Librarian protects digital artifacts
- By Florence Olsen
- May 03, 2004
It's Monday, and Laura Campbell is back in Washington, D.C., rested from a weekend in the country. It's pleasant to imagine life there — the horse in the paddock, the dogs running free.
But Campbell, associate librarian for strategic initiatives at the Library of Congress, has an important job that pulls her back to the city. "It's the best job I've ever had," she said.
In 2000, the National Academy of Sciences issued a report that criticized the Library of Congress for being too narrowly focused. Other public and private libraries searched for ways to preserve the artifacts of the Information Age, but the library was lagging instead of leading, the report said.
"It constructively criticized the library for being too insular," Campbell said.
Much has changed since then. Now the Library of Congress is leading a collaborative archiving project known as the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program, for which Congress has appropriated $100 million. And Campbell is the institution's lead librarian for that effort.
The top of Campbell's desk in the library's James Madison Building is covered with rows of reports neatly arranged like a deck of playing cards in a game of solitaire. Campbell has to keep an eye on several projects at once.
"She's done an amazing job of making progress toward a national digital preservation strategy in an extraordinarily complex environment of sometimes conflicting interests," said Clifford Lynch, director of the Coalition for Networked Information, a group of about 200 organizations involved in using information technology to improve scholarship.
Nancy Eaton, dean of university libraries at the Pennsylvania State University, has a similar admiration for Campbell's ability to tease good ideas out of diverse groups. "She's very good at that," Eaton said. That ability, combined with project management skills that Eaton said are masterful, makes Campbell an effective coordinator for one of the library's most ambitious projects to date.
Campbell was previously a vice president at QueTel Corp., a business and systems integration consulting company. Before that, she was a principal with the professional services company Arthur Young & Co., now Ernst & Young Global Ltd. and served as a project manager from 1988 to 1989 for a strategic planning review of the Library of Congress.
Campbell and her colleagues are close to completing their review of 22 proposals from potential preservation partners. They include institutions and organizations that will work with the library to preserve valuable collections of digital works that are at risk of being lost to future generations.
Meanwhile, Campbell and her colleagues are working with experts to craft a technical architecture for the preservation program, tackling the problem from two directions. They are prototyping an architecture whose details computer science experts drew up on paper. They are also testing six other technical architectures that institutions are using to see how well each handles large transfers of digital works.
Campbell and her colleagues are completing a research agenda for digital preservation and will soon be issuing a request for proposals through the National Science Foundation.
Nearly 5 terabytes of digital works have been collected so far. Campbell described the works as at risk, meaning they would be lost if not rescued immediately. They include Web pages that document recent events — the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the war in Iraq and the past two
Beyond that, the collection includes Web sites on topics such as managed health care and terrorism, for example, "that would be relevant and useful for the [United States] and Congress."
Most Web sites are ephemeral; the average site stays up only 44 days, Campbell said. The library's American Memory
project, for which Campbell has a leading role as director of the National Digital Library, takes cultural artifacts and creates digital images of them so that anyone with a computer and access to the Web can view them. The new project will take artifacts that were created as digital works and find ways to preserve access to them for future generations.
Through the American Memory project, library officials have produced a collection of digital materials that is 19 terabytes. "Because of that experience, we were confident we could take on a new challenge," Campbell said.
Librarians used to worry about preserving access to books and periodicals that their institutions owned. Preserving access to Web sites, electronic books and digital audio and video is far more complicated, Campbell said. Libraries subscribe to electronic materials and don't own physical copies. For that reason, ownership is often a bone of contention between copyright holders and libraries interested in preserving long-term access to digitally created works.
Solving the technical problems of digital archiving appears to be somewhat less difficult, Campbell said. Librarians working with computer scientists are considering several techniques for preserving access to works created with software and hardware that will not be around in the future. One technique would be to transfer the old digital files onto new media using new formats.
Although copyright challenges are daunting, library officials said they hope new technology will mitigate some of the complexities. "There may be technological solutions that make the management of restricted material easier," Campbell said.
The library's digital preservation infrastructure will be much more than a cluster of networks and information systems. It will be a network of partnerships among institutions devoted to collecting and preserving valuable digital materials, she said.
Because so much about digital preservation is unknown, Campbell said the library's strategy is to learn by doing and to be prepared to make corrections along the way. Library officials and the many people they consulted during the planning phase of the program tried to think about contingencies and how future events could affect the program's outcome.
Insights gained from that experience were invaluable. "It helped us realize that we would always be learning and adjusting," Campbell said.
As Campbell often reminds herself and others, it is not technology that preserves important cultural and historical works. "Institutions preserve," she said