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5. Preserving and Sustaining Expansive Digital Publications

Published onJul 14, 2019
5. Preserving and Sustaining Expansive Digital Publications

Preservation and sustainability may seem like secondary concerns for expansive digital publishing. After all, these publications can evolve quickly and in unpredictable ways; they often appear to prioritize flexibility and agility over permanence; and their nontraditional elements can be difficult to capture for preservation. Yet these qualities are exactly why the preservation and sustainability of expansive digital publications require thoughtful planning and, in many cases, a willingness on the part of libraries to accommodate outputs that do not fit easily into existing workflows.

To be clear about the ways preservation and sustainability take shape for expansive digital publishing, we should first define these key terms. Our understanding of preservation aligns with the concise definition put forth by the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP): "digital preservation is the active management of digital content over time to ensure ongoing access." Likewise, we understand sustainability as the qualities of a project that allow it to maintain vitality and relevance under conditions that differ from those in which the project was initiated. Sustainability may also refer to (or depend on) extrinsic factors that encourage this kind of persistence (e.g., library services). Indeed, both sustainability and preservation extend beyond technological properties. They are "socio-technical," for "they include concerns related to people, policies, communities, technologies, and financials.”1 Across these various domains, the common goal of preservation and sustainability is to ensure the longevity and future accessibility of digital scholarship.

To cultivate this view among faculty and librarians, it’s necessary to effect a cultural change in the way researchers view expansive digital publishing. If the scholarly community conceptualizes these projects as analogous not to a codex but to museum exhibits, for example, or the performing arts, then ephemerality becomes not an undesirable accident but an essential quality of the work. This configuration runs counter to a view of libraries as permanent repositories of information but, we feel, aligns with the evolving role of research libraries as collaborators in digital scholarship.

Challenges to Preservation and Sustainability

Because preservation and sustainability should be ongoing processes rather than reactive procedures at the end of a project's lifecycle, they encompass a number of interrelated problems, and those problems are themselves multidimensional (social, scholarly, and technological).

Who decides what to preserve? Does an institution have a rubric for determining the value of a project, or a documented process for assessing that value? Developing such a rubric is itself a key issue; it may encompass the separate but interrelated tasks of identifying and engaging stakeholders, achieving faculty buy-in, and ensuring transparency about the evaluation process. In a practical sense, these kinds of preservation and sustainability decisions may also need to correspond to institutional priorities and strengths (e.g., specific library collections), as well as inevitable resource constraints. Institutional priorities provide a legible rationale for triage or selection and help faculty understand why decision-makers choose to allocate resources to some publications and not others.

Should publications be ephemeral? At first glance, it would seem that preservation and sustainability is desirable for all digital scholarship. If the mission of a library is, in large part, to maintain a durable record of scholarship, then the library should find ways to sustain and preserve expansive digital publications, even when those projects consist of elements that do not articulate easily with local infrastructure or that resist traditional preservation workflows. We would argue, however, for a more flexible view: while many expansive digital publishing projects should enjoy both long-term sustainability and full preservation, decision-makers at libraries and archives should view other publications (or other components of a publication) as ephemeral by design.

A rubric or process for determining preservation status implies that institutions should not preserve or, for that matter, sustain, everything. Faculty, project team members, and support staff should agree on preservation plans, which may include an agreement that allows discontinuing maintenance or preservation support under certain conditions. Underlying this more flexible view of preservation and sustainability is a recognition that resources are always finite; decisions to devote significant resources to making works more permanent must be grounded in reality and balanced against the need for works to persist in some form if they are to be integral, durable parts of scholarly conversation.

Library Support for Preservation and Sustainability

Expansive digital publications, because of their scope and complexity, invite both continuation and extension of existing library services around sustainability. At minimum, this support entails consultation with librarians and archivists regarding what preservation is desirable and possible. Following are a few opportunities for influencing the life of an expansive digital publication:

Consultation, education, and outreach. Much of the conversation about preservation and sustainability should take place at the beginning of publishing projects, and subject librarians are well positioned to communicate with faculty about these issues. This kind of basic support could range in scope from individual consultations to regular instruction or workshops, depending on staff expertise and availability. Libraries might encourage professional development around issues of digital sustainability in order to meet emergent needs among researchers. They also might develop appropriate short-courses for doctoral students and faculty alike, to help further understanding of the unique preservation and sustainability issues inherent in expansive digital publishing and better plan for future access.

Leading periodic reviews of the project. Library staff might convene regular project reviews among contributors, PIs, and preservation staff to discuss how (or whether) to continue supporting a project; they might similarly convene faculty advisory committees (similar to the advisory group mentioned earlier as a way to help with planning) to provide scholarly input into the process. These reviews could also serve to clarify among all stakeholders which elements require preservation or sustainability, and which are not essential to the integrity of the scholarship.

Offering tiered preservation for expansive projects. Libraries might offer different levels of preservation to expansive digital publications, depending on the technology, user community, and the enduring scholarly value of the project. For example, a basic level of preservation may include only screenshots of a project or a static version of a site, while a more complete type of preservation may include a comprehensive software stack to allow for a full recreation of the project and its user-facing components.

Opportunities for Partnership

Collaborating with others to ensure sustainability and preservation. Libraries occupy a central place in both the scholarly communications ecosystem and the university campus; they are ideally located to identity and cultivate potential collaborations with IT departments, presses, and other academic support staff. By working with faculty and IT staff, for example, librarians can help foster sustainability by ensuring that projects articulate well with local technology infrastructure. Ideally, these conversations will happen across institutions as well, so that there is consistent and shared practice for developing projects likely to be preservable.

Engaging the broader community of stakeholders around preservation and sustainability questions. Expansive digital publications are not just a "product"; they often include communities, workflows, and records of communication among project contributors. Because expansive digital publications often involve many contributors, a collaborative development process, and a community of users, there is more to preserve (and sustain) than a single public-facing product. As a result, we need to think about how preservation will represent community and process. For this reason, a community outreach coordinator can be a crucial collaborator with library staff.

John Maxwell:

If status is a key currency within the academy, what would be a scholar’s incentive to agree to her project being classed ‘ephemeral’ rather than durable?