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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.

"Katrina taught the dangers of having all records in one state," she says. "Many vital records now are only digital, and having them backed up in just one server zone is not practical."

The library also is about to start 10 partnerships with study centers at universities around the country to collect content on the Web that falls within their area. One example of these, she says, is an Afghan study center that would have valuable pertinent information she defines as "whatever is relevant to what Congress might need to know to do its work."

It's important to emphasize that the library's focus is on material that is made to be available only in digital form rather than in analog materials, notes Nan Rubin of public television's WNET Channel 13 in New York. He is in charge of a pilot project within the NDIIPP, learning how to keep for posterity TV programs such as "Nature," "Frontline" and "Religious and Ethics News Weekly," a current-affairs show seen Sundays on many PBS stations. All are created in digital format.

"We picked them because they represent three kinds of production work flow," she says, "and also because they represent programs our stations have produced. In some ways, we are major documentarians and major interpreters of the culture."

Her team consists of people from WNET and WGBH in Boston -- the two stations responsible for 60 percent of prime-time public television material -- and from New York University, which she says has expertise in designing digital libraries in the academic and scholarly arena.

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