Session Summary: Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access

Chris Rusbridge gave a presentation reporting on his involvement with the Blue Ribbon Task Force for Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access.

Rusbridge emphasised that we are in a world that increasingly relies on digital information in so many different ways, but this is very much at risk. He quoted a slide from one of the Task Force’s co-chairs which asserted: “Access to information tomorrow requires preservation today”. However, he observed that this sets quite a low bar to preservation. The statement does not place lots of restrictions or grand standards for formats – it just says keep it! Rusbridge referred to this as the “zero-floor” of digital preservation. In order to have access to a resource, you have to have that resource in the first place.

This led on to a summary of the key issues implied by this statement: what should we keep, who is responsible for it and who is going to pay.

In response to this last point, Rusbridge took us through some of the ways in which we currently pay for access to digital information, including government grants, adverts, subscriptions, donations, pay for service. However, most of the digital preservation work so far has been funded predominantly through government grants, so getting to a situation where there is some sustainability is the really tough call. This is because those who pay, those who provide, those who benefit are not the same.

The Task Force was charged to take a longer term focus. Rusbridge noted amongst the participants from different fields the involvement of world class economists, who don’t usually work in this type of area. Rusbridge found it interesting that after the Task Force had done its initial analysis, they understood that a market solution for digital preservation is not going to happen, as there are sufficient breaks in the incentives chain which they felt there were no obvious, simple market solutions to overcome.

Rusbridge emphasised that the economics of digital preservation are not just about money. There needs to be a value proposition that is persuasive, clear incentives and roles and responsibilities that work towards the aim. It is therefore a much wider problem than simply finding more money.

He observed that in the past, all of the work on long term preservation has been funded by short term resource allocation. It has only recently that organisations like the British Library and National Library of Congress have begun to bring the preservation process into their core budgetory frameworks. He noted that it is very hard to see the value in digital preservation, so it is difficult to see how you might get a return on the investment. As a result, there has been little co-ordination between incentives and a general attitude of “someone else will do it”.

Rusbridge observed that, so far, most of the discourse has been the technical area, but the Task Force’s discussion was deliberately about the economics and the allocation of resources, which represents the first time that digital preservation has been seriously discussed as an economic issue.

One of the best phrases to result from the Task Force’s report, for Rusbridge was that “the case for preservation is the case for use”. You cannot make a sustainable case for indefinite dark archive preservation. The benefits should emphasise the outcomes and there needs to be an element of self-interest in the case.

The economics discussion had some very different, useful language compared to that which is usually used in conversations about digital preservation. The economic framework featured core attributes – which are based on core attributes and choice variables. Rusbridge explained that one of the core attributes is that digital preservation is a derived demand: no one wants digital preservation. They want the outcome of preservation – the access to the resource.

Other terminology included the “non-rival in consumption” which is Rusbridge described as the curse of the internet at large. If you try to make a business case for a sustainable flow of funding to support digital preservation in an environment where, by definition, people can take over resources and use them, so there is no incentive to give you money to keep those resources open. This is the free rider problem, which is inherent in the internet. The economists also described the digital preservation process as “temporally dynamic and path-dependant”. By this they mean that preservation is a sequence of steps, so getting one of those wrong will eliminate all future possibilities. It is dependant on things you have done in the past.

Once you reach the individual cases, “choice variables” come in, including who owns, who benefits, who selects, who preserves, who pays. These choice variables differ greatly in different cases and can have a huge impact on what you do.

Returning to his description of the Blue Ribbon Task Force’s remit, Rusbridge explained that there were four domain areas under examination, which were: scholarly discourse, research data, commercially owned cultural content and collectively produced web content. He admitted this was an ambitious set of domains to think about.

Rusbridge first discussed the issue of research data, the sustainability challenges and the actions that result. He highlighted the problem that there is a vast amount of data, some worthless, some enormously valuable – so how do you choose what to preserve? He also observed that the incentives to do preservation decrease as you get closer to the researcher – society may say that the data is valuable, the PI may be more possessive. This is an odd sort of process where those who control the data are quite possessive over it, so Rusbridge felt that mandates were useful to help address this problem.

He went on to discuss commercially owned cultural content, which presents an enormous set of challenges. The demand for access to a cultural record is clear. However, the private and public incentives are at odds, with the public incentive to preserve for the public, and the private incentive to preserve for future revenue generation or destroy so that it does not compete with another revenue generating project. There is also no hand over mechanism to assets to be taken into public ownership should the media company go out of business and make those assets available.

In contrast, the future demand for collectively produced web content is not yet clear. However, Rusbrudge observed that people are beginning to care, although he incentive to preserve are still weak and difficult to articulate, whilst there are also problems with unclear ownership. Rusbridge used the example of Twitter to illustrate how there could be future uses and benefits to preserving the record.

To conclude, the Task Force has produced an agenda for further action which involves developing public private partnerships, with the Library of Congress taking on the Twitter archive providing a good example of how this may work. They also recommended further action to seek economies of scale and scope, and securing chains of stewardship by creating mechanisms for hand over.

Finally, Rusbridge highlighted how we can act on one of the recommendations individually by putting creative commons licences on our blogs so that it can be preserved, without someone having to decide whether it is a risk to preserve.