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Digital information is a vital resource in our knowledge economy, valuable for research and education, science and the humanities, creative and cultural activities, and public policy. But digital information is inherently fragile and often at risk of loss. Access to valuable digital materials tomorrow depends upon preservation actions taken today; and, over time, access depends on ongoing and efficient allocation of resources to preservation.

Sustainable economics for a digital planet: Ensuring long term access to digital information

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Digital information is a vital resource in our knowledge economy, valuable for research and education, science and the humanities, creative and cultural activities, and public policy. But digital information is inherently fragile and often at risk of loss. Access to valuable digital materials tomorrow depends upon preservation actions taken today; and, over time, access depends on ongoing and efficient allocation of resources to preservation. 

Executive Summary

Ensuring that valuable digital assets will be available for future use is not simply a matter of finding sufficient funds. It is about mobilizing resources—human, technical, and financial—across a spectrum of stakeholders diffuse over both space and time. But questions remain about what digital information we should preserve, who is responsible for preserving, and who will pay.

The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access investigated these questions from an economic perspective. In this report, we identify problems intrinsic to all preserved digital materials, and propose actions that stakeholders can take to meet these challenges to sustainability. We developed action agendas that are targeted to major stakeholder groups and to domain-specific preservation strategies. The Task Force focused its inquiry on materials that are of long-term public interest, looking at four content domains with diverse preservation profiles:

Economic analysis of digital preservation of these materials reveals structural challenges that affect all digital preservation strategies: (1) long time horizons, (2) diffused stakeholders, (3) misaligned or weak incentives, and (4) lack of clarity about roles and responsibilities among stakeholders.

These risks, once identified, can be anticipated and provided for throughout the digital lifecycle. Major findings can be summarized as three imperatives for sustainable digital preservation.

Articulate a compelling value proposition

When making the case for preservation, make the case for use. Without well-articulated demand for preserved information, there will be no future supply. Stakeholders for digital materials are often diffuse across different communities. The interests of future users are poorly represented in selecting materials to preserve. Trusted public institutions—libraries, archives, museums, professional organizations and others—can play important roles as proxy organizations to represent the demand of their stakeholders over generations.

A decision to preserve now need not be thought of as a permanent or openended commitment of resources over time. In cases where future value is uncertain, choosing to preserve assets at low levels of curation can postpone ultimate decisions about long-term retention and quality of curation until such time as value and use become apparent.

Provide clear incentives to preserve in the public interest

The lack of clear incentives to act will stymie timely preservation actions. Policy mechanisms can play an important role in strengthening weak motivations. Lowering barriers to efficient decentralized stewardship can be spurred by individual creators‟ use of nonexclusive licenses granting preservation rights to third parties.

Misalignment of incentives among stakeholders may occur between communities that benefit from preservation (and therefore have an incentive to preserve), and those that are in a position to preserve (because they own or control the resource) but lack incentives to do so. Policy mechanisms that can mitigate these problems include: financial incentives and other benefits to private owners who preserve digital materials for the benefit of the public; mandates to preserve when appropriate; and revision of copyright to enable preservation of privately owned materials by stewardship organizations acting in the long-term interest of the public.

Define roles and responsibilities among stakeholders to ensure an ongoing and efficient flow of resources to preservation throughout the digital lifecycle

The strongest incentives to preserve will be ineffective without explicit agreement on the roles and responsibilities of all the actors—those who create the information, those who own it, those who preserve it, and those who make it available for use. Every organization that creates and uses data should implement policies and procedures for preservation, including: selection of materials with long-term value; preparation of data for archiving; and protocols to ensure a smooth and secure transfer of digital assets across organizational boundaries and between institutions.

There is a particular risk of “free riding” with digital materials because the cost of preservation may be borne by one organization but the benefits accrue to many. Effective governance mechanisms are needed to aggregate the collective interest into an effective preservation strategy that ensures that the effort and cost of preservation are appropriately apportioned.

Funding models should be tailored to the norms and expectations of anticipated users. They should leverage economies of scale and scope whenever possible. Digital assets do not need to be treated as a public good in all cases. Market channels are often the most efficient means of allocating resources for preserving many types of digital content.

Digital assets provided as market goods or otherwise privately held must have some provision for handoff to a trustworthy steward when the owner decides to stop preserving them, if those materials are of value to society. For materials that are not amenable to market provision and are at risk of loss—such as certain types of research data, Web-based materials, and digital orphans—public provision is necessary.

Finally, as the rate of digital information production continues to escalate, it is vitally important to reduce the cost of preservation for all types of digital assets. Reducing the cost of storing materials, developing sustainable sources of energy to power preservation systems, and engineering ways to lower the cost of preserving, curating, and providing access are all important.

