Ensuring long term access to digital information

(This is a version of an article written for the RMAA magazine Informaa Quarterly, due to be published in May 2010).
In February 2010, the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access (BRTF-SDPA, brtf.sdsc.edu), a US-based group established in 2007 and funded by several private and public organisations, published a report titled ‘Sustainable Economics for a Digital Planet: Ensuring Long-Term Access to Digital Information’.
The BRTF-SDPA report examined the long-term preservation of digital information from an economic perspective, noting that ‘… economically sustainable preservation (of digital information) is … an urgent societal problem’.  The report quotes a 2008 IDC report stating that the volume of information now created exceeds all available storage.
The BRTF focussed its attention on digital information created within four key areas: scholarly discourse; research data; commercially owned cultural content; and collectively produced web content.  The report did not examine digital information produced by public sector agencies because there are already ‘… well articulated mandates for preservation and well defined organisations with clear roles and responsibilities’ to preserve the digital information produced by those agencies.
The report confirms the frequently cited preservation and conservation mantra that the main business case for preservation is use.  The dilemma for those making decisions about preservation is that access – and therefore use – is impossible without preservation; however, if there is no demand for access, there will be no preservation. What to preserve is the problem.
Identifying what should be preserved for later use requires significant effort that requires the agreement of a range of stakeholders – those who own, will select, preserve, pay for preservation to take place and who will eventually benefit.  The interests of these stakeholders need to be aligned as much as possible; and yet those who make preservation decisions now must attempt to do so without any real idea of what future stakeholders may want to access.
The report makes the point that a key threat to ‘persistent access’ is the costs involved, particularly where the costs outweigh the perceived benefits.
The report presents digital information as economic goods that have four essential attributes: the derived demand for access rather than preservation; their nature as depreciable durable assets that can suffer from physical degradation and loss of functionality; the ubiquity of access (known as ‘non rivalrous consumption’) which can lead to ‘free riding’; and the temporarily dynamic and path dependent nature of the digital preservation process throughout the lifecycle of the information.
These attributes, according to the report, mean that problems may be encountered aligning incentives to preserve among beneficiaries, owners and preservers.  The closer the alignment, the more likely that appropriate preservation actions will be taken.  Weak or misguided incentives to preserve are the greatest risk to preservation.
According to the report the six key conditions necessary to ensure the economic sustainability for digital information are: recognition of the benefits; selecting materials with long-term value; providing incentives for preservation; establishing effective governance arrangements and allocating resources; and ensuring that timely actions are taken before digital information is lost.
As the report notes, solving the economic challenges of digital preservation is neither easy nor insuperable.  A careful balance needs to be established between the perceived future  value of digital information, incentives for its preservation, and the roles and responsibilities of key stakeholders.
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