Ithaka S+R Faculty Survey Response: The Archival Role of the Library

by | Dec 9, 2019 | 0 comments

Faculty Perceptions on the Function of Library as an Archive: Library’s Evolving Role in Preserving Scholarly Content

by Oya Y. Rieger, Senior Advisor, Ithaka S+R & Cornell Computing and Information Sciences (arXiv)

One of the conclusions of the recent Ithaka S+R U.S. Faculty Survey is the increasing significance of the library’s role in serving as a repository of resources to archive, preserve, and keep track of scholarly content. When faculty were asked to assess the importance of various functions of their library (options including gateway, buyer, archive, and support for teaching, learning and research), the most notable difference from the last survey cycle was that the library’s role as a repository was rated as relatively more essential. About 73% of faculty indicated the library’s function as an archive as highly important, compared to 67% of faculty in 2015. Endorsement of the archival role has increased across the board from different types of higher education institutions within each discipline, although humanists assign a stronger value to this role.[1] How does this finding inform the library’s programs and services? What kind of changes are required to match their expectations and needs?

Faculty continue to think that the library’s most essential role is as buyer of scholarly content such as journals, books, and electronic resources to support their academic and teaching efforts. Therefore, one possible way to interpret the findings related to the archival role is that faculty are seeing the library as a repository of “published or licensed materials” based on the library’s historic role as “repositories of print content” (consistent with the buyer role). When asked to rate the utility of possible sources of support for managing or preserving their own content such as media and images, about 45% of faculty respondents indicated that they value their library related services. However, when asked about the methods they use to preserve their own research data, less than 8% of them indicated that their libraries preserve such materials on their behalf. One of the survey conclusions is that faculty members’ preferences for cloud-based storage and hosting services (e.g., Google Drive, Dropbox, Flickr, Box) is on the rise for organizing, managing, and preserving their content, such as media or images. So it is questionable that they put the same value for the library acting as a preservation repository for their own research and teaching content. Also, it is likely that there is a gap between their opinions and practices and often they might be equating storage to archiving. Preservation is much more than storage and requires a complicated suite of administrative and technical processes to ensure the usability trustworthiness of digital content long into the future. An important role for the library community is to promote best practices for self-archiving such as using file formats that will ensure long-term access and increase awareness about the current storage options (especially cloud storage).[4]

As they create or gather print or digital materials, faculty often don’t consider preservation needs upstream.[5] Given their busy daily workflows and priorities, inevitably they tend to follow opportunistic and idiosyncratic approaches and are often unaware of long-term management issues. They often lack the resources and capacity to maintain personal collections over time in the face of evolving file formats and software dependencies through strategies such as refreshing (copy digital information from one storage medium to another) and migration (convert data from one technology to another). Many universities have distributed services with specific missions related to learning, teaching, and research that overlap –but sometimes without a strong mandate to work together. Even within the libraries, preservation responsibilities are more and more decoupled as distinct programs–such as web archiving, research data, repositories, digital humanities, and special collections–are placed in different library units that do not share a common preservation mandate. As preservation-related services are increasingly carried out in different units, establishing active and systematic collaborations even within an institution becomes more critical to develop outreach strategies to raise awareness of content management techniques among faculty with a consideration of the entire lifecycle of scholarly resources.

As digital information is increasingly licensed, distributed, and networked, academic libraries are no longer perceived as the primary drivers and leaders in digital preservation. It is difficult to preserve content that is not “owned” or “controlled” by libraries. Also preservation activities have expanded significantly due to the burgeoning type of digital content with various lifecycle stages. Whether for print or digital materials, preservation programs are expensive and complicated to build and sustain, especially at the institutional level. With the emergence of third-party preservation services like CLOCKSS, HathiTrust, Portico, and Scholars Portal, the library community recognizes the need to approach its preservation mission at a collaborative and networked level beyond individual institutional programs. Through shared print repositories, there is growing interest in moving to collective responsibility for access, long-term management, and preservation through partnerships and shared digital collections. Given the increasing dependencies and limited resources, it is often beyond the reach of libraries to ensure long-term access for future users. It is essential that libraries work closely with preservation service providers, publishers, scholarly societies, government agencies, funders, and other content creators and distributors on various technical, managerial, policy, and financial aspects of preservation programs.

The academic community has a growing reliance on commercially-produced, born-digital content that is licensed or purchased, such as e-journals and e-books. A 2016 study estimated that only 30 percent of e-journals had enduring preservation strategies.[6] Especially open access e-journals, which usually use a diverse range of one-off publishing arrangements, can be quite vulnerable. Perhaps the most surprising finding of the study was the degree of questioning within the library community itself regarding the importance of taking action to preserve e-journals. This was expressed as a combination of (misplaced) confidence that publishers and aggregators can be relied on to archive their own content, plus uncertainty about the technical and economic reliability of existing third-party preservation organizations. There is also confusion as to where the responsibility for preservation lies: with publishers, third party agencies, or libraries. The archiving responsibility is distributed and elusive. Libraries need to assume a proactive role by supporting third-party preservation service providers, helping identify content at risk (including legacy of historically underrepresented communities), and embedding systematic consideration of long-term access issues at the point of licensing content by leveraging their purchasing power.[7]

Digital preservation has always been about access and ensuring that the content is usable. The scholarly record and primary sources necessary to inform tomorrow’s scholarship are getting more distributed and sophisticated, entailing a wide range of discovery, access, and use arrangements. It is increasingly difficult to isolate the user experience without taking into consideration various contextual issues, such as the software required to make sense of a preserved data set or an application needed to experience a new media art work. In an Atlantic article, Alexis Madrigal speculates how future historians will understand the current internet. He reminds us that we can experience how WordPerfect functioned through techniques such as emulation. However, how do we preserve the experience of using Twitter or Pinterest for future scholars?  Preservation efforts will pay off only if we are able to factor in the access requirements to ensure that digital culture and scholarship will be able to be emulated and understood by potential users in the future.


[1] Although the terms archiving and preservation are often used interchangeably, specialists from the library and archival communities often differentiate these two functions based on their organizational mandates and missions. However, the boundaries continue to blur with the emergence of programs such as web archiving and research data management.

[4] Here is an example of a guide from Cornell University Library for managing digital content: Wendy Kozlowski, Manage Your Digital Research Files, http://guides.library.cornell.edu/c.php?g=31876&p=201791

[5] Danielle Cooper and Oya Rieger. “Scholars ARE Collectors: A Proposal for Re-thinking Research Support.” Ithaka S+R. November 2018. https://doi.org/10.18665/sr.310702

[6] Shannon Regan, Joyce McDonough, Bob Wolven, Oya Y. Rieger, “Strategies for Expanding e-Journal Preservation,” May 2016, https://confluence.cornell.edu/display/culpublic/Strategies+for+Expanding+E-Journal+Preservation

[7] Ensuring the future of Digital Scholarly Record, http://thekeepers.blogs.edina.ac.uk/keepers-extra/ensuringthefuture/

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