterly discussion panels. The group will publish two substantial reports with their findings, including a final report in late 2009 that will include a set of actionable recommendations for economically sustainable digital preservation.

The first meeting of the task force took place in Washington, DC, in January 2008. The initial meeting provided an opportunity for members to interact and get to know each other. The group also used the time to define the issues they face, and organise and plan for the work ahead. The next meeting will be in July and invited speakers will share their experiences in implementing sustainable digital preservation activities. Others are encouraged to contribute to the task force’s discussions. To this end the group will establish a public website to solicit comments and encourage dialogue on issues surrounding economic sustainability in a digital preservation context.

The people behind the initiative

The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access has been launched by the US National Science Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in partnership with the Library of Congress, the Council on Library and Information Resources, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the UK’s Joint Information Systems Committee.

Task Force members come from universities across the USA, as well as University College London and University of Edinburgh in the UK. The task force also includes representatives from the funding bodies, independent consultants, Microsoft and OCLC. It also includes a representative from the not-for-profit organisation Ithaka, which is currently responsible for the scholarly-journal archive Portico.