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January 2007: A Coalition of the Smart and Willing

The semiannual meeting of the partners in the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP) brought together more than 100 professionals in, what one participant called, "a coalition of the smart and willing."

Brian Schottlaender made this characterization during the opening of the Jan. 17-19 meeting, held on the campus of the University of California at San Diego (UCSD), where Schottlaender is university librarian. He was referring to the fact that one must be willing to tackle problems that have not been previously addressed if one is to succeed in the uncharted waters of digital preservation.

The meeting began in an auditorium on the San Diego campus with a greeting from Laura Campbell, associate librarian for Strategic Initiatives, who is leading NDIIPP for the Library of Congress. "We are at the beginning of something really special for this country," she told attendees. "We are building a digital collection for the nation and we are adding new partners to our expanding network."

Fran Berman, director of the San Diego Supercomputer Center (SDSC), welcomed all to the university, which is also home to the Supercomputer Center. "We have a special relationship with the UCSD libraries. It means a great deal to us," she said, "as does meeting the NDIIPP partners, who are enriching what we are doing."

According to Schottlaender, "The relationship between the San Diego Supercomputer Center and UCSD libraries is emblematic of NDIIPP at the national level. Information gatherers cannot go about building digital repositories without interacting with computer scientists, archivists, librarians and others."

The SDSC is an NDIIPP partner in two of the Library of Congress-National Science Foundation digital-preservation research awards. "The collaboration between UCSD and the libraries has blossomed under NDIIPP," he continued. Schottlaender also thanked the Library of Congress for "bringing disparate people together to work on a common objective."

William LeFurgy, an NDIIPP program manager, briefed the audience on the agenda and noted that this semiannual meeting would differ from previous gatherings. "What we are doing now is to reduce the time we spend in plenary sessions as we move to more finely detailed discussions. We want to deepen the conversation among us, particularly about digital preservation tools, practices, and sustainability."

In the interest of reducing time spent during all-hands sessions, a representative from each NDIIPP partners delivered a Pecha-Kucha presentation.

What's a Pecha-Kucha?

According to the site at, "Pecha-Kucha Night, devised by Astrid Klein and Mark Dytham (Klein Dytham architecture), was conceived in 2003 as a place for young designers to meet, network and show their work in public. (Admittedly, it was also a way to get more people to visit SuperDeluxe - their then newly opened multimedia event space in Tokyo). Pecha-Kucha (which is Japanese for 'the sound of conversation') has tapped into a demand for a forum in which creative work can be easily and informally shown." Businesses and organizations have come to adapt the Pecha-Kucha model in which 20 images are shown for 20 seconds each, resulting in a presentation time limit of six minutes, 40 seconds.

Credit for use of the format in San Diego belonged to Steve Morris, who is leading the NDIIPP consortium project for the North Carolina State University Libraries called "Collection and Preservation of At-Risk Digital Geospatial Data." 

Before the rapid-fire program updates, Geraldine Otremba, director of Congressional Relations for the Library of Congress, spoke about "effectively communicating with Congress."

She encouraged participants to "get the word out" about the success of their projects and NDIIPP overall. She also noted that when the NDIIPP partners next meet, in June in Washington, D.C., that "it is an excellent opportunity to profile your work."

Janet Eke of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and Taylor Surface of OCLC delivered the first Pecha-Kucha, asking, "What has changed in the last three years?" for their project, which is exploring activities aimed at helping to answer the question of how digital resources will be identified, archived and preserved for the future. 

The answer, according to Surface: "Three years ago we referred to 'my institutional repository.' Now the conversation has changed, and we think of 'my repository' as a repository in a community of other repositories."

For Myron Gutmann of the University of Michigan Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research, the most important thing he has learned is that "who owns the data is not always the same as who controls the data" – a vexing issue for any institution working to collect and preserve digital materials.   

Martin Halbert of the MetaArchive project of Southern culture, said, "We never anticipated how much fun we would have working with the other partners. In the past two years the project has become real. We learned what we were doing. We can offer other institutions a functioning preservation network to join."

David Kirsh of the University of Maryland, whose project is preserving records from the "birth of the dot-com era," never saw coming the misunderstanding some bloggers and other observers would have (and perpetuate) about his work. He has been falsely accused, for example, of recklessly making public the records of a defunct law firm in violation of attorney-client confidentiality. Such is not the case.

Jun Liu of the University of Arizona told how his project with Raytheon Missile Systems "helps estimate data quality and reliability." He noted that an audit trail for data can detect errors in data generation and can also help establish ownership of data.

Steve Miller of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography said he was surprised that his project team members "have spent more time with metadata than data. It’s our biggest problem. We never thought we would find so many defects in CDs, DVDs and other sources of digital information."

North Carolina State University Libraries project staff said they had learned that a 'temporally impaired' industry was beginning to discover the value of older geospatial data. Steve Morris told the partners that "opportunities abound to engage professional organizations, software vendors, data producers and standards organizations" in digital preservation initiatives.   

Preserving public television was the subject of Nan Rubin’s presentation. She told how "our program content lives in two dimensions: the essence is the actual moving image content of the program, and at the same time, living on its own but attached to the essence, is the metadata that captures technical, descriptive and other information about the program."

One of Channel 13’s biggest problems in repository design is the "wrapper." "What is the best way to wrap the essence and the metadata together so that over time the content can be successfully retrieved?" Rubin said she was dismayed to learn that organizations she expected would have a solution did not. What PBS decided to do was roll out digital program distribution to every public TV station nationwide, which caused dozens of other stations to become directly involved in the Channel 13 project.

 The California Digital Library’s Tracy Seneca echoed Rubin’s remarks about metadata. Seneca said she and her colleagues were surprised that there is little agreement among curators regarding what metadata is needed. "There is no single solution, and thus we have to build flexibility into the model." When Hurricane Katrina hit, "we learned we had to be able to respond" to unforeseen disasters with a metadata tool that could meet such challenges.

The University of Maryland, in addition to Kirsch’s project, is also working on digital-preservation research for NDIIPP. Mike Smorul of the university’s Institute for Advanced Computer Studies said, "I never thought I would confuse my graduate students" with such issues as the authenticity of an archive’s holdings, or "trying to explain that a digital object is what it claims to be." Ensuring access to data after hundreds of years "without having any idea how the technology will evolve over the next 10 or 20 years" has also baffled his students.

Julie Sweetkind-Singer of Stanford University made the final presentation. The National Geospatial Digital Archive project staff never thought they would have to work up contracts for content acquisition or "have to do a format registry." But the lack of format information attached to digital content is inadequate for its proper preservation.

Most of the remaining time both on Jan. 17 as well as on Jan. 18 was devoted to breakout sessions on the topics of format registries, storage services, identifying incentives for digital preservation, legal agreements, economic sustainability and assessing digital content values, among others. During the morning of Jan. 19, reports of these sessions were offered.

Laura Campbell concluded the meeting, saying she was "proud that such a good foundation for digital preservation has been laid by the partners so far. You have provided evidence of the importance of this project and learning that can be used by others.

The progress shows that we are up to building a vast body of important digital content for the next generations."

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