Tuesday 9 March 2010

A Blue Ribbon for Sustainability?

When we talk about long term digital preservation, about access for the future, about the digital records of science, or of government, or of companies, or the designs of ships or aircraft, the locations of toxic wastes, and so on being accessible for tens or hundreds of years, we are often whistling in the dark to keep the bogeys at bay. These things are all possible, and increasingly we know how to achieve them technically. But much more than non-digital forms, the digital record needs to be continuously sustained, and we just don’t know how to assure that. Providing future access to digital records needs action now and into that future to provide a continuous flow of the necessary will, community participation, energy and (not least) money. Future access requires a sustainable infrastructure. Ensuring sustainability is one of the major unsolved problems in providing future access through digital preservation.

For the past two years I have been lucky enough to be a member of the grandly named Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access, along with a stellar cast of experts in preservation, in the library and archives worlds, in data, in movies… and in economics. C0-chaired by Fran Berman (previously of SDSC, now of RPI) and Brian Lavoie of OCLC, the Task Force produced an Interim Report (PDF) a year ago, and has just released its Final Report (Sustainable Economics for a Digital Planet: Ensuring Long-Term Access to Digital Information, also PDF). (The Task Force was itself sustained by an equally stellar cast of sponsors, including the US National Science Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, in partnership with the Library of Congress, the UK’s JISC, the Council on Library and Information Resources, and NARA.)

Sustainability is often equated to keeping up the money supply, but we think it’s much more than that. The Task Force specifically looks at economic sustainability; it says early in the Executive Summary that it’s about

… mobilizing resources—human, technical, and financial—across a spectrum of stakeholders diffuse over both space and time.”

If you want a FAQ on funding your project over the long term you won’t find it here. Nor will you find a list of benefactors, or pointers to tax breaks, or arguments for your Provost. Instead you should find a report that helps you think in new ways about sustainability, and apply that new thinking to your particular domain. For one of our major conclusions is that there are no general, across the board answers.

One of the great things about this Task Force was its sweeping ambition. Not just content with bringing together a new economics of sustainable digital preservation, but thinking so broadly. This was never about some few resources, or this Repository or that Archive, it was about the preservation and long term access of major areas of our intellectual life, like scholarly communication, like research data, like commercially owned cultural content (the movie industry is part of this), and the blogosphere and variants (collectively produced web content). Looking at those four areas holistically rather than as fragments forced us to recognise how different they are, and how much those differences affect their sustainability. They aren’t the only areas, and indeed further work on other areas would be valuable, but they were enough to make the Task Force think differently from any activity I have taken part in before.

The report is, to my mind, exceedingly well written, thanks to Abby Smith Rumsey; it far exceeds the many rather muddled conversations we had during our investigations. It has many quotable quotes; among my favourites is

“When making the case for preservation, make the case for use.”

Reading the report is not without its challenges, as you might expect. It has to marry two technical vocabularies and make them understandable to both communities. I’ve been living partly in this world for two years, and still sometimes stumble over it; I remember many times screwing up my forehead, raising my hand and asking “Tell us again, what’s a choice variable?” And the reader will have to think about things like derived demand for depreciable durable assets, nonrival in consumption, temporally dynamic and path-dependent, not to mention the free rider problem. These concepts are there for a reason however; get them straight and you’ll understand the game a lot better.

And there are not surprisingly big underlying US-based assumptions in places, although the two resident Brits (myself and Paul Ayris of UCL) did manage to inject some internationalism. Further work grounded in other jurisdictions would be extremely valuable.

Overall I don’t think this report is too big an ask for anyone anywhere who is serious about understanding the economic sustainability of digital preservation and future access to digital materials. I hope you find the great value that I believe exists here.


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