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Who’s going to pay for digital preservation?

I can hardly call myself a storage geek–I don’t know a MAC address from a Macintosh and couldn’t operate a CLI with a gun to my head. So it’s rare I take a personal interest, the way Tory does, in most of the products or trends I cover.

The one exception to that is the idea of digital preservation. This is probably because, unlike a true storage geek, I don’t have to worry about trying to fix a machine that’s broken or trying to throttle my service engineers. So I have time on my hands to think about the long-term future of data, data storage, and what we’re going to do with all the important records that are currently being converted from physical format to digital. Spinning disk still has nothing on a cave painting, data tapes have nothing on an acid-free paper book, and in 100 years, we might have an unprecedented historical problem: how to preserve our culture and our information for future generations.

That’s the kind of thing you don’t have to be able to architect a storage fabric to be affected by. Every living person has a vested interest in how the human race will pass on knowledge and information over the long haul.

The problem is, those of us with the time to think about this stuff aren’t the ones who know how to answer that question, and the ones with the know-how are too busy putting out day-to-day fires in their data centers to worry about how it’s all going to work when they’re long gone.

And who says it’s their (your) responsibility anyway? Shouldn’t institutions like the National Archives be the ones worrying about it? Shouldn’t the storage vendors be the ones developing the right media for long-term storage?

As of this week, there’s finally a publicly-funded consortium at least trying to find the answer to those questions about digital preservation, all leading up to the biggest mystery of them all: Who’s going to pay for it?

The consortium, known as the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Digital Preservation, was launched by the National Science Foundation and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in partnership with the Library of Congress, the Joint Information Systems Committee of the United Kingdom, the Council on Library and Information Resources, and the National Archives and Records Administration. The consortium, headed up by academics from the San Diego Supercomputing Center, will attempt to bring together testimony from a variety of sources — consumer and enterprise, vendor and end-user — to arrive at a sustainable economic model for digital preservation.

The group has been funded for a two-year project. The first year of the project, according to Francine Berman, Director, San Diego Supercomputer Center and High Performance Computing Endowed Chair, UC San Diego, and co-Chair of the Blue Ribbon Task Force, will produce a report on “a survey of what we know.” The initial report will feature case studies and opinions from experts in digital preservation, and is expected to appear by the end of 2008 or early 2009. By 2010, the task force hopes to have a second report suggesting an approach to digital preservation that’s the most cost-effective and logistically feasible for the most people.

It’s all a little loosey-goosey, Berman admitted, saying, “These are open questions.” So far the group doesn’t have much idea what its direction will be. Alternatives for economic models that will be taken into consideration include an iTunes-like pay-per-use model; a privatized model relying on corporations to finance preservation; or a public-goods model that preserves digital records the same way public parks are preserved, through a collective public trust.

Further complicating matters, “there won’t be a one-size-fits-all solution to the digital preservation question,” according to Berman. Consumers will be concerned with preserving family photos, for example, which will be an entirely different process from preserving corporate and government records. Preserving digitally-recorded works of art and multimedia files will be yet another issue to resolve.

Personally, I’m a little reluctant to put much stock in a government study until I see it produce actionable results, and as a taxpayer I’m not nuts about the number of studies my hard-earned dollars go to that just tell us things we already know. But in this case, I’m just happy someone’s thinking about it. And maybe getting others to start thinking about it a little more, too.

Raising awareness is another goal for the task force, Berman confirmed. “My dry cleaner knows what global warming is, and could also probably give you a basic definition of the human genome,” she said. “What we’re looking for is that same level of understanding about digital preservation, which also affects us all.”

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