(19 Jul 2022) In August 2020, with funding from the Institute of Library and Museum Services (IMLS), Ithaka S+R launched an 18-month research project to examine and assess the sustainability of these third-party digital preservation systems. In addition to a broad examination of the landscape, we more closely studied eight systems: APTrust, Archivematica, Arkivum, Islandora, LIBNOVA, MetaArchive, Samvera and Preservica. Specifically, we assessed what works well and the challenges and risk factors these systems face in their ability to continue to successfully serve their mission and the needs of the market. In scoping this project and selecting these organizations, we intentionally included a combination of profit-seeking and not-for-profit initiatives, focusing on third-party preservation platforms rather than programmatic preservation.
Key findings include:
- The term “preservation” has become devalued nearly to the point of having lost its meaning. Providers are marketing their offerings as “preservation systems” regardless of actual functionality or storage configurations. Many systems marketed as preservation systems usually address only some aspects of preservation work, such as providing workflow systems (and user interfaces) to streamline the process of moving content into and out of a storage layer.
- Because no digital preservation system is truly turnkey, digital preservation cannot be fully outsourced. Digital preservation is a distributed and iterative activity that requires in-house expertise, adequate staffing, and access to different technologies and systems. While it is possible to outsource key components of the digital preservation process to a system provider, no digital preservation system is truly turnkey. Today, it is neither feasible nor desirable for a heritage organization to outsource responsibility for its digital preservation program.
- Heritage organizations select preservation systems within the context of marketplace competition. Many observers believe that heritage organizations should support not-for-profit solutions based on shared values and other common principles. But this has not always been the principal driver of organizational behavior. Providers compete within a marketplace that recognizes organizational values as one characteristic among many, such as the total cost of implementation and the feasibility of local implementation.
- The not-for-profit preservation platforms are at risk. They tend to have limited capital and have comparatively ponderous governance structures. As a result, many have not been able to innovate quickly enough to keep up with the needs of heritage organizations. Their business and governance models are often ill-suited to the demands of a competitive marketplace, even if growth is not their primary objective. It seems reasonable to forecast additional mergers or buy outs (if not outright failures) among this category of providers.
- The growing reliance on profit-seeking providers carries risks. The profit-seekers tend to pursue a growth strategy, and by this measure they are succeeding. Private capital and a decision to scale across multiple sectors has enabled this category of providers to grow substantially in the heritage sector. Because of a lack of financial transparency, the sustainability of this sector is largely unknowable, and because of a lack of technical transparency, the robustness of the solutions themselves are not widely understood. Competitive pricing and strong service seem likely nevertheless to continue driving growth.
- The diversity of approaches to ensure long-term access to digital content—while a strength—can challenge the imperative to maintain high standards. Given the accelerating rates and increasing complexity of digital information, the heritage community needs a rich array of services. But this array of services must not result in a view that “there are no right ways of doing preservation.” It does a disservice to the preservation imperative if heritage communities are unwilling to critique flawed offerings. Systems designed to play a role in preservation need to strike a balance between agility and inclusivity, taking into consideration the diverse needs of users and organizational resources.
- Very little digital preservation activity is actually taking place. While we did not embark on this project to quantify the level of preservation, there appear to be thousands of heritage organizations undertaking little to no digital preservation activity. While cross-institutional programmatic preservation activities were also out of scope for this project, we note with continuing concern that vast categories of important content types, such as journalism and social media, remain largely outside the scope of any heritage community preservation initiative. Ultimately, heritage organizations are severely underinvesting in digital preservation.
More details can be found here.