Report: Preserving digital knowledge a priority

Tuesday, April 13, 2010 @ 06:04 PM gHale

Digital data is growing by the second and the mass of information collected over just a year is huge and it could be very easy to lose some of that knowledge. That is why it is important to ensure information will be accessible not just today, but in the future, according to a new report.

The report comes after a two-year effort focusing on the critical economic challenges of preserving an ever-increasing amount of information in a world gone digital. [private]

The report, called “Sustainable Economics for a Digital Planet: Ensuring Long-term Access to Digital Information”, is from the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access. The full report is available online at

“The Data Deluge is here. Ensuring that our most valuable information is available both today and tomorrow is not just a matter of finding sufficient funds,” said Fran Berman, vice president for research at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and co-chair of the Task Force. “It’s about creating a ‘data economy’ in which those who care, those who will pay, and those who preserve are working in coordination.”

The challenge in preserving valuable digital information – consisting of text, video, images, music, sensor data, etc. generated throughout all areas of our society – is real and growing at an exponential pace. A study by the International Data Corporation (IDC) found 3,892,179,868,480,350,000,000 (that’s roughly 3.9 trillion times a trillion) new digital information bits were created in 2008. In the future, the digital universe should double in size every 18 months, according to the IDC report.

While there are technical challenges for digital preservation, but the Blue Ribbon Task Force report focuses on the economic aspect; i.e. how stewards of valuable, digitally-based information can pay for preservation over the longer term. The report provides general principles and actions to support long-term economic sustainability; context-specific recommendations tailored to specific scenarios analyzed in the report; and an agenda for priority actions and next steps, organized according to the type of decision maker best suited to carry that action forward. Moreover, the report should serve as a foundation for further study in this critical area.

The report of the Blue Ribbon Task Force focuses on four distinct scenarios, each having ever-increasing amounts of preservation-worthy digital assets in which there is a public interest in long-term preservation: scholarly discourse , research data, commercially-owned cultural content (such as digital movies and music), and collectively-produced Web content (such as blogs).

“Valuable digital information spans the spectrum from official e-documents to some YouTube videos. No one economic model will cost-effectively support them all, but all require cost-effective economic models,” said Berman, who was director of the San Diego Supercomputer Center at the University of California, San Diego, before joining Rensselaer last year.

The report categorizes the economics of digital preservation into three “necessary conditions” closely aligned with the needs of stakeholders: recognizing the value of data and selecting materials for longer-term preservation; providing incentives for decision makers to preserve data directly or provide preservation services for others; and articulating the roles and responsibilities among those involved in the preservation process. The report further aligns those conditions with the basic economic principle of supply and demand, and warns that without well-articulated demand for access to preserved digital assets, there will be no supply of preservation services.

“Addressing the issues of value, incentives, and roles and responsibilities helps us understand who benefits from long-term access to digital materials, who should be responsible for preservation, and who should pay for it,” said Brian Lavoie, research scientist at OCLC and Task Force co-chair. “Neglecting to account for any of these conditions significantly reduces the prospects of achieving sustainable digital preservation activities over the long run.”

The Blue Ribbon panel report offers recommendations for decision makers and stakeholders to consider as they seek economically sustainable preservation practices for digital information. The following are just a few recommendations:

  • Develop public-private partnerships, similar to ones formed by the Library of Congress
  • Ensure that organizations have access to skilled personnel, from domain experts to legal and business specialists
  • Create and sustain secure chains of stewardship between organizations over  the long term
  • Achieve economies of scale and scope wherever possible
  • Build capacity to support stewardship in all areas
  • Lower the costs of preservation overall
  • Determine the optimal level of technical curation needed to create a flexible strategy for all types of digital material


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