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Monday, November 30, 2009

Peak Oil and Digital Preservation

A debate about how Higher Education should respond to the oncoming Peak Oil crisis has been kicked off, largely by Joss Winn. Contrasting views on how educators should cope with this prospect, for example Richard Heinberg argues that librarians, in particular, should head back towards preserving knowledge recorded in printed books, while Richard Hall is pointing towards more resilient institutions able to cope with a wider range of stresses upon them.

There are some very bleak prospects are on offer, with visions of computers trashed to retrieve the metals inside for arrow-heads being imagined within three generations by some. However, before we got to that point, many smaller crisis points would have had to have been confronted and opportunities missed.

So, for the purpose of this post I want to set out a couple of scenarios and suggest how librarians and educators might want to respond.

1. Electricity shortages cause the electronic infrastructure we know as the Internet to behave more erratically, with resources being intermittently unavailable.
2. The increased costs of running electronic services pressure data service providers to cease supporting content that is not profitable for them. This is not so far-fetched a picture with titles like Pain Reviews and Brief Treatment and Crisis Intervention already facing being abandoned by their publishers.

In either of these cases, educators would find that the resources that they require their students to read would be either temporarily or permanently unavailable.

Global and permanent access to electronic resources was one of the background assumptions of the pre-Peak Oil Age. One question posed by the challenge of responding to Peak Oil is how will educators respond when this assumption is questioned?

Resilience through digital preservation.

Making and keeping copies of the resources that educators can rely on is a goal of most digital preservation systems. For example, the goal of PLANETS is 'help ensure long-term access to our digital cultural and scientific assets'. A JISC Briefing Paper on defines Digital Preservation as 'the series of actions and interventions required to ensure continued and reliable access to authentic digital objects for as long as they are deemed to be of value'.

The idea is that it should not be left to the publishers themselves to take on sole responsibility for ensuring access over time. Cultural institutions like libraries should be prepared to take on at least part of this burden.

17 UK Universities currently members of the UK LOCKSS Alliance, building archives within their institutions. One advantage to the LOCKSS approach to Digital Preservation is that questions about what should be preserved, for how long and for whose benefit can be sorted out locally. Other schemes leave such decisions to 'insurance bodies' (like Portico or CLOCKSS) or to national libraries as with the British Library in the UK.

One step towards a resilient approach to Higher Education would be to ensure that the materials that educators will be relying on now and in the future for their courses are being actively looked after now. Of the different approaches to digital preservation so far available, LOCKSS enables institutions to move towards building some resilience into their electronic resources.