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D-Lib Magazine
March/April 2008

Volume 14 Number 3/4

ISSN 1082-9873

The Fifth Blackbird

Some Thoughts on Economically Sustainable Digital Preservation


Brian F. Lavoie
OCLC Online Computer Library Center

Red Line


I. Blackbirds Revisited

A few years ago my colleague Lorcan Dempsey and I wrote an article entitled "Thirteen Ways of Looking at ... Digital Preservation" [1] (the title being a shameless re-working of "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird", a well-known poem by Wallace Stevens). Our purpose was to present a more nuanced view of digital preservation than one typically found in the literature, conferences, and community discussion springing up around the topic. At that time, digital preservation was often characterized as a discrete activity that could be segregated from, or tacked onto the end of, the digital life cycle; the primary obstacle to be overcome was the development of technical strategies, like emulation and migration, to stave off the twin evils of bit rot and technological obsolescence.

In the article, we acknowledged the importance of the technical imperatives of digital preservation, but argued that there was more to consider. We suggested thirteen different yet intertwined perspectives one can take on the digital preservation problem, with the implicit message that successful digital preservation activities will likely have to accommodate most if not all of them. We summarized our thirteen digital preservation "blackbirds" by noting:

Preserving our digital heritage is more than just a technical process of perpetuating digital signals over long periods of time. It is also a social and cultural process, in the sense of selecting what materials should be preserved, and in what form; it is an economic process, in the sense of matching limited means with ambitious objectives; it is a legal process, in the sense of defining what rights and privileges are needed to support maintenance of a permanent scholarly and cultural record. It is a question of responsibilities and incentives, and of articulating and organizing new forms of curatorial practice. And perhaps most importantly, it is an ongoing, long-term commitment, often shared, and cooperatively met, by many stakeholders.

The present article focuses on the fifth "blackbird" in our original list of thirteen: digital preservation as an economically sustainable activity. In reviewing the list of blackbirds in the earlier article, the one pertaining to economic sustainability stands out as an area where it seems we can point to little progress. Much of the discussion in the digital preservation community focuses on the problem of ensuring that digital materials survive for future generations. In comparison, however, there has been relatively little discussion of how we can ensure that digital preservation activities survive beyond the current availability of soft-money funding; or the transition from a project's first-generation management to the second; or even how they might be supplied with sufficient resources to get underway at all.

This is not to say that the topic has been entirely neglected; there have been significant contributions that have expanded our understanding of the economic imperatives of digital preservation. Yet we still lack a systematic analysis of digital preservation as an economic activity, and how it can be adequately provisioned with resources over the long-term to ensure that preservation objectives are met in a wide variety of contexts and circumstances. A lack of economically sustainable models for digital preservation activities represents just as real a threat to the long-term persistence of digital materials as the more traditional scourges of media decay and technological obsolescence.

To address this gap, a coalition of organizations has supported the creation of a new task force to examine issues and questions regarding economic sustainability in a digital preservation context. The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access has been convened to consider some basic economic questions about digital preservation: in particular, "how much does it cost?", and "who will pay?" I have the pleasure of co-chairing this Task Force, along with Fran Berman of the San Diego Supercomputer Center.

This article discusses the formation, charge, and modus operandi of the Task Force; traces the contours of the problem space the Task Force will address; and outlines what the Task Force hopes to accomplish over the course of its activities. It is intended to raise awareness about the problem of economically sustainable digital preservation, familiarize the community with the work of the Task Force, and serve as an invitation to readers to participate in what promises to be a lively conversation on this topic.

II. The Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access

The lack of a systematic analysis of the economic models capable of sustaining digital preservation across long periods of time was the impetus for a coalition of organizations to jointly sponsor the formation of the Blue-Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access. With direct funding provided by the National Science Foundation and the Andrew Mellon Foundation, along with support from the Library of Congress, the UK's Joint Information Systems Committee, the Council on Library and Information Resources, and the National Archives and Records Administration, the Task Force is charged with:

  • Conducting a comprehensive analysis of previous and current efforts to develop and/or implement models for sustainable digital preservation;
  • Identifying and evaluating current practice regarding sustainable digital preservation among existing collections, repositories, and other enterprises;
  • Making specific recommendations for actions that will catalyze the development of sustainable resource strategies for digital preservation;
  • Providing a research agenda to organize and motivate further work.

