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Saving the digital record
A U.S. presidential hopeful announces his or her candidacy in an e-mail, on a Web site or on a Web log, and chances are the moment will be lost to history in a year’s time or less.
Digital information — much of it of value to historians — is fast disappearing in our electronically charged world.
“Today the average life span of a Web site is 44 days,” says Guy Lamolinara, a spokesman for the Library of Congress’ Office of Strategic Initiatives, which has instigated a collaborative project designed to prevent such losses.
The National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP) is a 10-year project funded initially by Congress to identify the problems involved and outline possible solutions for saving digital materials deemed important parts of the country’s heritage.
“The political Web sites of the 1994 national elections — the first time in history that the Web played a role in an election — are now forever gone,” reads a library Web site written by Mr. Lamolinara.
Examples of what the project hopes to save would include Web sites as they existed after September 11, 2001, and after Hurricane Katrina, digitally recorded music or video and even, possibly, social networking sites. Much of what is being created begins life in a digital format and exists in no other form, Mr. Lamolinara points out.
“Every day the same quantity of words is produced digitally as is in the whole Library of Congress already,” notes Mary Rasenberger, a policy adviser working on complicated issues having to do with copyright laws.
As the nation’s key repository of recorded history, the library in 2000 took the lead to form a network of 67 other cooperating institutions and organizations with archival interests and needs. The challenges — legal, political and technical — are unprecedented in many ways. Officials involved speak of a national network being set up to share the work centered now under project director Martha Anderson. In 2010, the library’s Office of Strategic Initiatives will present a plan to Congress that will include a vision for continuing the network that is in place and already collecting Web sites.
“We do it as a consortium — a network of institutions — because it is too big for one,” says Ms. Anderson, a library employee for 11 years who previously was coordinator for the library’s American Memory program, which offers multimedia collections of digitized documents, photographs, recorded sound, motion pictures and text from the American historical collections in the library and elsewhere.
NDIIPP set itself five goals, defined by Ms. Rasenberger as “content,” figuring out what is important and why; “management,” how the network will operate; the “technical infrastructure,” developing the tools and techniques to preserve and create the network; “sustainability,” who pays for the system and how; and “policy,” ticklish copyright issues and the need to create incentives for saving material.
Her group within the NDIIPP is known as Section 108, named after the section in the 1976 copyright law that provides an exception for libraries and archives in regard to materials needed for their collections. The group’s job at the moment is to come up with suggestions for amendments to the law in light of changes brought on by the digital world.
“Digital materials raise very different concerns from analog because they are instantly easily copied and distributed in perfect form, which directly affects the copyright owner and licensee,” she says. “It can materially undermine the ability to recoup an investment and therefore undermine the incentive to create and preserve material.”
The library’s Beth Dulabahn works with partner institutions on content-selection guidelines and criteria under the weighty title of senior adviser for integration management. She points out that the problems of what to keep and what will be useful in 50 years are similar to those that arise with the library’s physical collections.
“There aren’t many people who believe we can save all of it; things always have gone by the boards. The difference now is that there is just so much more,” she says. “A lot of primary source material that people have hung onto in the past, such as personal correspondence, is less likely to be saved unless we are a lot more proactive.”
Most of the $100 million appropriated by Congress for NDIIPP went into establishing what Ms. Anderson calls “partnerships” — the cooperative agreements with the 67 nonprofits and universities. She hopes the project will receive more money for work to be done with states that would involve a shared repository system.
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