Published online by Cambridge University Press: 08 June 2018
Stewards of the scholarly and cultural record recognize that their curatorial responsibilities now extend beyond familiar forms of materials, such as print books, paper manuscripts, motion pictures, paintings, etc., to include the ever-increasing body of information manifested in digital form. These digital materials may represent old wine in new bottles, e.g. e-books or electronic government documents, but they also include digital creations with no obvious antecedent in the analogue world, e.g. software, websites and databases. If we are not to tolerate gaps in society's memory in the future, we must intervene in the present to secure the long-term availability of culturally significant digital materials. The 1996 report of the US Task Force on Archiving of Digital Information contains the call to arms that has been echoed in dozens of publications since: ‘Failure to look for trusted means and methods of digital preservation will exact a stiff, long-term cultural penalty’ (Task Force, 1996, 4).
But the best of intentions are almost always reined in by practical constraints. In the case of digital preservation, it is economic realities that intrude. A significant commitment in effort and resources is required to preserve digital materials, and for institutions operating within the limits imposed by static or even shrinking budgets, the costs of sustaining a programmatic digital archiving activity may simply be prohibitive. Scarcity of funds is hardly a new problem in preservation, of course: Kenney and Stam (2002) recently found that preservation generally commands less than 3% of the total budget in American academic libraries. But there is every indication that the economic requirements of digital preservation, fuelled by the immediacy and scale of the problem, will exacerbate this familiar problem to a degree heretofore unseen.
As institutions look to implement sustainable digital preservation programmes, the question ‘Is digital preservation technically feasible?’ becomes overshadowed by the question ‘Is digital preservation economically feasible?’. And the corollary to this, of course, is that even the most elegant technical solution is no solution at all if it is not economically sustainable.