Get With the Program: Digital Preservation at a Large Academic Library

Directional Lines on the Floor of Hatcher Library

Directional lines on the floor of Hatcher Library, Photo by University of Michigan Library via Flickr (CC BY 2.0) 

Note: Sorry for the lack of posts. We are implementing a more regular posting schedule to give you that digital preservation fix you need. 

We thought a natural follow up to our first post on what is digital preservation would be one that talks more specifically about how the University Library approaches digital preservation at an organizational level. Something that may distinguish large academic libraries like this one from other collecting institutions is the diversity of digital content that we steward. Digitized books, manuscripts, audio and video and born digital archival and licensed content material are all part of the pile of stuff that we need to preserve in some way. This kind of diversity requires us to really think through how we steward content in the best manner possible under very real-world constraints and finite resources.  

Projects to Programs: One of the distinguishing characteristics of digital preservation is the need to actively manage content over time. Benign neglect is a very analog thing. In the digital world, neglect is just neglect and can result in a visit from Uncle Obsolesce, who leaves us un-openable files and unreadable media as gifts (what a jerk). Often, an institution's first delve into the world of digital preservation is a grant funded digitization project or a first accession of a born-digital collection. They receive money to create or ingest the content and hire a few people for a few years to help with that process. The flaw with this project-based model is it very often does not take into account the need for ongoing management. Grants do not fund long-term staffing or storage, and often the expertise and funding required to maintain and manage the digital content walk out the the door when the funding ends. 

Another very common thing that happens in an organization first starting with digital preservation is the need to use a lot of money and staff hours to figure out how to allocate staffing, build infrastructure, and develop workflows enabling preservation and access to digital content. This is an understandable reaction the first time someone walks through the door with a large donation of born-digital content. Personally, my reaction to that is usually to run around in circles and talk gibberish for a few hours. However, those reactions become less understandable when the 17th person walks in with that donation. This is the point where an organization shifts from project to program based digital preservation. 

Ongoing digital preservation programs enable active management over time. This requires a commitment to appropriate staffing and the development and maintenance of a preservation-focused technical infrastructure. Digital preservation programs also develop institutional responses to digital content. The organization ingests and manages the content following already established policies, procedures, and workflows developed for common collection types. Staff working at these institutions also know that these responses will need to be revisited as technology and collecting focuses change over time. 

Digital preservation continuum
Digital Preservation Continuum by lancestuch via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Running the Gamut: I am sure you are thinking "The program thing sounds great, Mr. Fancypants, but that sounds very resource intensive." You are, of course, correct. The situation becomes even more complex when dealing with so many differing aggregations of digital content that are found in an academic library like ours. I like to think of those aggregations of digital content sitting on a sort of continuum of digital preservation, where managed preservation actions and cost rise together. For us, things like our institutional repository or the development of a research data archiving solution are on the side of the continuum where resources are allotted for highly managed preservation solutions. However, we live in the real world and not everything can receive that same level of support and management. For example, we partner with the Bentley Library for the preservation of our website. Keeping versions of our website is important to us as an institution, but we did not have the resources or staff expertise to do it ourselves, and did not plan to allocate those anytime soon. Luckily, the Bentley has a web archiving program in-place, and we were able to work with them to provide a good archiving solution. 

In my opinion, our web archiving solution is a good one. It is situated further toward the cheaper/less managed end of the continuum, but that is a conscious choice made by the institution that matches our goals and resource allocation for that type of content. We have a good understanding of how that content will be managed over time and how we as an organization respond to the preservation of information of our website. The problem occurs when an aggregation's placement on the continuum does not match associated stewardship goals. The University of Michigan Library has made a name for itself in several area of digital preservation, but that does not mean we are immune to this mismatch or that we do not need to work at applying our digital preservation program to a more diverse set of digital content. For us, digitized audio and video, digital licensed content, and born-digital manuscripts are types of content that still need further incorporation into our larger digital preservation program (look for future posts discussing these examples in more detail). Resources like expertise, storage, and technical procedures need further development to enable both active management and a standardized institutional response. This might sound a bit like I am complaining or airing dirty laundry. It is, rather, the real world of digital preservation. Even a organization as relatively large and resourced as the University Library has work to do as technology changes and we leave our comfort zones to preserve more of the historical record and protect our digital assets. The first step of that work is prioritizing content that needs work and advocating for appropriate resource allocation and technical solutions. 

Luckily, there is a large community developing around the creation of implementable digital preservation solutions. It is our hope that we can both contribute and learn from this exchange of ideas, and I can stop running around in circles.

Lance Stuchell is the Digital Preservation Librarian at the University of Michigan Library . 


on Nov. 6, 3:16pm

Nice post, Lance!

on Nov. 10, 2:05pm

Great write-up, Lance. I especially liked your continuum graph/explanation. I see first-hand how important it is to have both sides of the continuum grow together. Here at Texas A&M, our nascent digital preservation program is rich in resources, institutional commitment, and technical expertise; however, we have found ourselves lacking significantly in the establishment of policies, procedures, and workflows. For such a large, departmentalized institution as ours, the development of improved "institutional responses to digital content" is proving rather challenging. It's a 'lowest common denominator' problem; the program can progress only as fast as we can address said deficiencies. Thanks for your insight.

Lance Thomas Stuchell
on Nov. 11, 9:17am

Thanks for the comment Sean (especially for showing some love to my graph)! I think policy and procedure creation is hard for most everyone, especially for content that might fall a bit under the radar. We have recently decided to create a library wide digital preservation policy. It certainly will not solve all of the problems associated with allocating resources for development and ongoing preservation, but hopefully it will at least provide a starting point to getting new "institutional responses" up and running. Good luck with your work!!