Preserving cultural artifacts
- By Sara Michael
- Mar 09, 2003
During the 2000 presidential election, a slew of Web sites emerged that chronicled the candidates' campaigns and the problems that plagued some voting centers. Before those Web sites disappear forever, Library of Congress officials are seeking a way to save them so that future generations can have some insight into a piece of American history.
Those Web sites are among the growing amount of information that is "born digital." Library of Congress officials last month introduced a plan for preserving such information.
"Your great-great-grandchildren will have a picture of the early days of the Internet," said Laura Campbell, associate librarian for strategic initiatives.
The National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program has been approved by Congress and has already received funding. Now the library's archivists face the daunting task of figuring out just how to tackle the task of saving digital information.
The plan includes developing a strategy for collecting and preserving digital information from federal agencies and private entities. The Library of Congress is enlisting other libraries, entertainment associations and nonprofit organizations to help develop the plan. That network of partners will work together to determine who gathers what information and to build a digital architecture for the preservation of those electronic collections, Campbell said.
Digital photographs and movies, music, Web-based journals and other electronic items would be preserved for future generations. But archivists must first choose a format that everyone can agree on to preserve the digital data, and that format will likely change as archiving technology advances.
"You have to consider the ability to play back and provide access to [information] in 100 years," Campbell said. Today, users who want to access files stored on a 5.25-inch floppy disk are out of luck because computers are no longer made with drives that can read such disks. So choosing the correct format and medium for archiving digital data is not only important, it's never-ending.
"This will be a continuing process," Campbell said. New digital information will need to be archived, and already archived information will need to be stored in an updated format. "There won't be an end date. We try to create some efficiencies in terms of responsibility, technology and cost of preserving digital information."
In December 2000, Congress authorized the establishment of a digital preservation plan and provided the library with $100 million for the purpose. Of that, $5 million is dedicated to developing the plan. Now that the plan has been approved, $20 million is available to help library officials embark on the first stages of the plan.
Congress will release the remaining $75 million as needed, but the money must be matched dollar for dollar by nonfederal sources in the form of cash, hardware or software.
The library will begin with a yearlong fact-finding effort that involves consulting organizations with data that needs saving — such as music associations, libraries and newspapers — and defining the functions of an archiving infrastructure. Campbell said officials have already begun selecting items that are at risk of disappearing, such as articles about the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and Web sites covering the 2000 presidential election.
Library officials will then embark on actions mapped out in the plan: developing the key components of the archiving infrastructure, building a preservation architecture and researching how to manage the digital information.
The first round of outlining the plan may take three to five years, Campbell said. After seeing certain areas that need more money and work, library officials will launch a second round, which could take a few more years. Then they can tackle the task of preserving the vast amount of digital data.
The National Archives and Records Administration is facing similar obstacles with the Electronic Records Archive, launched last fall to preserve all the government's public records. While Library of Congress officials are responsible for preserving cultural artifacts, NARA saves public records and government documents. NARA's information, however, has different restrictions and requires more secure methods of preservation.
Like NARA, the library must find a format that is independent of current hardware and software so that the information can be accessed in its original form 100 years from now, said Reynolds Cahoon, assistant archivist for human resources and information services and chief information officer at NARA.
"Without [digital preservation], we face the very real risk that the actions of our government officials and electronic records will not be preserved and accessible to future generations," Cahoon said.
The challenge lies in the tremendous volume and complexity of digital information, which includes compound and embedded documents that are often dependent on specific technologies. The records also come in a daunting 4,800 different formats, Cahoon said.
As a result, archivists must develop an ever-changing architecture for digitizing information.
"The idea is to create an architecture that allows the continuous replacement of components in the system, so it's ever-fresh," Cahoon said. "The idea is to try to find formats that are hardware- and software-independent. Certainly, there's a lot of work going on trying to determine standards to find technology-independent formats."
One possible solution is Extensible Markup Language, a standard for tagging information so it can be easily exchanged by different computer systems. During the past several years, many communities have used XML to standardize the way data is entered and saved.
But J. Timothy Sprehe, president of Sprehe Information Management Associates Inc., said he's not sure it is possible to preserve digital data right now.
"It's in the nature of [information technology] to change constantly. Hardware changes, software changes," he said. "Either you devise some kind of entirely new technology or you have to constantly invest in the migration of technology. The investment theory is daunting. It's ever-growing."
Officials with the federal court system are also seeking to develop a format for archiving information, and they are joining other agencies in the quest. Casework documents are currently filed as PDFs at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, making PDF archiving a strong candidate for long-term preservation of judicial files. Industry groups are working to develop an international standard called PDF/A that preserves the look and integrity of a document for access 100 to 200 years from now.
"We're looking for a national rule," said Karen Redmond, a spokeswoman for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts. "We're not there yet."
Library of Congress officials examined the challenges involved in archiving information “born digital.” They reviewed these formats:
* E-books — E-books are read on handheld devices that are different sizes than books, so conventional pages and page numbers have to be reconfigured, and the industry must develop standards for software used to read the e-books.
* E-journals — E-journals present a bigger problem than e-books, because they are made up of a variety of information in the form of links and images.
* Digital music — The technology used in digital sounds is more fragile than paper or print, and music has complicated copyright protections.
* Digital television and video — Both forms of media have a complex mix of text and images and require large-scale storage systems.
* Web sites — Because anyone can create a publicly available Web site, officials must decide which sites should be saved, and because the average site contains 15 links, officials must decide the boundaries of the site.