To accomplish these tasks, the Task Force convened a group of leading experts in a variety of areas, including computer science, economics, government, cultural heritage, and private enterprise. This diversity of perspectives reflects a corresponding diversity embedded within the digital preservation problem itself. Long-term preservation of digital materials is an issue that cuts across virtually all domains, from the public sphere to private enterprise; from academia to cultural heritage. The problem also cuts across a variety of areas of expertise, all of which are relevant to a thorough understanding of the economic aspects of sustainable digital preservation.

The Task Force will conduct its activities over the course of two years, with an interim report to be released at the end of the first year (December 2008) and a final report to be delivered at the end of the second year (December 2009). The internal modus operandi for the group will primarily be interaction through teleconferences and face-to-face meetings; external interaction will be achieved through a combination of mechanisms, including a number of panel meetings where invited speakers will interact directly with the task force on topics pertaining to economic sustainability. The Task Force will also use other mechanisms, such as phone interviews and written submissions, as ways to engage the participation of the digital preservation community at large.

We will return to the Task Force later in the article to say a few words about its activities and projected outputs. At this point, it suffices to note two criteria with which to judge the future success of the Task Force. First, the Task Force will be successful if its work proves to be of practical use to stakeholders and practitioners across a variety of domains. The intent is not to produce a theory-oriented treatment of economic sustainability issues, but instead to create resources that will inform and guide decision-makers as they evaluate and choose alternative economic models for sustaining digital preservation activities over long periods of time. Second, the Task Force will be successful if its work engages the interest of researchers in a variety of disciplines, and in doing so, catalyzes further work on the economics of digital preservation. The Task Force cannot hope to answer all questions or resolve all issues pertaining to economically sustainable digital preservation, but it does aspire to create a solid foundation on which future research in this area can build.

III. The Fifth Blackbird: Digital Preservation as an Economically Sustainable Activity

The focus of the Task Force's work will be on issues relating to economic sustainability in a digital preservation context. This section traces some of the contours of economic sustainability as a distinct problem within the larger sphere of the digital preservation challenge. The role of economic models in supporting digital preservation activities is discussed, along with the need to establish mechanisms for sustaining flows of resources to digital preservation activities within and across organizations. Some thoughts are also presented on issues that arise when the concept of sustainability is applied at a community-wide level.

Digital preservation is a grand challenge for those responsible for the long-term persistence of the scholarly and cultural record. When the issue first attracted serious discussion more than a decade ago, the problem tended to be presented in a monolithic way, emphasizing the inherent fragility of digital materials, and the need for active intervention to neutralize threats to their longevity, such as technological obsolescence or media decay. Technical issues, therefore, attracted the lion's share of attention in terms of discussion and research. Strategies such as migration, emulation, and normalization were defined in a digital preservation context, and their pros and cons identified and debated.

As time went on, the general view of the challenges presented by digital preservation became more nuanced. For example, it soon became clear that digital preservation raised a host of intellectual property issues, spanning basic questions of fair use in a digital context, to more focused questions like how certain preservation actions, like duplication, reformatting, or otherwise altering a digital object might infringe on the intellectual property rights of authors and publishers. Organizational issues also came to the fore, highlighting complicated patterns of preservation interests and obligations on the part of multiple stakeholders associated with a particular set of digital materials. Who was responsible for digital preservation over the course of the digital life cycle? How can the preservation requirements of one set of stakeholders be met when the content resides in the custody of another set of stakeholders with possibly different preservation objectives and incentives, as in the case of licensed e-journal content?

Finally, economic issues began to gather attention. Once all of the pieces of a digital preservation strategy were in place, how much would it cost? And who would pay for it? These questions summarize the problem space on which the Task Force will focus its attention.

It is not trivial to characterize the economic challenge of digital preservation. Let me begin by suggesting what it is not. Many observers have contended that digital preservation suffers from a lack of funds. This is undoubtedly true, but in a way, obscures the problem. A recent paper by Henry Gladney [2] mentions an old IBM adage called "SMOP", which stands for "a simple matter of programming". As the story goes, when presented with a problem, an IBM scientist might say that the solution was really a question of marshalling sufficient programming resources to implement the solution; the principles of the solution, however, were known.

The concept of "SMOP" suggests a trap into which discussions of the economic exigencies of digital preservation sometimes stray. Here the acronym might be better stated as "SMOR": "a simple matter of resources". If only more resources could be piped into digital preservation activities, and sustained on an ongoing basis, the economic aspects of the digital preservation problem could be solved. This perspective implicitly adopts the view that the "underlying principles" of the economic solution for sustainable digital preservation are known; what remains is a simple matter of marshalling sufficient resources to implement the solution. I contend that these principles are not known. By this I mean that the economic models – the "underlying principles" – that could sustain digital preservation activities over the long term have not been adequately articulated. To do so is one of the chief tasks of the Blue Ribbon Task Force.

