Partnering for Preservation

Can governments come up with plans to preserve digital information for future generations? Yes, but CIOs must be on board to make it happen.

by , / April 7, 2006
"What does it really mean to preserve an electronic record for 50 years?" This is the question that Adam Jansen, Washington state's digital archivist asks regularly. "We have a long standing core set of archival science principles that addresses questions like why you have an archive and how you create one. Our challenge is applying those principles to this new media."

There is recognition within the digital preservation community that to move forward, changes must be made -- not just to the way librarians, archivists and records managers address preservation issues, but by extending the preservation community to others involved in the creation, management and use of digital information.

The responsibility for preserving and providing public access to state and local government information belongs to state libraries and archives. As interest in digital form increases, state librarians, archivists and records managers are finding that new strategies are required to meet this responsibility.

Traditional partnerships in the digital preservation community are necessary but not sufficient, according to Jan Reagan, head of the State Library of North Carolina's Document Branch. Reagan was actively involved in pioneering a statewide collaboration between the North Carolina State Library, State Archives, and State Data Center to research digital information issues, gain a better understanding of current publishing practices in state agencies and develop solutions for managing state information in digital formats.

The preservation business has changed and new partnerships are seen as critical to creating the necessary capability for success. "When we received reports in paper form -- it didn't matter to those of us who were curators how the information had been created, because the medium was the printed page," Reagan said. "Our concern was cataloging it, preserving it and making it accessible. In the digital age, information is coming at us in many formats, and the process of creation now very much influences the process of preservation. We need to think differently about how the processes of creation, management and use influence the process of preservation."

Reagan and her colleagues in the digital preservation community are calling for new partnerships as a way to connect digital preservation experts with decisions about these processes of creation, management and use -- such as system investments and standards setting -- because how that happens determines the options available in the preservation process. This new interdependency is not generally understood and is less accounted for in organizational decision-making and planning.

"A critical role for these partnerships is to help creators and managers of digital information realize the consequences of today's decisions on tomorrow's access and use," Reagan said. What the curator must know has changed -- with traditional media it's important to know what information is being created; with digital media, curators must also know how it was created.

Partnering With CIOs
To deal with this landscaping change, the Library of Congress created the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP), through which the Library brings together working groups to focus on digital preservation issues facing specific sectors including media, entertainment and state government.

The state government's effort was launched in spring 2005 with a series of national workshops that brought together three-person teams from the 50 states and several territories in one-day sessions to identify and discuss issues concerning digital preservation professionals. High priority content types, as well as those content types considered most at-risk, were identified and discussed. Roles for various members of the digital preservation community, such as states, associations, funding organizations and the Library of Congress, were considered.

One of the workshops' key conclusions was the need to invest in extending the digital preservation community's boundaries to include state CIOs and state information technology communities -- essentially to build enterprise digital preservation partnerships. The workshops series report can be found at the Web site.

The success of digital preservation depends on the ability of stakeholders to collaborate across agency, political and government boundaries, and adapt existing successful models and best practices, according to workshop participants.

Bill LeFurgy, program manager of the Office of Strategic Initiatives at the Library of Congress, agrees. "Single-agency and single-state approaches that start from scratch or duplicate what's already been done simply will not work," he said. "Traditional stewardship organizations have not been linked with a larger whole, they have been off on their own doing their best to manage their materials. The transition from the analog to the digital world introduces new issues of complexity, scale and interdependency among parts of the enterprise."

Partnering with CIOs, who are responsible for developing and implementing statewide architectures, is the best strategy for ensuring the life cycle perspective of information in digital form is adopted and used throughout the enterprise.

"It comes down to mission," said LeFurgy. "The mission of CIOs in the states is to develop and implement an architecture that deals with all the technical pieces that state governments use."

Creating linkages to the CIO through enterprise architecture (EA) efforts brings the digital preservation community to the table when critical decisions about creation, management and use are made. This link can be used to benefit both communities by ensuring selected strategies solving today's information management problems won't create tomorrow's digital preservation nightmares.

Reaching CIOs
Doug Robinson, executive director of the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), agrees, but recognizes that CIOs may see the problem differently. "Each year at our annual meeting we ask state CIOs to identify their top 20 issues from a list of known issues. Digital preservation didn't make the top 20. What did make the top 20, however, was enterprise architecture. EA discussions present the best on-ramp for partnerships among state librarians, archivists, records managers and CIOs. The amount of material being created and retained for long-term use requires there be structure to manage it."

