Digital Preservation Pioneer: Clifford Lynch

Photo courtesy of Cecilia Preston

Clifford Lynch is widely regarded as an oracle in the culture of networked information. Lynch monitors the global information ecosystem for cultural trends and technological developments. He ponders their variables, interdependencies and influencing factors. He confers with colleagues and draws conclusions. Then he reports his observations through lectures, conference presentations and writings. People who know about Lynch pay close attention to what he has to say.

Lynch is a soft-spoken man whose work, for more than thirty years, has had an impact — direct or indirect — on the computer, information and library science communities.

He began his scholarly life studying mathematics at Columbia University. He eventually shifted his focus to computer science and did some academic computing for New York University. In 1980, Ed Brownrigg — a visionary leader in library automation — invited Lynch to California to work on a large, groundbreaking project: constructing the first online union catalog for all of the holdings in the roughly 100 libraries in the University of California system, what was to become the MELVYL system.

Part of the challenge was to merge six to seven million bibliographic records and construct an online catalog. The software and hardware Lynch and his colleagues needed did not exist at that time, so they had to build custom software, a data center and an easily usable interface. The Internet did exist then but it only connected a small number of computer scientists and people doing supercomputing, so to support online access to MELVYL, Lynch and his colleagues duplicated ARPANET technology and deployed it around the state. Lynch also decided to use TCP/IP, which he says was unusual at the time and sparked disputes among some of his colleagues.

“I think we were probably the first major catalog on the Internet,” said Lynch. “And certainly one of the first systems really designed for Internet delivery rather than just handling Internet access as an afterthought.”

Along the way, Lynch became the director of the Division of Library Automation for the UC system and he got his doctorate in computer science at the University of California, Berkeley. His doctoral research was about how relational database systems failed to handle information retrieval applications. Lynch said that he thinks some of the ideas and solutions he worked out may have found their way into some commercial database systems.

In 1997, Lynch left to become the director of the Coalition for Networked Information (an NDIIPP and NDSA partner). Paul Evan Peters founded CNI in 1990 to address network technology in research and education, and to create a dialog between librarians and information technologists about areas of common interest. Lynch said that up until the founding of CNI there had been limited interaction in the academic world between the people who led libraries and the people who led information technology.

CNI did much more than promote a dialogue though. It provided a forum for information. It alerted members of the academic, library and technology communities to key issues, pointed out things that people needed be aware of, helped set policies and create standards (Dublin Core, for example), tracked developments and promoted strategies. Above all it fostered collaboration among the stakeholders, which is as crucial today as it was then.

Lynch said, “In the early days, CNI spent a tremendous amount of time talking with other organizations — notably scholarly societies, government agencies and various cultural memory organizations — about how the Internet and digital content was going to change the work they do and the way their organizations needed to operate and alter their priorities and strategies. It was a consultative evangelism. We are past that now. Most organizations have at least made a first pass at coming to terms with this new world of digital information. Most people in most disciplines now would admit that their work is integrally reliant on digital data and the tools to manipulate it. And that change has taken a generation.”

He said the core conversation between libraries, information sciences and technologists is still vital but the range of participants in that conversation is broader now and the discussion is richer. Publishers, faculty, archivists, instructional technologists, artists, authors and cultural heritage communities are joining the conversation. In many ways, the Internet plays a major role in the conversation.

“The Internet is a very vibrant place today in terms of available content and resources,” said Lynch. “Although it’s also a vastly challenging place still in terms of how to organize and manage and especially preserve that content. We are still in the middle of a major re-calibration as a society about how we deal with our own memory as so much of the material that makes up that memory moves to the Internet.”

Lynch frequently mentioned the cultural record and digital preservation. He was quick to point out that they are not mutually exclusive of each other.

Lynch said, “One of the things I talk about nowadays is trying to understand the shape of the overall cultural record and how that shape is changing and where we are succeeding and where we are failing at coming up — as a society — with preservation strategies for deciding what we need to keep and who’s going to keep it and how it’s going to get kept.”

