Comment from Nancy Maron on the draft Sustainability Reference Model

1 Dec

This is a guest post from Nancy Maron of Ithaka, commenting on our draft Economic Sustainability Reference Model. Nancy writes:

This is a really interesting paper and one that touches on such important aspects of sustainability, including the issues of risk and identification of stakeholders. I’d be happy to talk with you about any of this, or to participate in a next meeting, if you would like.

I suppose I assumed that “digital preservation” would be the main question at the heart of this exercise, a focus on what is a suite of activities that permits long-term storage and protection of content, so that it might be retrieved or accessed at a future date.  I thought (incorrectly?) that DCC’s “curation” definition still stressed activities in light of the end-goal of preservation. So, what to select for preservation ingest and normalization, format migration, etc… But in the paper it became clear – but not immediately, for me – that your definition here is much broader than that, and that by taking the notion of digital lifecycle at its face value, you are thinking about the original creation of the digital object, not just the creation of its preserved form.

In Section 4, “An economic lifecycle,”  it becomes clear that you are absorbing the full range of content creation activities into the preservation argument, but it almost sounds like you are stepping away from there being ANY value in preservation, if there is no access component. This feels like a fairly radical argument, and not one I think is necessary to make your case. Rather, it would be great to really outline where the value is –and for whom! – in preservation sans access.  Then, you might expand beyond that, but lumping both together right at the start does not bring the clarity this topic could really use.

I actually think there is still plenty to say just about the challenges of preservation itself, particularly in terms of defining the stakeholders for this activity and the risks that taking no action can pose. A few years back I helped conduct a study that looked at the action libraries in the US had taken, following the “Urgent Action” call signed by academic librarians and others in 2005. Even three years later, most libraries were willing to state that they thought preservation was important, but that did not translate into their taking any definitive action to make certain that their e-journals were being preserved.  It was clear at the time that incentives to invest in preservation were not clearly aligned.

To that point, I really like your angle of discussing the stakeholders and economic actors as a way to identify where the incentive lies in implementing a sustainability plan.  In general, throughout the paper, I would love to see the actors here (stakeholder groups) brought out even more. This is on its surface an editing question, but I believe it may help clarify some of the themes of the paper.  After all, the decisions you are writing about – what to select, preserve, support – are made by people, and those people have different concerns when it comes to the digital content in their lives. The more you can do to point to the people or types of people, and the use cases they are likely to face,  the more easily your readers will be able to put this paper to use.[1]

And I wonder if you could push this even further, perhaps come up with a framework of use cases for each stakeholder category. The value a library director might place on preserving digitized special collections content should be different (greater, I would imagine) than their interest in taking steps to preserve commercially available digital content. Similarly, when a content producer (publisher, for example, or a commercial film producer) issues a digital book or film, how do they assess the value of making sure it is preserved? Is this a necessary measure, needed to reassure their customers? An activity they invest in, to protect their investment for their own future use or re-use? And so forth. Identifying where the “value” lies in this equation is not easy, but goes a long way to explain why so many different actors in this landscape have often assumed that someone else must be (or should be) taking care of this. You do this a bit in the section called “incentives” on page 10 and much more in section 10, but I think the point could be made in more detail and much earlier on. One thought is to distill the detail now in section 10 into a sort of matrix that identifies risks, values, possible sources of financial support, etc…, for each major stakeholder or user group, for each major content type. This section generally felt long; this may be a way to tighten it up a bit.

But, given that you are indeed taking on not just the “preservation” concern, but rather the broader issues around the sustainability of digital content resources throughout their lifetime, from concept and creation onwards, I should point out that this “business planning” mentality has been at the heart of much of the work that my group at Ithaka S+R has done recently. You may recall, when Matt and I phoned in to the Tallinn meeting, we spoke about the key elements of sustainable projects, etc… At the time, someone pointed out that in fact, we had not at all addressed digital preservation, and he was right!  In fact, our work has taken almost the other tack entirely: by focusing on the business planning steps – specifically, how to identify key stakeholders and the sources of support a given project will need – we ‘assume’ that one of the sets of activities a project will be planning to support is… digital preservation of some sort. But our main focus thus far has been to think about how the entire ongoing enterprise can continue to grow and deliver value to its users. Our research has included examinations of how project leaders have set out to identify the goals of their projects and the activities needed to attain them, and how they have then gone about identifying and developing a variety of sources of support, both financial and non-financial. I hope you will find these reports useful.[2]

In citing the example of arXiv, you are clearly asking those same questions, discussing its business model, and not anything having anything to do with its strategy for digital preservation. For this paper, I am not quite sure that flattening out the difference between financial questions surrounding decisions to invest in digital preservation and more generally business decisions concerning the very value proposition of the digital resource works.  The chart on page 8 is difficult in this respect, too. It was not clear how this process would also work for a more dynamic resource, like arXiv, or an ongoing publishing operation, for example.

Many thanks again for the opportunity to comment. I hope in some small way this has been helpful! Of course, feel free to let me know if you disagree with anything I’ve said here. And of course I would be happy to continue the conversation at your convenience!

Best, Nancy Maron

[1] For example, the sentence beginning “The stakeholder ecosystem consists of three layers of abstraction that, taken together, constitute a useful sketch of the way stakeholders are organized within a particular digital curation context…” might be expressed in more concrete, specific terms.

[2] This 2011 report includes a definition of sustainability that includes all sources of support, financial and non-financial:

This is the report that includes the original case studies (2009):

This one provides a framework of sources of support, focusing on the need to identify value to direct and indirect stakeholders when thinking about developing a well-rounded sustainability plan for digital content projects:




One Response to “Comment from Nancy Maron on the draft Sustainability Reference Model”

  1. Chris Rusbridge 2 December, 2011 at 10:16 #

    Nancy, thanks very much for these comments. Lots to think about here. At this point I think I’ll only respond to one:

    “it becomes clear that you are absorbing the full range of content creation activities into the preservation argument, but it almost sounds like you are stepping away from there being ANY value in preservation, if there is no access component.”

    I clearly have not got Figure 2 right; the combination of “make available” (from my point of view an activity that costs) and “use” (from my point of view an activity that creates value) should encompass “access” as I understand it. We meant this access to continue right through this stage of the lifecycle from the point at which it is made available to the point at which some risk event makes it unavailable.

    You are right that we are not taking what I think of as an OAIS view of preservation (Brian may disagree with the way I’m expressing this), which I take to imply a useful economic life in which OAIS is not really involved (doesn’t need a trusted archive etc), and then ingest into a “post-use” preservation archive, which spends enormous costs on preserving it for comparatively small use (assumption alert!). In contrast, I think of preservation as all the tasks needed to continue making a resource available and usable, and as such a truly cradle-to-grave effort.

    For me it is difficult to envisage many sustainable scenarios for post-use preservation. I do realise that Portico has found one, and so (by and large) have national libraries or national archives, but I don’t see these as widely applicable models.

    However, if you embrace the whole of the lifecycle, and allow the active, high value parts of the collection to cross-subsidise the inactive, little-used parts, then sustainability is easier to imagine. And this model is of course EXACTLY what most libraries have been doing in relation to their part of the analogue preservation task: very long tail distribution of collection value, mostly preserved by benign neglect, very occasional high cost preservation actions for high value items. In fact for most digital objects in their “current” environment a fairly low level of benign neglect does work pretty well (how old is the oldest file on your laptop, for instance?), so “preservation costs” per item are low.

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