That's what EA does, according to Robinson. "It gives you structure, then you make the appropriate investments based on the business."

An EA also provides a framework for considering digital preservation needs in terms of the life cycle. This, according to Reagan, has become increasingly important, and is one more argument for new relationships between digital preservation professionals and CIOs.

"We are finding that the life cycle management of the information is critical more so than in the paper world -- therefore, understanding how people create information is an important component of preserving information," she said. "In most organizations, the CIOs and their staff are the people making these policies, implementing the standards and purchasing the systems. There is a lot that we can learn from each other if we join our respective areas of expertise."

Eileen Quam, information architect with the Minnesota Office of Enterprise Technology, agrees. "The State Archives input into our enterprisewide efforts has added a dimension we would otherwise lack."

Bob Horton, Minnesota state archivist and member of the Minnesota Enterprise Architecture Development Committee, is actively involved in defining the role and need for an EA in Minnesota. "Having a seat at the table gives us the chance to make a case for preservation in a positive way -- to fit into the larger, common framework of the state's enterprise architecture. We learn more about what our partners need, and they learn more about what we can do to help."

Getting a seat at the table, however, is sometimes a challenge. Horton cites a general lack of knowledge about digital preservation as one barrier, but added that archivists must raise their level of expertise, as well as the general level of awareness. "We have to bring something to the table, something useful, to be welcome collaborators."

Many see building knowledge about digital preservation as a critical component to gaining recognition of the shared interest in maintaining long-term access to state digital information of value. Associations and others are working to address this knowledge gap. Typically digital preservation has not been on agendas at trainings or conferences for either community. This is changing through the efforts of leadership in professional associations, like NASCIO and the Society of American Archivists, as well as the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies and the Council of State Archivists.

The Library of Congress -- through NDIIPP -- is also playing an important role in facilitating knowledge sharing and partnership development among state librarians, archivists, records managers and CIOs, and other communities with a shared interest in maintaining long-term access to government digital information of value, such as GIS, disaster preparedness and business continuity.

One effort currently under way is focusing on building a shared knowledge base of digital preservation in states and territories. A Web-based survey, collaboratively designed among leaders of the library, archives, records management and IT communities working with the Center for Technology in Government, is being used to collect information about current and past projects, regulatory frameworks, and training and other resources.

Survey results will be made available June 2006 to states and organizations so they can learn from and begin to identify potential partnership opportunities based on similar issues and experiences. This survey is funded by the Library of Congress through a National Science Foundation grant.

Bridging Communication Gaps
In addition to sharing knowledge about efforts within the digital preservation community, other efforts are focusing on bridging the communication gaps among professionals from different organizations. The Society of American Archivists (SAA) under the leadership of Richard Pearce-Moses, director of Digital Government Information at the Arizona State Library, Archives and Public Record, and current SAA president, developed A Glossary of Archival and Records Terminology to address this issue.

The first two editions of the glossary were written to support communication within the profession -- for archivists, manuscript curators and records managers. The latest version, however, reflects new understanding of the need for a broader community awareness of, and involvement in, these issues. "This glossary targets anyone who needs to understand records because they work with them," said Pearce-Moses. "It attempts to build a bridge between records, information technology and business communities by interpreting archival concepts for people in other disciplines, while at the same time explaining those other disciplines to archivists and records professionals."

Even the most basic terms have very different meanings. "The word archival often means very different things to information technologists than to archivists" says Pearce-Moses. "Where IT folks often think of archives as data stored off-line for a few years, archival folks use the term to mean records that must be kept for an indefinite period of time."

Recognizing that words are defined differently in each discipline is critical to partnership efforts. Pearce-Moses' work suggests that when professions communicate with each other, they should avoid confusion by not introducing jargon, synonyms or adjectives. "Rather than talking about 'records,' talk about 'database records' and 'archival records'. Rather than saying 'archives' say 'offline storage' or 'permanently valuable records'.

Government's digital information is lost daily. One of our best defenses, according to LeFurgy of the Library of Congress, is to leverage the shared interests of CIOs, librarians and archivists. "CIOs understand the importance of keeping data and other information accessible and alive over time for accountability and other types of governance purposes -- librarians and archivist understand the importance of keeping information accessible and usable for the long-term for these and other societal reasons as well. This common interest in long-term access to the public record in digital form provides the natural foundation for a meeting in the middle."
Theresa A. Pardo Contributing Writer
Theresa Pardo is deputy director of the Center for Technology in Government and is also an associate research professor of public administration and policy at the University at Albany.
Brian Burke Contributing Writer