Giving Digital Preservation a Backbone

At Educause, a pitch for a digital preservation project that will outlast individual institutions and companies.

November 9, 2012

DENVER -- Libraries used to be the main stewards of the cultural and scientific record. But in the era of digital storage “cloud computing,” the institutions best-positioned to manage vast quantities of data are often companies such as Google and Elsevier.

That is a big problem, said James Hilton, the chief information officer at the University of Virginia, in a talk on Thursday here at Educause.   

For all their current stability and rhetorical commitments to preserving their records, Google and Elsevier cannot be trusted with the task of digital preservation in the long term, said Hilton.

The Virginia CIO recalled meeting with representatives from Elsevier back when he was an interim library director at the University of Michigan. “We were talking about this problem of digital preservation,” he said. “And Elsevier’s response was, ‘We got it, don’t worry about it; we were Galileo’s publisher, we’ve been around for hundreds of years, we got it.’ ”

But Elsevier’s stewardship of its archive thus far is no guarantee that the contents of that archive will be safe if the company does not pull off the rare feat of surviving hundreds more years, Hilton said. The safety of those hundreds of years’ worth of research literature, he said, should not depend on the fortune of any single entity, let alone one whose priorities are oriented to its bottom line.

“Are you going to go tell your board of directors, ‘We just took on a perpetual liability with no revenue stream behind it’?” said Hilton.

“We’re universities,” he said, paraphrasing his former colleague and current Michigan library dean Paul Courant’s retort to the Elsevier reps. “We’re used to losing money on everything and making it up on volume.”

Universities are not immune to financial pressures, of course, and the last half-decade has been a stark reminder of that. Which is why Hilton made his pitch for a digital preservation effort that is not only housed within higher education, but that is redundant, flexible, and has a protocol for shifting digital artifacts around if one member of the network loses funding or shuts down.

“Right now what we have is no clear transition for who is responsible for preserving what,” he said. If the Turner Entertainment Company ever becomes unable to support its invaluable trove of film and television artifacts, there is no infrastructure in place to safely transfer that archive to academe, said Hilton.

Such an infrastructure is, in fact, under construction. Part of Hilton’s agenda here was to draw attention to the Digital Preservation Network, a consortium of universities that is attempting to build a framework for keeping digital artifacts viable as institutions and technologies rise and fall around them.

The idea is to build a backbone for digital preservation modeled after Internet2’s high-speed research network. Internet2, a consortium of more than 200 colleges and universities, was created as a way of addressing collectively a technological feat that would overwhelm any single university. The consortium recently extended this effort into the realm of cloud computing and content licensing, coordinating group purchases of vendor products that had begun to drag heavily on the tech budgets of individual universities.

Internet2’s success in rallying a large group of universities behind the complex, burdensome propositions of high-speed networks and product licensing was on display down the hall here at the Colorado Convention Center, where the consortium’s heavy hitters cheerfully swapped anecdotes to a ballroom full of conference-goers.

“This is not a technical problem, it’s an organizational problem,” said Hilton. “The current state of play is lots of digital collections with a smattering of aggregation,” he said.

Group repositories, such as the HathiTrust and Portico, already exist. But even those are not configured to withstand the sort of upheaval and “single points of failure” that archivists must account when talking about a thousand-year preservation effort, said Hilton.

“We’re either going to solve this problem institution by institution at great expense and with little chance of solutions that last,” he said, “or we’re going to solve it together at scale, just like we did with high-performance networks.”

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