Preserving information

James H. Billington, the librarian of Congress, once said, “The digital history of this nation is imperiled by the very technology that is used to create it.” Indeed, it is an irony of the digital age that the technology that can make information easily available in the short run can also make it difficult to preserve for the long term. The digital record of the activities of
Congress may be lost if we do not take decisive action.

The House should take easy, cost-effective steps today to guard against the irreparable loss of congressional information.
While some of this information has always been and still is well preserved (e.g., the U.S. Code, the Statutes at Large, the Congressional Record), the task of digital preservation is now unlike anything Congress has faced before.

An escalating amount of information, such as speeches, hearing transcripts, witness lists and reports, is increasingly created and available only in digital formats.  And members of Congress are increasingly using their individual websites to communicate directly with constituents and the general public and are filling these sites with rich digital information products such as videos and podcasts. Even information that may seem mundane or unimportant when it is released, but is vital to historians, journalists, lawmakers and citizens, may not get preserved without a sustained commitment by memory institutions such as libraries and archives.

Unfortunately, most digital files become unreadable without concerted efforts to preserve them. It is difficult and expensive to preserve Web pages, audio streams, video recordings, databases and other “born-digital” formats. It is even more difficult and expensive to keep these online and ensure that they are usable — and will continue to be usable in five, 10 or 100 years. In addition to the technical problems of preservation, there are economic, social and political barriers. This will be particularly true if we leave it to the federal government alone to budget and plan for preservation and long-term free access.

The solution is to use open-document formats and deposit documents in memory institutions that take responsibility for preservation and access.

The House should mandate that all official digital records of the House and its members be created in formats that are preservable and reusable. This means creating information in open-file formats that do not require proprietary software or any single operating system and are not locked down by the kind of digital rights management technologies that the motion picture and music industries use.

The House should also ensure that all digital documents and products are deposited with the Government Printing Office (GPO) and in federal depository libraries. Depositing information is a process that has worked well for over 200 years, and will work well in the digital age. It will ensure that copies are available in multiple repositories so that a failure of any one repository will not result in an irrevocable loss of content. It will also help ensure continuing access to this information by distributing the costs of preservation and access across many repositories rather than relying solely on the federal budget. Active depositing will also create something that is essential for preservation and access but which does not exist today: an accurate record of all information products of the House.

Jacobs, data services librarian emeritus at the University of California at San Diego, is a co-founder of FreeGovInfo.org . He authored the “Preserving Congressional Information” chapter for the Open House Project.