It was about eight years ago this fall that I sat down to make my very first attempt at professional writing. I submitted my very first column for “Coming Full Circle” in Computers in Libraries. I probably shouldn’t admit this, but I think I worked harder on that column than on any one since, with the possible exception of my very first column for American Libraries. I’m happy to say that the CIL article on digital preservation still has legs. I’m a little sad for digital preservation that the article still has legs.
I was pretty good in those days at making outlandish predictions about library technology, some of which were right on the mark, but I thought for sure that the digital preservation topic would be such a moving target as to render its content obsolete in a matter of a year or two. The problem, of course, as with many good things in this world, is that preservation is expensive and the return on the investment is quite distant.
I don’t mean to suggest that nothing has changed in nearly a decade. I’m merely pointing out that the long-term benefit requires a long-term plan. We also need to keep in mind that the vendors that will involve themselves in this area will require short-to-medium-term returns on their prospects.
Most vendors cannot even think in the terms dictated by preservation needs. I recall talking to a representative from Adobe back around the time I wrote that first column. He told the story of asking the National Archives how long the files had to last. The NARA employee answered flatly, “Until the end of the Republic.” Of course what seemed like a joke at the time was an important precursor to PDF for Long-term Preservation.
How sustainable is long-term preservation? And who does one turn to when trying to find expensive solutions to problems that the average person would barely acknowledge? Or, in this case, to answer the question of just how expensive the endeavor is? Grant funders. And thanks to the generous support of the National Science Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, we can look forward to an answer from the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Digital Preservation and Access. The task force—co-chaired by Fran Berman, cyberinfrastructure expert and director of the San Diego Supercomputer Center at the University of California–San Diego, and Brian Lavoie, an economist, preservation expert, and research scientist with OCLC—will convene an international panel of experts to develop actionable recommendations on economic sustainability of digital information for the science and engineering, cultural heritage, academic, public, and private sectors.
Like good librarians, we have already done a fair amount of work on digital preservation standards, such as PREMIS. The addition of this work could go a long way toward determining the long-term sustainability of libraries’ and archives’ substantial investments in and careful planning for the future.
[This post originally appeared as part of American Libraries’ Hectic Pace Blog and is archived here.]