When a research library creates a position with responsibility for the preservation of digital stuff, where on the organizational hierarchy should that position hang? Is digital preservation an IT job, collections management, or preservation?
I’ve thought about this question on and off for a couple decades now, both when dreaming about creating such a position and when actually negotiating its implementation.
Of course, the question assumes the library has the luxury of a dedicated position or even a dedicated unit for digital preservation—most likely a large research library with numerous digital collections and initiatives. Smaller collections or incipient programs will, as we did at the University of Michigan Library in the early days, bundle preservation responsibilities with other digital creation, curation, and delivery tasks.
Digital content has come into the research library along a familiar path, introduced in a previous post on this blog. When the digital world was new, all digital activities were often assigned to a specific person, probably in a pilot project. As the projects and pilots grew, the work was collected into a single department—here that was the University of Michigan Digital Library (UMDL) in 1998. (See the U-M Digital Library Production Service timeline for a history of digital initiatives at the U-M Library.) The UMDL did all things digital: acquired or created the content, organized it, maintained it, and served it up to the user population. As the pilots developed into programs, different people became the keepers for different collections of content: Deep Blue, the institutional repository; HathiTrust, the shared digital repository for digitized content; the Humanities Text Initiative for transcribed texts, and the Digital Library Production Service (DLPS) for dozens of smaller projects.
But the programs grew in size and in number. Increasingly policies and practices for preservation were developed in silos—or not at all in the intense focus on creation and delivery.
Creating a Digital Preservation Position. For us, the deciding impetus to the creation of a digital preservation position was the desire to certify HathiTrust through TDR (Trusted Digital Repositories) and its successor TRAC (Trusted Repositories Audit and Certification): certification meant assembling or creating long lists of policy documents on how digital content was managed and preserved. By 2007 the library acknowledged the need for a position with express responsibility for the development and management of such policies. Where would that position reside? Is digital preservation fundamentally a management or a technical job? Is it a digital library responsibility or a library responsibility?
I remember a meeting gathered in the fall 2007 to discuss the proposed digital preservation librarian position. Around the table were the managers of several important digital collections—Deep Blue, DLPS, the as yet unnamed shared digital repository—as well as the head of the unit that provided core technical support for all of these collections. We discussed what the person in the new position would do. I then raised the question: where should this position reside? Slowly around the table the same response came from each manager in turn: this position was highly important for each operation and each collection, but it was bigger than any of them: it needed to reach across all digital collections.
In this moment, digital preservation started sounding a lot like preservation, as preservation of traditional collections had developed into its own specialization and department in the research library in the 1970s. The work is fundamentally administrative and managerial, but with a strong technical component. It bridges across all collections in the library, although different strategies might be applied to different groups of material depending on their nature, use, value, and desired longevity. Much of the effort is developing overarching policies and finding technical solutions that can make preservation happen.
Above all, preservation requires communication and partnership between those with specialized technical knowledge and those with collection knowledge and responsibility: how the collection grows, how it is used, what materials are likely to be wanted ten years from now or fifty or a hundred. The preservation specialist needs to be able to talk management with managers and technicalities with technical experts.
Onto the Org Chart. For the University of Michigan Library, the Digital Preservation Librarian position landed in the Department of Preservation and Conservation, a department in the Collections Division.
Preservation in the growth of digital library collections has not been unique. In the U-M Library I have watched other functional areas that in the early years were concentrated in the U-M Digital Library now returning to their core operations: acquisition of digital collections ranged alongside acquisition of analog collections, cataloging and reference reasserted as fundamental functions of the library, whatever the format of the information. Acquiring, organizing, preserving, and making available recorded knowledge is, after all, what we do.
Ultimately of course where digital preservation work is located on the org chart doesn’t matter: provided the library recognizes that preservation needs to happen and that responsibility for preservation must be assigned somewhere, any of a variety of structures can work, whether because of or despite the organizational framework foisted upon the staff. Recognizing the similarities in digital collections with what libraries have always done, however, will provide a strong foundation for sustainability.