It is important to emphasize that when I say that these economic models have not been articulated, I am not suggesting that they have not yet been "invented". It is more accurate to say that we have not yet established a systematic mapping between general economic models of resource provision and particular digital preservation contexts. Evidence is, however, beginning to accumulate in this regard, in which we see a variety of economic models being employed as a means of sustaining digital preservation activities. For example, the UK's Archaeology Data Service uses an endowment model to provision its digital preservation activity, funded through payments made at the time material is deposited into the archive [3]. Other digital preservation activities are funded as market transactions, using a variety of pricing schemes. For example, JSTOR, an archive for electronic journals, charges an annual access fee, as well as a one-time "archive capital fee" intended to support ongoing preservation activities [4]. In this way, subscribers to a particular JSTOR collection collectively fund the long-term preservation of a shared resource. Other digital preservation services adopt a different approach: for example, OCLC's Digital Archive service employs a pricing strategy where consumers pay an individual fee for the preservation of their own digital collections [5].

One could imagine many other models by which digital preservation activities could be sustained over long periods of time, some with real-world exemplars, and some which have not yet been tried. What is lacking, however, is a comprehensive listing of the full range of candidate economic models that could be used to sustain digital preservation, annotated with commentary on each model's particular strengths and weaknesses, and mapped to sets of digital preservation circumstances, or "scenarios", for which they might be particularly well-suited.

The last point begs the question of how these scenarios might be characterized. This is a complex question, in that there are a plethora of factors that might be taken into consideration when evaluating and choosing an economic model, but we can simplify things a bit by grouping them into two broad categories: 1) the characteristics of the digital resources being preserved (e.g., heterogeneity and complexity of digital formats, choice of preservation strategy, frequency and type of usage, etc.); and 2) the characteristics of the stakeholder community surrounding a particular preservation effort (e.g., the nature of the collective interest in the materials in question, the expectations of the user community in terms of preservation outcomes, the motivations and incentives for one or more stakeholders to undertake preservation, etc.). The economic model sits between the digital materials and the stakeholder community, serving as a mechanism to ensure that the former is persistently available to the latter.

Consideration of the circumstances in a particular preservation scenario begins to throw light on the broad questions "how much will it cost?" and "who will pay?" Once these questions come into sharper focus, the next step is to select an appropriate economic model for sustaining preservation activities undertaken in these circumstances. Of course, there may not be a single model that fits the circumstances; indeed, there could be many ways of sustaining a preservation activity within the context of a particular scenario. One of the goals of the Blue Ribbon Task Force is to help make the choice between alternative economic models a little clearer.

Lakes and Rivers
A key aspect of the economic sustainability challenge is the need for digital preservation activities to transition from "lakes of funding" to "rivers of funding": that is to say, from a reliance on project-based, one-time grants of soft money, to the establishment of self-sustaining flows of resources sufficient to support ongoing digital preservation activities. Some of these resource flows will be within organizations, for the purpose of supporting a local digital preservation capacity. In these circumstances, sustainability translates into dedicated funds for digital preservation in the organization budget.

More complicated, however, are flows of resources across organization boundaries. It is unrealistic to assume that all, or even most institutions with a stake in the long-term persistence of digital collections will be able to install and maintain local digital preservation capacity to achieve their preservation objectives. In these circumstances, it is likely that a network of preservation repositories will emerge (and indeed in some cases have emerged) that will carry out preservation activities on behalf of other organizations, either as part of a collaborative effort, or in the form of a service offered through traditional market mechanisms. Developing economic strategies that ensure a sustained flow of resources from those who require or benefit from digital preservation services, to those who are willing to perform digital preservation services, is an essential aspect of economical sustainability.

So as we shift our emphasis from "lakes" to "rivers" as the primary mechanism for provisioning digital preservation activities, it is important to keep in mind that in many circumstances, the rivers will flow across organization boundaries. Digital preservation often involves a wide variety of stakeholders, each of whom bring different sets of motivations, objectives and incentives to the table. Interest on the part of any one stakeholder in the long-term preservation of a given set of digital materials can wax and wane, and those who are in the best position to take preservation actions – e.g., by virtue of possessing a custodial role – may not perceive a compelling interest in investing resources to secure the long-term availability of the materials. Certain kinds of Web content illustrate the potential gap between stakeholder interests. Web sites associated with temporary events – e.g., a political candidacy, a sporting or cultural event, etc. – and various forms of Web-based communication, like blogs, may possess significant cultural or historical value, yet their publishers may not feel bound by any responsibility to take action to preserve these materials once the "active life" of the content is over. Sustainable economic models will be needed that coordinate flows of resources within the complex patterns of relationships often found among the stakeholders associated with a particular set of digital materials.

