A new international task force will convene for the first time Tuesday to address the problem of maintaining data for future generations.
The National Science Foundation and Andrew W. Mellon Foundation are funding the Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access panel's two-year mission, with support from institutions like the Council on Library and Information Resources, Library of Congress, National Archives and Records Administration, and the United Kingdom's Joint Information Systems Committee.
"Data infrastructure is not free," said the group's co-chair Francine Berman, who is director of the San Diego Supercomputer Center. The task force will deliver a report on existing economic models for preservation and recommendations to the community at large on models that should be put into action.
The outreach that officials hope to accomplish will be just as important, Berman said. She would like digital preservation to be an international priority on par with global warming and stem-cell research. Otherwise, government records, family photographs, music and research may disappear.
"Two years is not enough to cover the entire scope of the problem," she said. "One of the things that would be a great outcome is if we could really sort of change thinking."
For instance, Berman said the 2008 election is an enormously data-rich activity. "Think of all the election materials ending up in blogs, podcasts, e-mails. ... Preserving them for the foreseeable future will be absolutely critical," she said.
The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee will hold a hearing next month to investigate the White House's compliance with statutes governing storage of e-mails. In inviting the president's counsel, Fred Fielding, to testify, committee Chairman Henry Waxman, D-Calif., noted the "considerable confusion that exists regarding the status of White House efforts to preserve e-mails."
Executive office e-mails are "a great example of the kind of digital data that one wants to preserve," Berman said.
Amy Friedlander, programs director of the Council on Library and Information Resources and a member of the digital preservation group, said there are a number of tensions and ambiguities surrounding the retention of government information, such as the distinction between public and private digital materials.
But she said the formal processes used to designate materials for storage or deletion are integral to sustainability across the globe because it is impossible to save everything.
"So while I doubt that the task force will be positioned to look specifically at the policies governing the executive branch," Friedlander said, "it will address the very hard question of making such decisions and, I hope, begin to articulate general principles within which individual entities can make informed decisions about policies and practices."
The task force includes representatives from the Online Computer Library Center, Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences; University of Edinburgh; Microsoft; University of California's Paul Merage School of Business; and several other organizations with economic and technical expertise.
Berman said she hopes to involve a wide spectrum of groups beyond the panel. "This is a problem that everyone has," she said.