The Abbey Newsletter

Volume 24, Number 3

"Reality" Bytes: Conference Presents Variety of Views on Electronic Records Preservation

by Thomas F.R. Clareson, Imaging and Preservation Services Manager, Amigos Library Services, Inc.

"Digital Reality II: Preserving our Electronic Heritage," a one-day conference sponsored by NELINET, the Northeast Document Conservation Center, and the John F. Kennedy Library, attracted 360 people to Boston to hear a spectrum of lively viewpoints on the preservation of electronic records.

Held June 5, the program tackled one of the toughest and highest-profile issues in preservation today—how to manage and perpetuate the mass of critical electronic records created by and for libraries, archives, and other cultural institutions.

The day began with introductions and welcoming remarks from Megan Desnoyers, Archivist of the Kennedy Library, and Ann Russell, Executive Director of NEDCC. In his introductory remarks, Arnold Hirshorn, NELINET's Executive Director, attracted the audience's attention with the announcement of the "New England Digital Library," an initiative to coordinate and manage the creation, storage, access, and maintenance of a Web-based digital library for cultural institutions in the Northeast.

Tim Berners-Lee, 3Com (Computer Communication Compatibility) Founders Chair at the Laboratory for Computer Science, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is credited as the inventor of the World Wide Web. Now a best-selling author with his book, Weaving the Web, Berners-Lee spoke to "The Future of the World Wide Web" at Digital Reality II.

Tracing the origin of the Web to high-energy physicists' need for quick communications, Berners-Lee envisioned the Web as "as way to communicate, to build something together... a culture and space of common information."

In building the Web, Berners-Lee mentioned, computers are now "part of the infrastructure—a pipeline which sometimes brings in problems, such as 500 new messages in your inbox in one day."

It is this large amount of information, and the storage space needed to keep it, which concerns Berners-Lee. When students and others claim that everything they need to know is on the Web, that is a cause for concern as well. While many have called for selection for preservation of electronic records, Berners-Lee warned against "forming a club which rejects types of selection not related to that club." He asked the audience to be accepting of new forms and forums of communication, and to work with the challenges they present to libraries.

Berners-Lee also advocated preserving the links and persistence of references on the Internet—developing persistence policies for identifiers. He called for development of standards for interoperability and future access.

Walt Crawford, Senior Analyst, Access Services Officer and Information Architect at the Research Libraries Group, envisioned three possible futures for the World Wide Web in libraries and archives. One scenario was a "wired, all-digital-all-the-time" approach, which offers little room for "meaning and contemplation." Another future is nonwired, with the Web simply a tool for specialists. Crawford preferred a world where digital and traditional materials co-exist, the digital complementing the physical holdings. This complex hybrid future can offer new services and publications through libraries, "putting old things together in new ways." Crawford urged cultural institutions to add new forms of information to what currently exists, and to use the Web to extend and continue developing new services.

In a lively question-and-answer session following the two morning speakers, the recent rash of computer viruses was discussed, leading Berners-Lee to note that "viruses wipe out a large population from the same gene pool," and that diversity in information sources and formats, a positive aspect of the Web, must be balanced with the need for standards.

To begin the afternoon session of the conference, Paul Conway, Head of Preservation at Yale University, discussed approaches to digital preservation. Conway, a veteran of the first Digital Reality Conference, held in 1998, mentioned preservation as a balance between the "extraordinary investment" libraries and archives are making in the Internet, and the "the high risk of loss" associated with electronic media.

Conway provided a positive note, saying significant progress has been made in electronic preservation in the last decade. National and international research and development initiatives have helped to define best practices. The Council on Library and Information Resources and the National Digital Library Federation are providing a national leadership infrastructure in the field. Conway urged quality—"building products that will be used"—and collaboration in the preservation of our vital electronic resources.

As Director of the Technical Services Division, Smithsonian Institution Archives, Fynette Eaton is establishing an electronic records program for the Institution. Formerly Chief of the Technical Services Branch, Center for Electronic Records, National Archives and Records Administration, Eaton developed preservation policies and programs for federal agency electronic records. Her presentation looked at trends in electronic document creation, and models used to preserve electronic materials through migration, or transferring materials from one hardware and software configuration to another. Model programs included efforts by InterPARES (International Research on Permanent Authentic Records) and the San Diego Supercomputer Center.

Jeff Rothenberg of the Rand Corporation envisioned a future where greater numbers of documents will be created and stored digitally. He discussed their vulnerability to loss due to media or software decay and obsolescence. "Truly archival media" for electronic records preservation is not currently cost-effective, said Rothenberg, because "the market will not pay for long-lived media while (technological) progression continues" at its current high speed. As a result, developing policies—"choosing what to lose" and what to retain, and adding interpretation to the documents which are moved forward to each new technological platform—is central to digital preservation.

Rothenberg discussed the theory of emulation, which allows users to save access to software by running it on hardware that can emulate its original system. Rothenberg noted some shortcomings in the concept—users will need to know how to run the obsolete software in the future—but discussed current "experiments" with emulation which seem economical and efficient.

A panel at the conclusion of the program, led by Jan Merrill Oldham, Malloy-Rabinowitz Preservation Librarian, Weissman Preservation Center, Harvard University Library, included Conway suggesting emulation as "a subset of migration" which would be used when selection for preservation was not applied. Migration, said Conway, constituted selection of material to be moved forward.

Panel members asked conference attendees to "think of preservation at the conception of the document," noting that "responsibility for preservation begins at the planning stage." In developing "technological solutions that fit within collection management policies," panelists urged that we not let technology "run too far in front of policy" as we wrestle with electronic preservation issues.

Almost to a person, the speakers at "Digital Reality II" had said they would raise more questions than provide answers. However, the spectrum of preservation scenarios they presented, and the frameworks for policy development they proposed, sent attendees home armed with a number of strategies for gaining control of electronic records concerns. The number of practical policy suggestions included in this one-day program was astonishing.

(Reprinted with permission from the Regional Alliance for Preservation [the RAP newsletter], Summer 2000.)

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