LiFE^2 – Some Economics of Digital Preservation

The keynote by Paul Courant.

Since libraries are concerned with ‘the past’ (with an eye on the future), and the past grows in scope literally by the second, we’ve got a real challenge on our hands.

Paul starting by asking ‘What is Preservation?’ – saying that he will leave talk of digital until the end of his talk, as he believes that if we understand preservation, we generally understand digital preservation (with some caveats).

You have to have ‘something’ to preserve – information or artifacts or both – an “object”. Preservation activity affects the flow of current and future services available from the “object”. The potential usefulness of the object in the future is dependent on the preservation activity that we have undertaken.

Lifecycle cost according to LiFE said that the cost over time equated to the cost of acquisitions plus time dependent costs associated with: Ingest, Metadata, Access, Storage and Preservation.

Paul saying that the benefits are:

  • Findability (we need to be able to find it)
  • Usefulness (we need to be able to use it)
  • Reliability (we need to do both of the above reliably)

Paul says: Finding a needle in a haystack is relatively straightforward if you know it is there – much better than trying to find a needle in any haystack when you aren’t even sure if the needle is there in the first place.

Paul now quoting from an economist Robert Solow:

“The duty imposed by sustainability is to bequeath to posterity not any particular thing – with rare exceptions such as Yosemite, for example – but rather to endow them with whatever it takes to achieve a standard of living at least as good as our own and to look after the next generation similarly”

This draws an interesting distinction between the general level of preservation – that we just need a ‘body’ of resource that is sustained – and the need to preserve specific things because of their particular impact. I think this is a good concept – and that the thing that is difficult is to define the specific things that are the ‘rare exceptions’ – because most stuff isn’t important in itself, but as it represents a body of resource.

Paul now arguing that ‘markets’ in general won’t do preservation. Quote from Anand and Sen, 2000:

“sustainability cannot be left entirely to the market. The future is not adequately represented by the market – at least not the distant future”

Paul relating the problem of trying to study iPod adverts – the ‘market’ isn’t interested in preserving these.

Paul saying that the cost of adding extra ‘users’ to resources approaches zero (perhaps especially in the context of digital information). I’m not entirely convinced by this addendum, although clearly the cost is low, dealing with a million regular users is a different level of resource to dealing with 1000 regular users.

Paul arguing that there are a number of values related to Natural Resources:

  • Public Good
  • Use Value (you can do something with the resource)
  • Existence Value (knowing something is there is important in a general sense, even if you don’t use it)
  • Option Value (it is important to have the option to use a resource)

Paul now dividing two types of sustainability:

  • Specific sustainability – preserving a specific object (e.g. Magna Carta original manuscript)
  • Value sustainability – preserving the value encoded in an object (e.g. the text of the Magna Carta)

Paul now showing some points from the NSF BRP on Economically Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access:

  • Recognition of benefits of preservation by people who can move resources (Demand)
  • Incentives to people who have the stuff
  • Mechanisms to move resources to the stuff as routine or default, including handoffs
  • Efficient use (don’t save everything perfectly, make choices)
  • Organization and governance of the many relevant players (Paul saying that for this, UK is relatively well positioned, having clear national government, a national library and JISC funding national work – compared to the US)

Paul saying you can’t expect library materials to come with full costs of preservation – we would never have bought any books if we had started like this.

Now Paul saying, all the above is true about preservation in general, so what is different about digital?

  • Fragile – in a different way to paper based stuff
  • Too much staff
  • Rights Environment
  • Use doesn’t wear it out (and may even make it more usable in the future)
  • Functionality and Links (very fragile)
  • Public Goods Implications – once something is available digitally on a server, there are very low distribution costs – this changes the business model – having unique aspects to a physical collection concentrates people around the resource – not true with digital collections

Some points about Digital Scholarship:

  • Easy (sort of) cases
    • Digitized print (Google and the SDR)
    • Journals (Portico, LOCKSS, Some National Libraries)
    • Astronomical Data (because the astronomy community wants to and likes to share data, not because the data is particularly easy)
  • Harder cases
    • Multimedia projects
    • Things with links and embedded functionality (from excel spreadsheets on up)
    • Data from Chemistry experiments (chemists are the opposite of astronomers!)
  • Hardest
    • The cultural record itself
    • Business records, etc.

Paul finishing by saying that only collecting what you know you can sustainably (indefinitely) keep is a “Really Bad Idea”.

Q: Michigan one of the early adopters in regards Google digitization – what economic factors did you look at?

A: Did some calculations about holding 7 million books on servers. University committed to finding the money when the time came. University stood by this committment – and academic value was clear. They did not make an argument about savings to be made by digitization

Q: Can you comment on how preserving websites differs to what you have outlined in your talk?

A: Need a strategy to do a small sample to very high quality, and then do a very large sample at low quality, and recognise that you cannot preserve everything (and we have never done this, or strived to do it). “It is as much museum like as library like – but a lot of things are becoming more museum like, than library like”

Q: One of the things you said is different about digital is loss of local control – can you comment on the impact on the economics and business models?

A: The economics and business models change. The BL exists not just for love, but for profit – it is a differential asset for the UK. Once you look at digital, this is harder – will require high level agreements between governments, Universities etc. That the payoff for having a great local collection might no longer exist is a problem – but what if you can say you have a high level of local skill (in the library) to exploit and integrate digital and physical resources you might get local investment there – but who will pay for making the material available? Not clear.

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