How often do we assume that a step toward digital preservation is a step toward permanence? Do we ever consider that a physical book, subject to inevitable decay, will outlast a digital copy? According to the article “Preventing a Digital Dark Age” in the online journal Higher Ed, a book under proper conditions may last centuries; “a regular spinning hard drive, however, can die after a few years.” A large accumulation of digital scholarship from the past two decades is in danger of disappearing, not only because of possible cyber attacks by terrorists and foreign governments, but because the digital platforms used to store the data are in danger of becoming obsolete.
For the last five years the Academic Preservation Trust (APTrust), a consortium of seventeen allied institutions headed by UVA, and based in the Library, has been diligently working to reduce the threat. A UVA Today article, “A Digital Library of Alexandria,” outlines how the member institutions have been using all available tools to “properly describe” the files so future scholars can find them, to migrate them across multiple digital platforms and preserve the technology that future scholars may need to access them, and to store them in three “availability zones” at each location, to secure them from natural and manmade catastrophe.
In an interview by Lauren Work for the Library of Congress digital preservation blog The Signal, Chip German (program director of the APTrust) and Bradley Daigle (digital strategist at the UVA Library) stressed the importance of institutions pooling resources. In the APTrust individual members develop expertise on issues important to them, and share solutions that benefit all members of the group. “The ability of a group to identify an arising challenge, task a small group to investigate that challenge, and then bring that knowledge back to the collective has been proven repeatedly.”
Long-term preservation is an ongoing battle, and as German and Daigle note, it’s work that’s often not noticed if you do it well. “That is the challenge of preservation – making the case for the cost of this endeavor is difficult because it is so resource intensive. However, the cost of failing is much higher.”