In this week’s Economist Richard Ovendon Bodley’s Librarian argues that We must fight to preserve digital information. Bodley’s Librarian is the librarian for the University of Oxford and this large library has many complex and valuable archival resources so it is to be expected that he will see the task and the responsibility as falling heavily to the role and the expertise of librarians and archivists. But he rightly points out that the project that we now face is deeper and different from the traditional challenge of curating and preserving physical objects and media that, however fragile, can be directly inspected so that preservation does guarantee a form of access close to the maker’s own perception. The new challenge is that now “knowledge looks different today than it did several millennia ago” and it follows from this that keeping the data is not a guarantee of preserving the recorded knowledge. Data may be kept, perhaps in some frozen, back-up state, but if it is not searchable it remains digitally inaccessible. The knowledge that will be preserved will require digital planning, maintenance and care if it is to remain searchable and accessible. The knowledge that we have now in our current culture will surely look very different in the technological culture that we have in 50 or 100 years. The problem is not just that the media are digital rather than physical, the greater difficulty is that the technological context, the databases and software, the system that constitutes our digital knowledge is fast-changing and will be replaced — perhaps sooner than we make archives and develop preservation strategies. But against this background the need is urgent since “an open society needs access to its store of records”.
Ovendon is right to emphasise the importance that today’s librarians and archivists will play in this transformation of the way we preserve knowledge and render it usable and useful to future generations. He stresses that this will call for leadership (identifying the problem and positing its significance), for resources (and in his library 2–3% of the annual budget is now spent on digital preservation), and perhaps above all collaboration, so that common approaches and successful techniques are learnt and spread rapidly. This all seems to be correct, but we may also need to broaden the institutional base. In this context the work of librarians and archivists needs to be allied to the interests and role of the publisher and more generally the role of the creator of digital services.
Exact Editions is particularly concerned with the development and potential of digital magazines — building their archives and maintaining them in a form in which they can continue to grow as digital resources. From where we sit the role of libraries is absolutely critical. Librarians are driving the process by showing interest in digitisation of back issues and to an extent by subscribing to current and forthcoming issues. Some libraries at major research institutions are even prepared to pay premium prices for perpetual access (Ovendon reminds us of the dangers of service interruption and software obsolescence). In monetary terms the library market is crucial because its commitment is forward-looking and marks value and long term worth. The library or institutional market is critical because networked institutions know that the digital (and searchable) format of a magazine — whether its complete archive or its next issue — is, for most teaching and research purposes, much more useful than the print versions.
At least in research universities, libraries are already primarily digital institutions, so for them digital resource are crucial. But the role of the publisher is also pivotal and needs to be brought more into centre stage when thinking about digital preservation. Partly for reasons of copyright and ownership, but equally for reasons of practicality and efficiency, publishers are in most cases the only actors who can sanction and deliver a living digital magazine archive: the incomplete archive of Spare Rib reminds us of the difficulty of retrofitting a digital archive to a publication that has lost or mislaid its publisher. And a magazine that makes its own digital archive has taken an important step towards giving the magazine a digital future.
Digital archives when they are part of an ongoing periodical publication play an important role in taking the magazine or periodical into its digital future. Of course they help to anchor the magazine in its past — Gramophone has been commenting and critiquing recorded music for 90+ years; whilst simultaneously taking it into its digital future — the Tablet will continue to be seen as a weekly journal of record for liberal Catholic thought in part because it has been that for well over 100 years.
Magazines, newspapers and periodicals should play an important role in the transition of culture from a primarily physical world of pictures, texts, films and tapes, to an increasingly digital world of pixels, ebooks, mixes and versions. For the precise reason that magazines and periodicals can make the transition from print to digital it is vital to our shared cultural continuity that they do. They will need to work as digital archives for libraries and the cultural record, but they will also become exemplars of digital culture to the extent that they continue to appeal to their readers and subscribers.