Vol. IX, No. 2

August, 1996

Document Preservation and Access

The Commission on Preservation and Access has issued a report entitled Preserving Digital Information: Report of the Task Force on Archiving of Digital Information. This is a full and comprehensive report on the requirements of and need for digital archiving. The report may be ordered from

The Commission on Preservation and Access
1400 16th Street, NW, Suite 740
Washington, DC 20036-2217

(cost is $15, prepaid, checks made to The Commission on Preservation and Access). The document is also accessible on the Web at http://www.rlg.org.

The report makes several important points about the crucial aspects of archiving and about projects to come. For instance, "The purpose of migration [of data files] 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 regards migration as an essential function of digital archives." (p. ii) Without migration, changes "threaten to render the life of information in the digital age as, to borrow a phrase from Hobbes, 'nasty, brutish, and short.'" (p. 2) This passage is quoted not only because it supports the underlying principles of the Archaeological Data Archive Project but also because the need to migrate data implies that digital archives require more active management of the stored files than has previously been associated with archival care. The active management and the technical problems encountered by such active management implies, in turn, a need for fewer rather than more archival centers. Migration will require somewhat specialized tools and careful control of the process. It will be better carried out by experienced people who work regularly with the processes.

The Task Force also pointed out the responsibilities of scholars in the archival process. "Information creators/providers /owners have initial responsibility for archiving their digital information objects and thereby ensuring the long-term preservation of those objects." (p. 20) Not many scholars are well prepared for that responsibility, because others have traditionally taken charge of the papers, notes, photographs, etc. from scholars. The use of computers has, if anything, tended to make matters worse by making it seem that preservation is automatic. So their responsibility needs to be impressed upon scholars in all fields.

Members of the Task Force also asked hard questions about the financial ramifications of the archival process. They concluded that, "direct charging for use will be entirely acceptable to the relevant user communities." (p. 35) But, they added that "more imaginative solutions need to be found . . . " (p. 35) and then discussed the work of the American Physical Society to serve as the archival home for physics information.

Among the final recommendations are suggestions for providing services to archival organizations, encouraging practical experiments, changing national policies, and cooperating with archival efforts abroad. Finally, there is a recommendation to undertake follow-up studies on actual archival work in order to determine better ways to archive data immediately, to learn more about the problems that will be created by truly massive collections of data, to develop standards for describing and managing digital data, and to gauge the effectiveness of various processes for migrating data.

This report provides important food for thought, and it should be consulted by anyone interested in the preservation of electronic data. As the Task Force put it, if we are to preserve the information we have gathered, "we need to understand the costs of doing so, and we need to commit ourselves technically, legally, economically, and organizationally to the full dimensions of the task. Failure . . . will certainly exact a stiff, long-term cultural penalty." (p. 3)

For other Newsletter articles concerning the use of electronic media in the humanities., or the ADAP consult the Subject index.

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