Frédéric Blin

Frédéric Blin

Last updated on 20 November 2018

Frédéric Blin is Director for Heritage Collections, Preservation and Digitisation at the National University Library in Strasbourg, France

If all libraries are faced with providing access to digitally-born documentation, not all of them have the responsibility to preserve this documentation for the longer term. This is mainly the task of national libraries, or libraries bearing legal deposit responsibilities. International programmes and consortia have been created between libraries and publishers to keep academic resources secure, or between national libraries for the preservation of Internet. Academic libraries have been active in the field of research data preservation, in collaboration with institutional or shared data storage services.

For an autonomous medium-sized library, having the responsibility to preserve the regional heritage including the one coming through legal deposit, while at the same time trying to serve research needs based more and more on access to and use of digitised material, digital preservation is a question that tends to be at the back of the professional’s minds, leading however to no clear solution.

Such a library had to transform itself a lot in the previous years. Building new spaces to accommodate new publics and new habits; shifting slowly from offering physical only materials to a growing percentage of digital resources; digitizing its documentary heritage; conceiving new services to better help research and enriching its cultural programme to address new audiences; changing the professional culture and growing the collective competences of the staff; developing an international strategy… All these activities need financial means, in a context where budgets are not growing as fast. And digital preservation is not only costly, it is – like traditional preservation – not very sexy, and therefore often not a priority for people who decide on the funding.

But the efforts put into digitising heritage documents would be lost if the bits that compose the digital images and the accompanying data where to disappear. And the initial mission of the library – preserving the regional documentary heritage – would not be fulfilled if it would not be able to deal with and preserve digitally born documents, like manuscripts of regional authors, composers or researchers, or even images, music or films created by the people.

If local solutions, within the institution only, are too expensive, then collaborative solutions are necessary. Working with the data center of the local university, or with the national library, or with a regional or national center for digital preservation, or even with archival institutions who are confronted with the same issues, are as many tracks that need to be followed. But would the costs be bearable? Would they mean that traditional activities or digitisation projects need to be stopped or reduced, just in order to preserve the data that already exist?

Luckily, the costs of digital preservation have diminished by a great proportion in the last years. But they are still high, and the temptation is there to wait just a little bit more that the costs will shrink again before going really into a digital preservation project.

Another temptation, perhaps even more dangerous, could be to wait for a technology shift. Important progress has been recently made concerning data storage on DNA. Other technologies go back to the future, engraving bits of information on sapphire with laser like ancients used to engrave texts on stone. But in which delay will these technologies be functional on a large scale? And at what costs?

Strategies and cost estimates for preservation of the data are now more systematically considered during the selection phase of a research or a digitisation project. Infrastructures are built and modernised, networks of competencies are developed, costs are slowly going down. For a middle-sized heritage and research library, time has come to engage into a thorough digital preservation strategy, if not already done. Because it is its duty to the citizens it serves.

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