Task Force on Archiving of Digital Information

John R. Garrett
Corporation for National Research Initiatives
Reston, Virginia
[email protected]

D-Lib Magazine, September 1995

"Continued access indefinitely into the future of records stored in digital electronic form cannot under present circumstances be guaranteed within acceptable limits. Although loss of data associated with deterioration of storage media is an important consideration, the main issue is that software and hardware technology becomes rapidly obsolescent. Storage media become obsolete as do devices capable of reading such media; and old formats and standards give way to newer formats and standards. This situation holds both for electronic records derived through conversion from some analog form (paper, film, video, sound etc.) and for records that originated in electronic form." (From the Commission on Preservation and Access' and Research Libraries Group's charge to the Task Force)

Late in 1994, the Commission on Preservation and Access and the Research Libraries Group jointly created a Task Force on Archiving of Digital Information as an initial step in addressing the many preservation issues raised by the rapid proliferation of digital information. The Task Force is co-chaired by Dr. John R. Garrett of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives and Dr. Donald Waters of Yale University; its 21 members include archivists, librarians, researchers, publishers, and government representatives. The Task Force met twice, and conducted most of its business electronically.

The sponsoring organizations charged the Task Force with framing the key problems, defining the critical issues that inhibit resolution of the key problems, recommending actions to resolve the issues, and making any other recommendations as appropriate. The Task Force's initial draft Report has just been issued, and is available electronically:

ftp server: lyra.stanford.edu
Adobe Acrobat version: /pub/ArchTF/Draft-Report.pdf
Microsoft Word 6.0 Windows version: /pub/ArchTF/Draft-Report.doc
ASCII version: /pub/ArchTF/Draft-Reprt.txt

Paper copies can be requested from the Commission on Preservation and Access:

Maxine Sitts
Commission on Preservation and Access
1400 16th Street, NW
Suite 740
Washington, DC 20036-2217

The Task Force seeks comments on the draft report from all interested communities and individuals: comments can be sent to either of the chairs or to its listserv ([email protected]). (Dr. Waters may be reached at [email protected].) The following discussion is drawn from the draft Report's Executive Summary.

In taking up its charge, the Task Force focused on materials already in digital form and recognized the need to protect against both media deterioration and technological obsolescence. The Task Force's draft Report envisions the development of a national system of digital archives, which it defines as repositories of digital information that are collectively responsible for the long-term accessibility of the nation's social, economic, cultural and intellectual heritage instantiated in digital form. Digital archives are distinct from digital libraries in the sense that digital libraries are repositories that collect and provide access to digital information, but may or may not provide for the long-term storage and access of that information. The Task Force deliberately took a functional approach in these critical definitions, and in its general treatment of digital preservation so as not to prejudge the question of institutional structure.

The draft Report begins with an analysis of the digital preservation landscape, including the aspects of digital information and the stakeholder interests that affect preservation. The Report then introduces the principle that responsibility for archiving rests fundamentally with the creator or owner of the information, and that digital archives may invoke the fail-safe mechanism to protect culturally valuable information. The report explores in detail the roles and responsibilities associated with the critical functions of managing the operating environment of digital archives, strategies for migration of digital information, intellectual property, and costs and financial matters.

The Task Force sees repositories of digital information as held together in a national archival system primarily through the operation of two essential mechanisms. First, repositories claiming to serve an archival function must be able to prove that they are who they say they are by meeting or exceeding the standards and criteria of an independently-administered program for archival certification. Second, certified archives will have available to them a critical fail-safe mechanism. Such a mechanism, supported by organizational will, economic means, and legal right, would enable a certified archival repository to exercise an aggressive rescue function to save culturally significant digital information. Without the operation of a formal certification program and a fail-safe mechanism, preservation of the nation's cultural heritage in digital form will likely be overly dependent on marketplace forces, which may value information for too short a period and without applying broader, public interest criteria.

The report concludes with a set of recommendations which include:

  1. Solicit proposals from interested archives around the country and provide coordinating services for selected participants in a cooperative project designed to place information objects from the early digital age into trust for use by future generations.
  2. Secure funding and sponsor an open competition for proposals to advance digital archives, particularly with respect to removing legal and economic barriers.
  3. Foster practical experiments or demonstration projects in the archival application of technologies and services, such as transaction systems for property rights and authentication mechanisms, which promise to facilitate the preservation of the cultural record in digital form.
  4. Coordinate the appropriate organizations and individuals in the development of standards, criteria and mechanisms for identifying and certifying repositories of digital information as archives.
  5. Engage actively in national policy efforts to design and develop the national information infrastructure to ensure that longevity of information is an explicit goal.
  6. Sponsor the development of a white paper on the foundations needed in intellectual property law to support the aggressive rescue of endangered digital information through an effective fail-safe mechanism.
  7. Engage representatives of professional societies from a variety of disciplines in a series of forums designed to elicit creative thinking about the means of creating and financing digital archives of specific bodies of information.
  8. Commission follow-on case studies to identify current best practices and to benchmark costs in one or more of the following areas of archiving culturally valuable digital information: (a) storage of massive quantities of information; (b) use of metadata for digital preservation; and (c) migration paths.

The Task Force strongly encourages interested parties to review and comment on the draft Report, through the Task Force listserv mentioned earlier. The Task Force's final Report is expected to be completed early in 1996, and will include a series of implementation steps aimed at resolving the major issues defined in the draft and final Reports.

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