Reflections from the Open Conversation on the ITHAKA S+R Report: The Effectiveness and Durability of Digital Preservation and Curation Systems

On October 26, 2022, NDSA hosted an open conversation for the community to discuss the impact of the ITHAKA S+R report, “The Effectiveness and Durability of Digital Preservation and Curation Systems.” Seventy-four individuals participated in a lively discussion, and notes were recorded in an open Google Doc. Comments from the Zoom chat were also anonymized and added to the document after the event.

NDSA Leadership was keen to share some valuable themes and takeaways from this conversation, in hopes that it will surface some of the concerns that practitioners have had with the report, and its current and anticipated impact on the NDSA community.

Limitations in the Scope of the Report

Many participants took issue with the scope of the systems studied for the report. The eight systems studied all perform different functions within the digital preservation landscape (ranging from toolkits for processing digital materials to repository platforms to dark archive storage providers) and are not representative of the full range of systems and service providers that are used by cultural heritage organizations. Participants expressed frustration at the loss of nuance in the report’s treatment of digital preservation as a monolith that is not always treated distinctly from digital archives, while also not discussing the role of appraisal at all. There was also significant pushback against the dichotomy of “for-profit” vs. “not-for-profit” that was used to categorize systems throughout the report. This dichotomy glosses over the nuance that exists in these systems (for example, many not-for-profit service providers incorporate commercial elements in their systems, and many for-profit systems use open-source components). It also fails to recognize these systems’ commitments and motivations that are separate from profit. 

Additionally, participants noted that there was a significant but unacknowledged bias toward the digital preservation needs of U.S.-based academic libraries. Participants also felt that the needs of smaller cultural heritage organizations, as well as the work of government agencies, were completely overlooked by the report, and some felt that the open discussion itself replicated the same biases. 

The following quotes are reflections by participants on these limitations:

On the need to disambiguate between different types of collections and activities (particularly appraisal)

  • “Digital preservation is not a big bucket – it’s tiered and different depending on what content and intention you’re talking about.”
  • “[At iPres 2023, we should discuss] how appraisal can assist efforts to become financially and environmentally sustainable and how to get buy in from those not directly involved with digital preservation activities regarding the immense importance of appraisal.”
  • “​​The report lumps all collections together or is very ambiguous, at times it comes across as library collections. We talk about digipres, but then focus on digital archives. When we have roles on, digital preservation has a trajectory and boundaries (that might overlap) but when we talk about them together, it makes it hard establish who needs to do what.”

Regarding the false dichotomy of “for-profit” and “not-for-profit”

  • “Just because something is ‘for-profit’ it doesn’t necessarily mean it is opaque or not transparent. And just because an organization is nonprofit does not necessarily make it transparent either.”
  • “There was a real missed opportunity in the report to talk about the value of having a diverse mix of systems. A wide array of options helps mitigate risk – the report pushes a false dichotomy.”

On the bias toward U.S.-based academic libraries in the report and the discussion

  • “I received a number of questions because the report seems to suggest it reflects the DP community as a whole but the interviews, results seem to focus mostly on academic libraries mostly in the US and the kinds of collections they have which is confusing and potentially misleading.”
  • “It’s challenging to hear these discussions and blow out to the wider cultural heritage landscape. Many small organizations don’t have infrastructure for anything local, they need turnkey solutions, so there is a place for them. It’s an option, and it’s better to take a risk than do nothing.”

The Role of Transparency

Members of the NDSA community recognized that the concept and practice of transparency plays a multifaceted and key role in the digital preservation space. Transparency can be associated with an organization’s or service provider’s willingness and ability to openly communicate a variety of information, ranging from how preservation policies are implemented, to how they’re applied, to current financial standings and anticipated financial conditions in the future. Furthermore, there was recognition that any such aspect of transparency can be significantly influenced both positively and negatively by characteristics of an organization’s stance in the space. For example, an organization with direct responsibilities to other like-minded institutions that are dependent upon its own operational capacity in a distributed preservation network has a greater incentive to be transparent. And as another example, from any service provider’s perspective, transparency depends on having the capacity to communicate granular information about a preservation software platform’s stability or roadmap and associated planning surrounding its future iterations. All of these thoughts surfaced during the open conversation that was conducted. 

The following quotes are reflections by participants on the role of transparency in digital preservation. In addition to these thoughts, participants also expressed concerns about how data for the report was collected.

On the front of system operations and implementation:

  • “There was no discussion of transparency in the report. That has largely arisen from the findings and the data they are built upon. A system’s transparency should be verifiable by the designated community.”

Regarding collaboration with the community:

  • “This report reinforced for me the lack of transparency with commercial vendors, while open source and collaborative projects work to provide access to what’s “behind the curtain” – whether it’s messy or not.”

From the viewpoint of providing services to the community:

  • “As a digital repository where many of our organizations are public/tax payer institutions, we have to be transparent, so it is just as important that we are utilizing systems that are also doing that, [for-]profit or non-profit.”

And with regard to the approaches taken to gathering data for the report, as well as the crossroads of finances and risk mitigation:

  • “Re: statement about inability to examine for-profit systems financials – a cop out. They do have different structures, publicly-owned companies have different transparency requirements than venture-capital funded companies. Digipres is about risk mitigation, we need to know this info, it factors into the risk.”

The Need for More Advocacy

One of the most prevalent concerns for participants was the effect the report might have on efforts to advocate for digital preservation resources at their own institutions. Of particular concern was the statement in the report that there is little digital preservation work being done – this was surprising to the many people doing this work. Some commenters suggested this statement should be rephrased as “very little digital preservation is happening at many organizations,” or “there are very limited resources to do digital preservation work at cultural heritage organizations.” There was a sense that the report misrepresents the challenges that many face – and are working to surmount – in developing digital preservation programs.

Participants also commented on how the report could negatively impact efforts to advocate for digital preservation resources, especially by casting doubt on open source solutions and community-supported infrastructure. However, not all commenters felt that the report would be a negative in their advocacy efforts; at least two participants, who identified as staff at smaller institutions with nascent digital preservation programs, suggested that the report could help with advocacy efforts within their own institutions. The overwhelming concern expressed by participants, though, was that the report might negatively impact administrative decisions about resources – including staffing – and reinforces misunderstandings about open-source/community-supported platforms versus commercial solutions.

Apart from the Ithaka report itself, participants discussed the need to advocate across different stakeholder groups to improve understanding and support for digital preservation efforts. Several existing reports were highlighted, including the NDSA’s 2021 Staffing Survey and OCLC’s Total Cost of Stewardship report (2021). 

The following quotes are reflections by participants on the need for more advocacy:

Digital preservation is people

  • “A preservation system is not a preservation service. Buying/licensing a system does not make for a local service. This is what is meant by ‘Digital Preservation is people.’”

On the need for top-down advocacy

  • “In a government context, elected officials are very interested in digital preservation. Many state government libraries and archives have been deeply involved in digital preservation for a really long time. It would be nice to hear more from them in NDSA and other communities.”
  • “At one organization who runs a digital preservation service, this report has emphasized the need to put more energy into high-level advocacy for better resourcing digital preservation. The report reinforced misunderstandings of open-source vs commercial solutions. It’s a warning sign that leaders need to step up for digital preservation and its staff.”

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