From Micro to Macro...
Sustainability can be viewed at the micro-level, in the sense of economic models aimed at supporting a particular institution or set of institutions' digital preservation efforts. But we will also need to consider sustainability at the macro-level: the system-wide network of repositories and stakeholders that collectively manage the ongoing persistence of the scholarly and cultural record. The key issues to be addressed from this perspective have to do with how we organize our limited preservation resources on a community-wide basis in ways that obtain the maximum output of digital preservation activities from a given set of inputs (funds, equipment, staff, and so on).

Sustainability at the macro-level involves questions such as whether certain aspects of the digital preservation process are more efficiently organized as capacity that is replicated across many institutions, or as a centralized capacity that can exploit economies of scale. Parts of the preservation process that fall into the latter category suggest opportunities for developing a shared infrastructure supporting multiple digital preservation activities. What strategies can be employed to distribute the cost of creating and maintaining this infrastructure capacity across multiple stakeholders?

If we view the digital preservation process as a collection of discrete activities, is it more economical for digital preservation service providers to aggregate all of these activities into a single, vertically integrated preservation process, or would it make more sense to "unbundle" the process into more granular activities performed by different organizations specializing in particular parts of the preservation process? For example, can the digital preservation process be segmented into capital-intensive, "infrastructure" activities that are best performed at scale, and labor-intensive, "tradecraft" services where specialized attention rather than economies of scale is key?

Consideration of sustainability at the macro-level helps draw together fragmented, unconnected digital preservation efforts into something resembling a coordinated "ecosystem" of activity. It is widely accepted within the cultural heritage community that no one institution can shoulder the burden of preserving the digital portion of the scholarly and cultural record; instead, we envision a network of preservation repositories that collectively manage this task. Adoption of this latter view requires a corresponding "network perspective" on the issues and questions surrounding economic sustainability.

... And the other twelve blackbirds
It is worth emphasizing that our focus on the fifth of thirteen blackbirds is not to diminish the importance of the other twelve. Economic sustainability is not an issue that emerges in isolation; it is clearly impacted by many other aspects of the digital preservation problem. Analysis of the economics of digital preservation cannot be done independently of the surrounding technical, social, and legal environments. Thus, even as we sort through the issues and questions involved in making the fifth blackbird a reality, we cannot ignore the imperatives raised by the other twelve.

For example, the tenth blackbird on our list in the earlier article was "digital preservation as a well-understood process". We mention above that sustainable digital preservation will likely involve flows of resources across organization boundaries, from those who consume digital preservation services, to those who supply digital preservation services. For this to work, there will need to be convergence on standards-based, widely accepted articulations of digital preservation processes and outcomes. This is a necessary ingredient if digital preservation services are to become "routinized" across unrelated parties.

Similar connections can be drawn between economic sustainability and the other blackbirds on the list. The old adage "birds of a feather flock together" seems quite appropriate here. In one form or another, the issue of economic sustainability touches nearly every other aspect of the digital preservation problem.

IV. Looking Ahead ...

The Blue Ribbon Task Force will discuss these and many other issues over the course of its activities this year and next. Expected outcomes from the work of the Task Force fall into three general categories: raising awareness; practical guidance; and directions for the future.

  • Raising awareness: More work needs to be done to alert stakeholders to the critical and immediate need to address the economic issues surrounding digital preservation. The Task Force will raise awareness about economic sustainability and the consequences of inaction in this area. The goal is to initiate a demonstrable shift in priorities among digital preservation stakeholders (e.g., funders, collecting institutions, content providers) that reflects a new emphasis on resolving the economic challenges of digital preservation.
  • Practical guidance: Many digital preservation initiatives are currently underway or in the planning stages. These efforts need immediate recommendations and guidance on the issues surrounding economic sustainability, policy implications, roles and responsibilities, a taxonomy of models for achieving economic sustainability, and the body of experience that has been accumulated in the course of various implementations of these models. The Task Force hopes to produce resources that will be of practical use to current and future digital preservation initiatives in a wide range of contexts, in terms of working out an effective sustainability strategy that best meets their particular needs.
  • Directions for the future: The purpose of the Task Force is not to produce yet another one-off report in which interest flares briefly, and then fades quickly. The work of the Task Force is intended to be only the first step in a sustained inquiry into the economic issues surrounding digital preservation. To this end, the Task Force will formulate a research agenda mapping out areas for future work, aimed at expanding on and complementing the work of the Task Force itself. The intent is to lay the foundation of an ongoing, systematic inquiry into economic sustainability in a digital preservation context.

