Mark Sandler advocates for collective decision-making and focused investments by libraries in digital preservation

Libraries of all sizes and service sectors share a commitment to ensuring that textual artifacts—past and present—will remain accessible to future generations.  That said, it is the larger research libraries that have disproportionately shouldered the burden for the preservation and/or conservation of scholarly and cultural artifacts.  In the print world, preservation policies and protocols were addressed at the level of individual library collections.  In the digital world, however, most library licensed content is not locally resident but accessed remotely from central servers beyond the control of individual libraries.  Hence, our research libraries end up “trusting” that others will support access in perpetuity.  When things are working, it is natural to think they will continue to operate in good order forever.  This “optimism,” however, ignores many actual and possible vectors that have—or will—interfere with the smooth flow of scholarly information.

For libraries, collectively investing billions of dollars annually for licensed access to digital content, it is the case that disruptions to such access are not only possible, but likely.  Who can assuredly predict what information access might look like ten, twenty or fifty years hence?  Pandemics, cyber-terrorism, climate change, warfare, and the more mundane changes in technology and business practices (mergers and acquisitions), are almost certain to affect information access in largely unpredictable ways—perhaps for the better but more likely for the worse.  Large or small, anticipated or unpredicted, incremental or sudden, disruptions to the flow of scholarly information are inevitable. Our cultural heritage—knowledge and art—that defines our humanity could be lost or diminished in an instant.  It is a safe bet that some subsets of this global heritage will indeed be lost.

Libraries can’t be expected to support, whether through funding or contributed time/labor, every program that professes to advance the mission or interests of the library community.  It goes without saying that libraries need to carry out their due diligence and “pick their winners,” whether we’re talking about library management systems, conversion partners, or digital preservation services.

That said, there is an argument to be made that COLLECTIVE decision-making and focused investments would serve libraries better, going forward, than each member library acting in accord with local preferences (see this OCLC Report on Operationalizing the BIG Collective Collection: A Case Study of Consolidation vs Autonomy).

To effectively address the challenge of long-term digital preservation, I advocate for:

  1. Digital preservation language (to be centrally provided by CRL’s LIBLICENSE Project) be added to all publisher agreements.
  2. Directors, collection officers and preservation librarians assess the digital preservation environment and collectively decide which programs they are prepared to support, understanding that the leading services all hold unique content, and have differing technical infrastructure and governance/business models that may fare better or worse over time.

My point here (I’m told that blog posts should have a POINT), is that for digital preservation the library community should come together to develop a consistent and focused approach to ensuring that the substantial investments they make in content today will continue to serve their user communities in perpetuity.  By collectively focusing attention and financial resources on one, two or several providers (e.g., CLOCKSS, Portico, HathiTrust), libraries and library consortia would provide the resources needed to instantiate a robust, resilient, and enduring preservation safety net, while likely lowering the cost to each individual subscriber.  More important than cost here, COLLECTIVE participation means that all libraries – large or small - would share a common, coordinated outcome should access be lost over time.  It seems that libraries and publishers could – and SHOULD - agree today that 1) some form of insurance is needed to protect treasured library assets against unforeseeable future disruptions; and 2) users will be better served if the plans for restoring access are seamless and consistent across libraries, rather than each acting individually to provide a path or paths of their own choosing.  Through collective planning and uptake today we can honestly assure our user communities that their access to content will not be lost or impeded in the years, decades or centuries to come.

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