Managing digital information

The business plans of the dot-com era and other digital materials will exist in their native electronic format for future generations, thanks in part to $15 million in grants that the Library of Congress recently gave to eight institutions and their partners.

The grants are part of a $100 million program, funded by Congress and administered by the library, to capture "born-digital" material, such as Web sites and electronic databases. The first partnerships will take root during the next three years.

The National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program is managed by Laura Campbell, associate librarian for strategic initiatives. It will be an outgrowth of long-term partnerships, Campbell's careful planning and the mastery of some tricky constraints.

The first round of funding will go toward digitizing cultural content, such as the birth of the dot-com era and the 2003 California gubernatorial recall election.

Campbell must navigate intellectual property rights as she plots her course. "Copyright is the biggest challenge," she said. For assistance, she will work with the grant winners, their partners and two consultants, with whom she will meet twice a year.

Aside from copyright concerns, Campbell must consider other limitations. "We are especially interested in the best ways to build a national collection, including the challenges of addressing intellectual property, the best ways of preserving digital material for the long term, as well as addressing the costs of a distributed network," she said.

During this three-year partnership period, she also will recruit participants from state and local governments and the private sector. The latter will provide broadcast materials and electronic journals.

Storage space is another unknown variable for the program in its formative years. Campbell will look for best practices for digital preservation during the next few years. The outcome of these projects will give library officials a better idea of the amount of space needed to store content.

Digital archives can be more vulnerable than books, because hardware and software quickly become obsolete. And the durability of magnetic storage media such as tapes and disks is limited.

"You're not putting a book on a shelf and knowing that, when you go back, the book's going to be there," Campbell said.

Despite hardships, born-digital materials will not escape digital preservation's grasp. The Educational Broadcasting Corp. will lead a project to preserve public TV programs, such as "NOVA" and "Frontline," which are only produced in digital formats.

Future grantees will likely follow a similar pattern, experts said. "Almost all of the solutions by necessity have to be collaborations because it's much easier to build something that works ...so major academic libraries and commercial companies will vie for joint proposals," said David Seaman, executive director of the Digital Library Federation.

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Keepsakes in the Digital Age

Here's a list of some of the projects that are under way to preserve digital materials using grants from the Library of Congress, which is developing new ways to archive digital data:

Officials at the University of California's Office of the President will focus on local political activities and movements, such as the California gubernatorial recall election of 2003.

University of California-Santa Barbara officials will collect and preserve material ranging from imagery to other cartographic content from university, corporate and government resources as well as Web sites.

Emory University officials will work on a variety of subjects complementary to Library of Congress collections such as the Civil War, the civil rights movement, slave narratives, Southern music, handicrafts and church history.

Officials at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business will preserve at-risk digital materials from U.S. business culture during the early years of the commercialization of the Internet, specifically 1994-2001.

Officials at the University of Michigan's Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research will preserve opinion polls, voting records, large-scale surveys on family growth and income, and studies of the effects on families of issues such as factory closings or the need to care for aging parents.

Officials at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign Library, Graduate School of Library and Information Science, and National Center for Supercomputing Applications will develop criteria for determining which digital materials to preserve, because not all digital materials can or should be preserved.

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