The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 21, Number 8

IFLA Highlights
1997 Conference, Copenhagen
Part I: Preservation of Electronic Records

by Jean Whiffin

Representatives on the Standing Committee on Preservation and Conservation

The 1997 nominations brought the Committee up to full strength (21), with 5 representatives from North America. U.S.A.: Diane N. Kresh, Sharlane Grant, Sophie K. Jordan; Canada: Ralph W. Manning, Jean I. Whiffin. Ralph Manning was elected Chair for 1997-1999.

Preservation of Electronic Information

Although the Copenhagen Conference provided a forum for a range of preservation topics (including retrospective serials, interlending considerations, and ethical issues), questions of preservation of, and access to, digital library resources permeated the proceedings. Guest Lecturer Sir Roger Elliott, Chair of the International Council of Scientific Unions (ICSU) Press, spoke on "The Impact of Electronic Publishing on the Scientific Information Chain" and reported on the 1996 ICSU/UNESCO Conference of Experts on "Electronic Publishing in Science." His particular concern, and the subject of the 1996 Conference recommendations, is that librarians maintain a proper archive of electronic material. He chided the profession for neglecting its traditional role, and leaving this responsibility to publishers, since "This cannot be a long-term solution given its fragmentation and the commercial pressures."

Leonard Kniffel, in his Editorial "Where Are the Electronic Mummies?" in the October 1997 issue of American Libraries, commenting on Sir Roger's IFLA lecture, muses on why international organizations tend to be more aware of preservation than most American organizations, and zooms in on the Internet with a wake-up call: "Nothing can be useful in the future if it is not preserved today. The Internet does not a library make, but the record of what appeared on the Internet and how it affected our lives will make for fascinating study one day if it's saved."

Dealing with electronic information is the major focus of IFLA's 1998-2001 Medium Term Program (MTP). Its strategy over the next four years will concentrate on the electronic environment as it affects IFLA's objective to promote librarianship globally, and particularly in respect of preservation of the world's documentary heritage. In the business meetings of the Standing Committee of the Section on Preservation and Conservation, its draft MTP Goals 1998-2001 were expanded to include "To monitor activities related to the digitization of library materials and to promote the concept of library preservation as a part of these activities."

The case for a separate statement on documents originally produced electronically was strongly argued by committee member Johan Mannerheim and leader of the Royal Library of Sweden's Kulturarw3 Heritage Project. [w3 = www.] This resulted in an additional goal: "To promote long-term preservation of original electronic documents and access to them." It is proposed to organize at the 1998 Conference a workshop dealing with preservation and information technology, which will be developed by Johan Mannerheim in conjunction with the Section on Information Technology.

The same committee member also distributed a brochure on The Kulturar3 Heritage Project: Long-Term Preservation of Published Electronic Documents. This project aims to test methods of collecting, preserving and providing access to Swedish electronic documents which are accessible online in such a way that they can be regarded as published. It takes the approach of making the task as automatic as possible by using robots to download, a model which is also being tested by the private non-profit Internet Archive foundation in San Francisco. Robots regularly locate Swedish Web pages and download them to the Royal Library. Various ways of storing the documents will be considered and tested in practice, and of making the documents accessible locally, and on finding long-term forms of storage which will facilitate migration to future software and hardware environments. The initial downloading of the "se" [Sweden] domain has taken place, involving 4.8 million URL's obtained from 15,000 Web sites. Images, sound, etc. are included as well as text. Some other Nordic countries have acquired funding to commence similar projects.

Further information can be obtained from Johan Mannerheim (e-mail: or the project engineer Johan Palmkvist (e-mail: Not surprisingly, this project evoked considerable discussion in the Standing Committee, not only because Web sites come and go like bubbles in champagne, but because of a perceived need for selectivity, given the proliferation and variable quality.

Brewster Kahle's Internet Archive surfaced again in the full-day Workshop on "Preservation of Audiovisual and Multimedia Documents," presented by five IFLA sections including Preservation and Conservation. Terry Kuny (IFLANET Administration) gave an excellent paper entitled "A Digital Dark Ages? Challenges in the Preservation of Electronic Information." He ably summarized the present digital environment, the state of research, and the key areas to which concerned institutions and professionals can contribute. He commended Internet Archive as a notable attempt at archiving the Internet, but advised informed skepticism about the claims of organizations that say they will do this. "The library and archival communities already know that not everything can and should be saved. What is key is selecting which digital resources to preserve and which ones not to preserve.... An important caveat is that the [Internet Archive] is, at best, a fuzzy snapshot of the electronic materials which are most easily available. The vast majority of Internet resources are not amenable to the kind of 'sweep' that Kahle's archive is attempting to undertake, as the resources reside in databases which cannot be traversed by automated systems. There is also an interesting legal question about whether the Internet Archive has the right to copy entire websites into its database. This question will likely be the most significant one for the success of such operations in the future."

Terry Kuny made it absolutely clear that "no one understands how to archive digital documents. Microfilm remains the long-term medium of choice for projects seeking to preserve large numbers of documents. Sustainable solutions to digital preservation problems are not available. The research program for digital preservation is still being established."

In the lively discussion period, Mirjam Foot (U.K.) suggested libraries should cooperate more with archives, and piggy-back on the work of other communities, such as banks, big corporations, etc., which also do not wish to lose their data forever; and get governments to fund paper editions. Terry Kuny had already suggested it might be appropriate, in the present transition period, to print an electronic document on acid-free paper and handle it according to established archival practices. He also referred to the University of California Digital Library framework, which includes the need to ensure that, where digital materials are printable, the licences and contracts associated with them allow you to print a copy on acid-free paper for preservation purposes.

Other participants expressed reluctance to use past solutions such as print-outs, noting that digital documents are easier to search, and that no paper solution exists for multimedia. What is needed is a new solution, a universal open medium like paper, accepting all types of information. But the new paradigm--whatever it may be is a long, long way away.

While some librarians see the problems as ones to be solved by library science and new regulations in legal deposit laws, Terry Kuny believes that "The challenge in preserving electronic information is not primarily a technological one, it is a sociological one" and "legal deposit in a digital era will have limited effectiveness."

Terry Kuny's conclusions (some of which are also apparent in the Getty Center's announcement of a February 1998 on-line discussion and meeting towards a framework for long-term digital cultural preservation) were as follows:

Digital collections facilitate access, but do not facilitate preservation. Being digital means being ephemeral. Digital places greater emphasis on the here-and-now rather than the long-term, [and on] just-in-time information rather than just-in-case. The research program for digital preservation has only recently been initiated to develop strategies, guidelines, and standards. Although tremendous work has been undertaken in defining the problems and challenges, much more remains to be done, and the tough task of actually doing digital preservation (and digital rescue) remains ahead.

A critical appraisal of where we are vis-á-vis our digital culture, and what we want for the future--something which may not be defined in technical terms at all--is required both inside and outside of the library and archival professions. If history and cultural heritage are to be important, then it will likely fall to librarians and archivists, the monastic orders of the future, to ensure that something of the heady days of our "digital revolution" remains for future generations. The challenges to digital preservation are considerable and will require a concerted effort on the part of librarians and archivists to rise up to these challenges and assert in public forums the importance of protecting a fragile digital heritage.

The second and final part of this report will run in the next issue. It will cover advocacy of permanent paper and the role of national libraries.

Jean Whiffin would be pleased to answer any questions from Abbey Newsletter readers about the work of the IFLA Section on Preservation and Conservation. Her e-mail address is: <>. Please note that the address starts with a lowercase L, not a one.

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