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Preserving Digital Information: Report of the Task Force on Archiving of Digital Information

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Citation Edit

Task Force on Archiving of Digital Information, Preserving Digital Information: Report of the Task Force on Archiving of Digital Information (May 1, 1996) (full-text).

Overview Edit

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. It started from the premise that migration is a broader and richer concept than "refreshing" for identifying the range of options for digital preservation. Migration is a set of organized tasks designed to achieve the periodic transfer of digital materials from one hardware/software configuration to another, or from one generation of computer technology to a subsequent generation. The purpose of migration is to preserve the integrity of digital objects and to retain the ability for clients to retrieve, display, and otherwise use them in the face of constantly changing technology. The Task Force regarded migration as an essential function of digital archives.

The Task Force envisioned 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 to prejudge neither the question of institutional structure nor the specific content that actual digital archives will select to preserve.

The Task Force saw 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 digital 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 U.S.'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.

In order to lay out the framework for digital preservation that it has envisioned, the Task Force provided an analysis of the digital landscape, focusing on features, including stakeholder interests, that affect the integrity of digital information objects and which determine the ability of digital archives to preserve such objects over the long term. The Task Force then introduced the principle that responsibility for archiving rests initially with the creator or owner of the information and that digital archives may invoke a fail-safe mechanism to protect culturally valuable information. The report explored 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, and costs and financial matters.

Recommendations Edit

The report concluded with a set of recommendations on which the Commission on Preservation and Access and the Research Libraries Group need to act, either separately or together and in concert with other individuals or organizations as appropriate. The Commission and the Research Libraries Group should:

  1. Solicit proposals from existing and potential digital 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 to preservation.
  3. Foster practical experiments or demonstration projects in the archival application of technologies and services, such as hardware and software emulation algorithms, transaction systems for property rights and [[authentication] mechanisms, which promise to facilitate the preservation of the cultural record in digital form.
  4. Engage actively in national policy efforts to design and develop the national information infrastructure to ensure that longevity of information is an explicit goal.
  5. Sponsor the preparation of a white paper on the legal and institutional foundations needed for the development of effective fail-safe mechanisms to support the aggressive rescue of endangered digital information.
  6. Organize 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.
  7. Institute a dialogue among the appropriate organizations and individuals on the standards, criteria and mechanisms needed to certify repositories of digital information as archives.
  8. Identify an administrative point of contact for coordinating digital preservation initiatives in the United States with similar efforts abroad.
  9. Commission follow-on case studies of digital archiving to identify current best practices and to benchmark costs in the following areas: (a) design of systems that facilitate archiving at the creation stage; (b) storage of massive quantities of culturally valuable digital information; (c) requirements and standards for describing and managing digital information; and (d) migration paths for digital preservation of culturally valuable digital information.

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