He said the cultural record and digital preservation help drive scholarship. Special collections set the character of research libraries, and personal materials from important individuals are a key part of these collections. The nature of these personal materials is changing radically and new approaches are needed. Lynch cited the positive examples of CNI’s work with the British Library’s Digital Lives project and CNI’s involvement with the Personal Digital Archiving meetings. He also talked about the urgent need for the general public to get more help with how to manage their personal memories.

A key issue in the acceptance of electronic-only versions of scholarly publications is long-term preservation and access to digital information. Within academia, researchers publish with the expectation that their works will be available well after their lifetime, preserved by academic and research libraries. Lynch said it is important to move digital scholarly works into preservation environments.

To help identify which issues CNI should focus on, Lynch said he and CNI’s associate executive director, Joan Lippincott, consult extensively with his Steering Committee, which includes leaders from CNI’s sponsor organizations, EDUCAUSE and the Association of Research Libraries.

“Ultimately, I set that agenda,” said Lynch. “But the reality is a lot more complex because I spend a tremendous amount of time listening and talking with organizations and people with a stake in that agenda and with good ideas and insights about that agenda. A very important part of what I do is keep an ear to the ground for new things that are emerging, that are candidates for that agenda. There is an art about where CNI is likely to be effective about where to employ limited resources against an almost endless list of potentially interesting and important issues.”

CNI members have a lot of ability to shape its work. Some may bring forth an issue that they want to explore within the CNI community. Sometimes a particular CNI conference presentation may resonate with groups of members and an interest will develop organically.

Lynch deflected questions about his own achievements; regarding projects with which has been involved, he always describes their successes in terms of collaboration and teamwork. I pushed him for an example of where his influence had a direct, beneficial effect and he reluctantly mentioned the preservation of digital scholarly journals as a possible example.

“That was one that nobody wanted to deal with,” said Lynch. “And it was important to speak up and say, ‘you really can’t consider this transition done and we really can’t let go of the print until we have a viable set of strategies for preserving scientific journals.’ Then we saw the establishment of LOCKSS. We saw Portico. And there has since been some serious attention to funding models. Getting institutions — particularly universities — to think about the materials they hold in trust, in order to be able to serve as good digital stewards, about what good stewardship means, is incredibly important. And to the extent that I’ve been one of many people who pushed that discussion along and tried to make it prominent, I think has been a very good thing.”

Lynch is often on the road, nationally and internationally. He lectures, confers, observes, reads and absorbs information. Some topics radiate more importance to him than others. Some may be a continuation of a conversation he heard at a conference somewhere else, which serves to confirm its significance to him. Often he’ll draw attention to new and important information he has gleaned during his travels.

Information professionals seek him out not only for what he has to say but also for his skill in saying it…for his ability to explain complex information in simple, direct language.

Lynch is also a catalyst for action. He helps steer the conversation toward real results, such as standards creation, funding, tool development, metadata creation and interoperability. Ultimately, Lynch seems most fervent about collaboration as a crucial force.

“I would be reluctant to attribute much of anything just to my actions,” he said. “Most important successes come through the work of a lot of different people, collaborating and pulling it together. Maybe I can think of a place or two where there was a meeting that I spoke at or convened or I wrote or did something that just happened to fall at a pivotal moment. But any of that to me feels a bit accidental, at best just good luck, being in the right place at the right time.”


  1. Ina Smith
    May 29, 2013 at 11:58 am

    When we started an institutional repository at the University of Pretoria in 2006, South Africa, and also in 2009 at Stellenbosch University, South Africa, we made use of the definition of an institutional repository by Clifford Lynch to get academics to buy into the idea of having their research digitally preserved for the longterm. It is still the most comprehensive description of an institutional repository.

  2. Tori Orr
    May 29, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    This is a wonderfully written homage to an amazing human. The only thing I’d like to contribute is a nod to his genuine spirit and sincere interest in even the most junior contributor. I was lucky enough to meet Mr. Lynch in 2005 after presenting a paper to ASIS&T. He turned out to be a great listener and very generous to all attending graduates with his time and encouragement. Since I was already in awe of his accomplishments interacting with him could have been intimidating, but his down to earth charm and genuine interest in others without affectation are two more endearing qualities that should not be overlooked. He is indeed a national treasure.

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