There is a great diversity of preservation strategies among the content types that have long-term societal value. In the four domains evaluated, we were able to identify significant risks to sustainability and the near-term actions that stakeholders can take to remedy them.

Scholarly discourse

This is a fairly mature field, with well-developed preservation and funding strategies as a legacy of the print world. Disruptions are occurring to longstanding sustainability strategies as a result of digital preservation and distribution. There are particular needs to align preservation incentives among commercial and nonprofit providers; ensure handoffs between commercial publishers and stewardship organizations in the interest of long-term preservation of the scholarly record; and address the free-rider problem. Clarification of the long-term value of emerging genres of digital scholarship, such as academic blogs and grey literature, is a high priority. Research and education institutions, professional societies, publishers, libraries, and scholars all have leading roles to play in creating sustainable preservation strategies for the materials that are valuable to them.

Research data

There is a remarkable growth of data-intensive research in all knowledge domains. In most fields, there is high recognition of the benefits of preserving research data for various purposes and lengths of time. But there are few robust systems for making decisions about what to preserve; and there is often a lack of coordination of roles, responsibilities, and funding sources among those best positioned to preserve data (researchers) and the preservation infrastructure (curation and archiving services) that should support them. Research and education institutions, professional societies, archives, researchers, and the funding agencies that support data creation all have leading roles to play in creating sustainable preservation strategies.

Commercially owned cultural content

There are well-established preservation and access strategies undergoing fundamental changes as a result of new information technologies. This includes the creation, distribution, and consumption of cultural content, most evident in the emergence of interactive genres such as games and the creation of a long tail of use and reuse. As a result, there may be two forms of benefits— commercial and cultural, or private and public—that compete with one another. When that occurs, proxy organizations must step in to represent the public interest. Leading players in preserving this content include private creators, owners, and trade associations, stewardship organizations, regulatory authorities, and leading national and international institutions that can sponsor public-private partnerships to ensure the long-term access to our digital cultural heritage.

Collectively created web content

The Web environment is marked by great dynamism, uncertainty about long-term value of digital content, and obscure ownership and rights issues for many collectively produced Web assets. The priority here is for stewardship organizations, content creators, hosting sites, platform providers, and users to model and test preservation strategies, and to provide clarification about long-term value and selection criteria.

The Task Force identified important next steps for each of these content areas; they are summarized in Table 5.2.

Sustainable preservation is a societal concern, however, and transcends the boundaries of any particular content domain. All parts of society—national and international agencies, funders and sponsors of data creation, stakeholder organizations, and individuals—have roles in achieving sustainability. Leadership is needed at all levels of society. Table 5.1 presents a summary of the action agendas for these major stakeholders.

Areas of priority for near-term action

Organisational action
  • developing public-private partnerships
  • ensuring that organizations have access to skilled personnel, from domain
  • experts to legal and business specialists
  • creating and sustaining secure chains of stewardship between organizations over time
  • achieving economies of scale and scope
  • addressing the free-rider problem
Technical action
  • building capacity to support stewardship in all areas
  • lowering the cost of preservation overall
  • determining the optimal level of technical curation needed to operationalize
  • an option strategy for all types of digital material
Public policy action
  • modifying copyright laws to enable digital preservation
  • creating incentives and requirements for private entities to preserve on behalf of the public (financial incentives, handoff requirements)
  • sponsoring public-private partnerships
  • clarifying rights issues associated with Web-based materials
  • empowering stewardship organizations to protect digital orphans from unacceptable loss
Education and public outreach action
  • promoting education and training for 21st century digital preservation(domain-specific skills, curatorial best practices, core competencies in relevant science, technology, engineering, and mathematics knowledge)
  • raising awareness of the urgency to take timely preservation actions

Sustainable preservation strategies are not built all at once, nor are they static. Sustainable preservation is a series of timely actions taken to anticipate the dynamic nature of digital information. Decision makers will always face uncertainties. Changes in technologies, policy environments, investment priorities, and societal concerns will unfold over the course of the digital lifecycle. But we can develop practices that resolve or anticipate uncertainties, that leverage resources among stakeholders, and above all, that leave options open for decision makers in the future. Sustainable preservation strategies will find ways to turn the uncertainties of time and resources into opportunities for flexibility, adjustments in response to changing priorities, and redirection of resources where they are most needed. Commitments made today are not commitments for all time. But actions must be taken today to ensure flexibility in the future.

Above all, sustainable digital preservation requires a compelling value proposition, incentives to act, and well-defined roles and responsibilities. Digital preservation is a challenge for all of society because we all benefit from reliable, authentic information now and into the future. Done well, all of society will reap the benefits of digital stewardship. 

Download the full report below

Documents & Multimedia

Blue Ribbon Task Force
Publication Date
23 March 2010
Publication Type
Strategic Themes