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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.


joss said...

Great to see you write about this here. In my previous work, I was a film and video archivist at the BFI and spent much of my time thinking in terms of 100 year time scales. It's an odd situation to be in to think in terms of centuries (i.e. how long with this polyester film stock last?) when at the same time considering the potentially catastrophic impacts of Peak Oil and Climate Change over mere decades.

Anyway, I like the LOCKSS approach in principle, but can see at least two possible objections.

The duplication of resources also suggests to me the duplication of carbon emissions to keep the resources available. When HEIs are having to buy carbon through CRC-type mechanisms, there may be a reluctance (an even greater reluctance?) to mirror resources when they appear to be available elsewhere.

Secondly and on a related matter, Peak Oil will send the cost of electricity soaring and along with the costs of carbon, this may be another reason not to host duplicate content.

Having said that, I think there's a good local business case for LOCKSS in an environment where wider networks are unreliable and assuming HEIs are going to go along the route of local power generation, as some are already doing, this may offset the costs of purchasing electricity from the grid and keep costs under control.

You know more about how LOCKSS works than I do. Are there are mechanisms that would allow institutions to share the cost burden in terms of emissions and electricity? Does LOCKSS assume an abundance of energy or can it operate successfully under rationed conditions?

As you know, preservation through duplication is an approach taken by archivists for both physical and digital objects. In terms of resilience, this 'replication' is something worth considering further, I think. Replication seems to be a natural method of achieving resilience in nature. In terms of LOCKSS, it is resilient through being de-centralised but how dynamic is it? Can each instance of LOCKSS periodically carry a greater burden than the others? (i.e. can the majority of instances power down at timed intervals while one or two serve requests?)

Replication, even in natural systems, can end up contributing stress to the system. Can the growth of LOCKSS succeed without becoming a burden on the demand for resources?

Fulup said...

Hi Joss, thanks for your thoughtful comments and questions. Replication has been an important part of the strategy of libraries for preserving knowledge since the unfortunate incidents at Nineveh and Alexandria. It was the absence of replication in the available models for electronic journals that prompted the Stanford sysyems developers to design and build LOCKSS.
'Continuing access to the resources you care about' is a phrase being associated with digital preservation tools. The 'continuing access' part (in the case of LOCKSS) is covered by collecting a reserve archive of resources only made available to users if and when the originals were no longer accessible. Unlike the CLOCKSS/Portico insurance model, it does not require a committee to meet to release the content.
The 'that you care about' part relates to the stock development features of LOCKSS. You only need to collect the content you desire.
Other institutions then share in the work of preserving the selected items, constantly checking the integrity of the files they have in common. If disaster where to strike any single LOCKSS Box, it could be 'restocked' by copying back the lost content from its peers.
There is currently no shared role in serving content. Indeed the license to collect content from publishers would limit this role as you are only able to make copies of material where you have a subscription. There is more scope for this role in relatin to open access material where no such limit applies.

josswinn said...

Thanks. Your explanation makes it clearer to me how LOCKSS can contribute to institutional resilience without necessarily duplicating the impacts of emissions and energy use, incurred in mirroring content.