Economic sustainability is a key issue for digital preservation.
In the 2002 report, Preserving Our Digital Heritage: Plan for the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program, the Library of Congress noted that preserving digital content required nontrivial resources. The report also said that forecasting future needs relating to digital preservation was difficult, and “there remains substantial ambiguity surrounding key economic issues.”
These points relate to the supply side of the economic equation: how much it costs to keep digital content accessible over time. This is an obviously important issue, but the other piece of the equation—the demand side—is at least as significant. It comes down to clear-cut benefit: why is it important to save digital content, anyway? I think it is worth expanding explanations about the positive impact of digital preservation on individual lives and on our larger society.
Two recent reports explore the demand side and offers some ideas. The first is Sustainable Economics for a Digital Planet: Ensuring Long-Term Access to Digital Information, released by the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access. Findings include the need for preserving institutions to “articulate a compelling value proposition.” Value here centers on the perceived extent to which content is—or will be—used “to advance knowledge, entertain or bring pleasure, help solve problems, or inform public policy.”
The second report is from the UK: Measuring the value of culture: a report to the Department for Culture Media and Sport. This fascinating document states a “need to more clearly articulate the value of culture.” The best way to do this, according to the report, is through measurement of economic valuation. This is language that decision-makers understand, and according to the report, the cultural sector needs to to use it to justify support in an era of tight budgets.
The UK report notes that certain public policy areas—such as health and the environment—have developed analytical methods to inform the economic impact of decision-making options. “The cultural sector will need to use the tools and concepts of economics” to make resource arguments “in the prevailing language of policy appraisal and evaluation.” A number of methodologies are suggested, such as contingent valuation, choice modeling and hedonic pricing.
As I understand them, these techniques aim to identify and measure personal and societal benefits that flow from policy decisions. With respect to digital preservation, questions might focus on things such as who uses specific types of content, what they get out of it and the larger societal impact realized. The tools can express value in different ways, including net financial impact and alignment with other policy objectives, such as education and skills development.
True, these are new concepts for many preserving institutions and it will take some time to figure out the best way to apply them. But cultural economics also offers a potentially powerful way for institutions understand, explain and improve how they serve their communities.