To meet these objectives, the Task Force will produce two reports. The first, to be released at the end of 2008, will focus on summarizing and synthesizing a representative set of past and current efforts to implement economically sustainable digital preservation activities, with an emphasis on identifying the salient features of the economic models employed in these efforts, along with an assessment of the key features of the preservation context in which they were deployed. The goal is to identify points of convergence and divergence across the models, and extract "lessons learned" from their experiences: in short, what worked and what did not? The first report will present a detailed picture of what we currently know about economic sustainability in a digital preservation context, and equally as important, identify the key knowledge gaps in this area.

The second report will build on the results of the first to arrive at a set of general recommendations for building economically sustainable models for digital preservation. Although the specific nature of this report has not yet been finalized, the current vision is to develop a "menu" of economic models that can be used to sustain long-term digital preservation activities. The salient features of each economic model would be described, as well as its particular strengths and weaknesses. These models would then be mapped to a set of "real-world" digital preservation scenarios, matching each economic model to the preservation scenario (or scenarios) for which it is best suited. So recommendations in the report might take the form "if your digital preservation context is similar to X, we recommend that you consider using economic model Y to organize your digital preservation activities in a sustainable way." This second report is projected to be released at the end of 2009.

One other significant deliverable on which the Task Force will be working is the maintenance of a public Web site that will gather together resources and information pertaining to economically sustainable digital preservation. The site will maintain, among other resources, a bibliography of important articles on economic sustainability topics, as well as serve as a central destination for individuals interested in keeping up to date on the Task Force's current activities and progress. The site can be accessed at <>.

V. Conclusion

In its grandest expression, preservation is the mechanism by which the intellectual output of one generation is passed on to the next, at once preserving a record of past achievements, and supplying the buildings blocks of future discoveries. Securing the long-term preservation and accessibility of the scholarly and cultural record has been the mission of cultural heritage institutions since the days of the Library of Alexandria. Yet there is something to the contention that preservation means something different in the digital age. The need to preserve has become much more pervasive, as well as more immediate. Perceptions of what constitutes "successful" preservation may vary from context to context, but underpinning all of them is the awareness that passivity or complacence toward preservation simply will not work in a digital context.

The ease with which we create information in digital form tends to obscure the true cost of maintaining it over long periods of time. It has almost become a truism to say that our capacity to produce digital materials far exceeds our capacity to maintain them over time. Yet our understanding of the problem of digital preservation is expanding, and inevitably, becoming more nuanced. Successful digital preservation is not just about technical solutions: rather, it is a confluence of preservation strategies, user expectations, organizational commitments, and economic solutions that will ensure digital materials persist through the next technology cycle and beyond. At the heart of it all is economic sustainability – the ability to maintain a sufficient flow of resources over time to meet preservation objectives. The lack of a sustainable economic model represents a dangerous shoal upon which many digital preservation activities are in danger of foundering.

This article is about digital preservation as an economic problem, so it seems fitting to close with a quote from an economist. Nobel laureate Robert Solow, responding to what he felt were unrealistic assumptions in macroeconomic modeling, once observed: "I remember reading once that it is still not understood how the giraffe manages to pump an adequate blood supply all the way up to its head; but it is hard to imagine that anyone would therefore conclude that giraffes do not have long necks" [6]. It is not yet understood how digital preservation can be transformed into a sustainable economic activity across a range of contexts and circumstances. But that does not give us leave to ignore the problem, or to assume that it will somehow work itself out over time. The problem is too pressing, and the stakes are too high.


The author would like to thank Amy Friedlander for reviewing a draft of this article and providing many helpful comments.


[1] Lavoie, B. and L. Dempsey (2004) "Thirteen Ways of Looking at ... Digital Preservation" D-Lib Magazine vol. 10, no. 7/8 (July/August). Available at: <doi:10.1045/july2004-lavoie>.

[2] The concept of "SMOP" came to my attention in the draft paper "Economics and Engineering for Preserving Digital Content" by H.M. Gladney.

[3] See <>.

[4] See for example <>.

[5] See <>.

[6] Quoted in Mankiw, G. (2006) "The Macroeconomist as Scientist and Engineer". Available at: <>.

Copyright © 2008 OCLC Online Computer Library Center

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