Ithaka S+R released a new report entitled Sustaining our Digital Future: Institutional Strategies for Digital Content. This is an excellent and important report for all academic and cultural heritage institutions as well as all institutions supporting data sets and many others that are supporting and maintaining digital content that “is expected to endure,” which includes: “Aside from the riskiest of experiments in digital innovation, it has become clear that a great deal of the content that libraries and scholars are creating today is expected to endure” (page 3).
The report notes that this is the first of a three-part report series on the topic with:
Phase two, funded by the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN), a Special Operating Agency of the Department of Canadian Heritage, will include a closer look at the cultural heritage sector and a detailed case study of the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia. Phase three, funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), will examine the models in place specifically to support the digital humanities in institutions of higher education in the United States and include case studies of two American campuses. [Further information on these next phases can be found at www.sr.ithaka.org]. (page 3)
The organizations for the study were from University College London, Imperial War Museums, and National Library of Wales. While these may seem more cultural heritage specific, the needs for sustaining digital content are parallel those for data curation from scientific research, making this report all the more useful. The summary of the report findings (pages 4-6) speaks directly to the issues for data curation and digital curation, noting that post-grant sustainability is a major concern, that many projects draw support from the host institution but without firm plans on how this is and should continue to be done, that there are partners on campus especially libraries and IT but they are not consulted and involved early enough in the process, that digital projects (or could be data sets) are everywhere on campuses and that this decentralization presents a risk and impedes discoverability and use, and a number of others. Of all of the findings, the one I would like to most emphasize is:
Campus-wide solutions are beginning to emerge, but even these tend to address just the basic “maintenance” issues of storage, preservation and access. While institutional solutions have begun to crop up to provide digital outputs with places to live, they do not offer support for ongoing development, outreach, or audience development, even on campuses where “public engagement” is considered a core mission goal. (page 4)
The full report goes on to explain that sustainability is defined by usage, impact, and preservation (page 12). This is significant because, while preservation and access are part of the necessary supports, access means not just the most basic level of access but also the immediate next step which includes asking “what else can we do with it; how can we leverage the capacity that exists now that these materials are preserved and accessible in some way?” While taking the next step is a challenge, it’s also an exciting opportunity and one that speaks to the heart of the mission of academic and cultural heritage institutions which support research, teaching, and service.
The report also connects nicely to a new article by Jennifer Vinopal & Monica McCormick: “Supporting Digital Scholarship in Research Libraries: Scalability and Sustainability” (in the Journal of Library Administration, 53:1, 27-42) which explains the importance of building scalable and sustainable systems with core infrastructure or enterprise services as well as first-of-kind (and not one-of-a-kind) new projects. The article excellently explains a model for developing scalable and sustainable systems, exactly of the kind needed for the concerns in the Ithaka report.
Thanks to Ithaka S+R for an excellent report, which is well worth reading in its entirety, and to the upcoming reports in this series.