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Ironically, the faster we progress in terms of technology, the shorter the lifespan of our tools becomes. History that was etched into stone walls or tablets millennia ago is still readable in its original format, much more clearly and easily accessible, in fact, then data “saved” a few years ago on a 3½ inch floppy disk. And this situation is even more critical when we understand that as a race, we’re creating exponentially more data now than we ever have in human history, but on far less stable media.
Research and discovery that improves lives is fueled in large part by an accurate view of history. That’s why it’s critical for us to proactively and collaboratively determine how to best preserve our history so that future generations can learn from our accomplishments and (more importantly) our failures. If not properly preserved, links to critical data embedded within scholarly articles, for example, will wind the reader’s clock back to the age of leather-bound journals. Our data is the DNA of our time, and it’s essential that we preserve it.
It’s been an honor to represent Microsoft Research on the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Access and Preservation, a role in which I’ve had the opportunity to articulate the corporate perspective and to learn more about the responsibility Microsoft has as a company that creates many of the technologies used to save huge amounts of data.
The task force recently released its final report – Sustainable Economics for a Digital Planet: Ensuring Long-Term Access to Digital Information – an in-depth review of the value of preservation and recommendations on how to best pursue and sustain it from an economic standpoint. The recommendations take into consideration both data that was born digital – Web pages, for example – and data that became digital after being converted, usually via scanning. The report concludes that ensuring accessibility of valuable digital assets far into the future will require a mobilization of human, technical and financial resources across a spectrum of stakeholders. The task force delved deeper into four specific categories of information for the purposes of this report – including scholarly discourse, research data, commercially owned cultural content and collectively produced Web content – but there are clearly other areas of great important that merit additional attention. The report recommends that action be taken to articulate a compelling value proposition and to provide clear incentives to preserve in the public interest. To pursue digital preservation, it’s also essential that roles and responsibilities be defined among stakeholders in order to ensure that resources are made available for preservation throughout the digital lifecycle.
While commitments made today are not commitments for all time, we do believe that actions must be taken now to ensure that we will have preservation options in the future. Types of actions the panel is recommend span a spectrum of different activities, including educational and public outreach efforts, public policy advocacy, specific organizational initiatives and, of course, technical work.
This Thursday, April 1, from 8:30 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. Eastern the panel will host a National Conversation on the Economic Sustainability of Digital Information in Washington, D.C. While the event itself is fully booked, you are invited to watch the live stream via the Internet. We hope you will make an effort to participate in this important dialog.
Lee Dirks – director for Education and Scholarly Communication, Microsoft Research