Emory University’s MetaScholar Initiative Receives $1,125,000 to Preserve Our Digital History

Posting Date: 
22 March 2007

The advent of digital technologies has presented society with a new challenge—how will we preserve the digital files that already comprise the bulk of the 21st century’s historical record, from government documents to scientific experiment results, from family videos to newscasts, and from email to blogs? How can we ensure that future generations will have access to the cultural record we are creating today in digital formats?

The MetaArchive Cooperative, led by Emory University’s MetaScholar Initiative, is helping to answer that question. With $1,125,000 in funds from the Library of Congress’s National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP; www.digitalpreservation.gov) and matching funds from its six partner institutions (Emory University, Auburn University, Florida State University, Georgia Tech, Virginia Tech, and the University of Louisville), the MetaArchive Cooperative will build policies, standards, and a technical structure to guarantee the long-term survival of these digital materials.

“We are doing for digital materials what libraries and archives have done for paper collections for millennia,” said Dr. Martin Halbert, the project’s principal investigator and director of Digital Programs and Systems for Emory’s Robert W. Woodruff Library. “The next generation will have little information about the early digital years unless we act now to preserve what we produce as a culture.”

Digital materials are terribly fragile, and their development is occurring at warp speeds. Websites, for example, exist for less than 100 days on average. Anyone with a TRS-80 remembers the days of recording files to tape, and anyone with a floppy disc knows that it takes no more than a few years for a file storage device to become outmoded and nearly impossible to use. Capturing the files stored on computers, the internet, and various types of storage devices in a timely manner—especially those produced by such key groups as governments, scholars, journalists, artists, and scientists—is essential if we want to have a record of our cultural output that is consistent with the records preserved in past centuries. The MetaArchive Cooperative began to capture, describe, and store such files for cultural posterity in 2004.

The MetaArchive Cooperative

The MetaArchive Cooperative is an independent, multi-state membership association whose purpose is to support, promote, and extend the MetaArchive approach to distributed digital preservation practices. (http://www.metaarchive.org). The MetaArchive Cooperative currently hosts one preservation network: the MetaArchive of Southern Digital Culture. This preservation network houses a critical body of southern digital content, including such items as government documents, interviews with major American musicians, photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, video footage of agricultural practices, scholarly writings about the South, and maps of the U.S. South.

In its new project, the MetaArchive Cooperative will formalize a sustainable business model for cooperative distributed digital preservation and will establish an outreach effort to U.S. cultural memory organizations that possess digital content. The Cooperative will concentrate particularly on Gulf Coast states where digital resources are at greater-than-usual risk due to hurricanes. “We will encourage other networks to adopt our technical and administrative frameworks to form new networks of their own,” said Dr. Halbert. “We are also welcoming new members into our Southern Digital Culture network.”

The MetaArchive approach to digital preservation relies upon a distributed preservation network infrastructure that is based on the LOCKSS software developed at Stanford University (http://www.lockss.org). “Distributed” means that copies of digital materials are stored on servers in different geographical spaces (e.g., in different states). Those servers are networked together so that they are constantly in contact with one another. If something happens to a file—perhaps because it degrades naturally or because the geographical region in which it is located suffers a catastrophe (e.g., Hurricane Katrina)—the network will check all other copies of the file. After determining that all other copies are intact and identical, the network can rebuild that degraded or lost file as needed to replace the lost material, thus ensuring its stability over time. The LOCKSS software, as well as additional tools developed at Emory University for the MetaArchive, is available freely as open source software components (http://www.opensource.org).

The project is part of the MetaScholar Initiative in Woodruff Library’s Digital Programs and Systems division--a group that has earned its national reputation as a leader in the fields of Digital Library research and Internet-based scholarly communication. In the past five years, the division has received more than $4 million in grant support for projects and programs that promote new ways of conducting research and scholarship in the digital age. For more information about the MetaArchive Cooperative and other digital-library projects at Emory, please visit http://www.metascholar.org.