Illinois to play lead role in project to preserve digital information

October 07, 2004

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been chosen as one of the lead institutions in a massive new Library of Congress project to save at-risk digital materials nationwide.

The U. of I. Library and the U. of I. Graduate School of Library and Information Science will receive nearly $3 million over three years for their role in the Library of Congress preservation project, called the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program.

"Together with the Library of Congress, we'll address a problem that grows more pressing every day: How do we collect, manage, preserve, and make useful the enormous amount of digital information our culture is now producing?" said John Unsworth, the dean of the U. of I. Graduate School of Library and Information Science, and co-principal investigator of the Illinois grant. Beth Sandore, associate university librarian for information technology planning and policy at Illinois, is the other co-principal investigator.

Sandore sees the grant as a unique opportunity and challenge. "The public has entrusted libraries, museums and archives with the stewardship of collections and resources so that they can be used by future generations," Sandore said. "Collecting, selecting and preserving digital information requires approaches and resources that are substantively different from those we have used traditionally.

"This partnership presents a unique opportunity for us to work with a network of institutions, including our partners, other NDIIPP grantees and the Library of Congress, to develop both the methods and the technologies that will help the library community better understand how to preserve and make accessible significant digital resources for future generations."

According to Sandore, the project also provides an opportunity for information professionals with traditional library backgrounds and those with digital library expertise to work together to address these challenges.

Illinois' nationwide partners are the OCLC Online Computer Library Center in Dublin, Ohio; Tufts University's Perseus Project; the Michigan State University Library; and an alliance of state libraries from Arizona, Connecticut, Illinois, North Carolina and Wisconsin. Partners on the Illinois campus include WILL-AM, -FM and -TV (public radio and television stations), the Division of Management Information and the National Center for Supercomputing Applications (NCSA).

Illinois' project more specifically will develop criteria for selecting digital material for capture and preservation, with OCLC taking the lead to build software to help automate the process. Illinois, OCLC and NCSA will jointly provide storage for the digital content collected in the project in databases called "repositories" and will test real-world problems that are encountered in the process of digital archiving.

Illinois also will explore ways for libraries and repositories to share and preserve digital information existing in a wide variety of formats including Web-based government publications, historical documents and photos, sound and video recordings, Web sites and other varied digital resources that will be of historical interest to future generations.

Because most digitally created materials have no physical version, these "so-called born-digital materials are at a much greater risk of either being lost and no longer available as historical resources, or of being altered, preventing future researchers from studying them in their original form," a Library of Congress news release said, adding that: "Millions of digital materials, such as Web sites mounted in the early days of the Internet, are already lost -- either completely or in their original versions."

Illinois, along with the other partners in NDIIPP, seeks to identify methods and technologies that will help avoid losing information that is of significant historical value.

The project is expected to involve a great many players and have a wide ripple effect, both within and outside the state. "In the best tradition of land-grant schools," Unsworth said, "this project puts research and teaching to work in the service of the state and the nation."

According to Unsworth, the infrastructure that will be funded by this grant at Illinois will constitute "a unique environment for the comparative testing and published evaluation of digital library software and techniques. That environment also will be used for faculty research and for teaching students in a new advanced degree program in digital libraries."

Unsworth became dean of Illinois' library school a year ago after serving as the founding director of the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at the University of Virginia. He is a frequent speaker on topics related to digital scholarship, digital libraries and scholarly publishing. Sandore has served as associate university librarian for information technology planning and policy since 2001. Her professional experience and research focus on developing and evaluating digital libraries of cultural heritage information.

Illinois is one of eight institutions leading projects under this round of NDIIPP funding. The others are the University of California, the University of California at Santa Barbara, Educational Broadcasting Corporation (Thirteen/WNET New York), Emory University, University of Maryland, University of Michigan and North Carolina State University Libraries. Illinois' grant is the third highest of the participating institutions.

Laura E. Campbell, who is leading the NDIIPP initiative for the Library of Congress, said that "These formal partnerships mark the beginning of a new phase of this program to raise awareness of the need for digital preservation and to take steps to capture and preserve at-risk digital content that is vital to our nation's history."

The Library of Congress called for applications a year ago. All applications were subjected to a peer-review process administered by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Librarian of Congress James H. Billington made the final selection.

The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world. The U. of I. Library is the largest public university library in the world, and the U. of I. Graduate School of Library and Information Science is consistently rated among the best in the world.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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