Digital Technology and Traditional Stewardship in the Cultural Sector

Script for a presentation at the Digital Library Forum, Pittsburgh, PA, November 2001
Bernie Reilly, Center for Research Libraries

Changing conditions in the non-profit cultural sector have created a new baseline of expectations for publicly supported cultural institutions. In this world the pressure is high for libraries and museums to deliver many new things. The Internet, the realm to which people are turning with increasingly regularity for information, learning and even cultural experiences, is a realm of instant gratification and rapid turnaround. This is a space dominated not by museums and libraries, but by for-profit entertainment and knowledge organizations. Those organizations have made streamlined models for service and product delivery, compensation, and funding the norm, and this creates different, and far higher, audience expectations for all who wish to share the digital realm.

As a result, library and museum users expect more than catalog records and other such limited kinds of information; they expect full text, images, and multi-media materials. This information, moreover, must be available on a 24/7 basis, delivered to the desktop or handheld, and presented together with user tools and ancillary resources. This sudden change in expectations involves a tacit "upping of the ante" for libraries and museums. And it is in addition to, not a replacement of, the customary demands of responsible stewardship: preservation and public access. Libraries and museums are absorbing the high costs of digitizing collections, subscribing to electronic journals, and licensing databases and interactives, at least for the time being. We have learned that these new digital resources require their own care and feeding, and will compete with their artifactual counterparts, the art works and documents, for preservation funds as time goes on.

The tendency is to acquiesce to these demands without identifying sustained sources of funding for those activities. Most digital activities are project-funded, and licensing ventures are not even full cost recovery. The high costs of operating in this environment, combined with the end of the high yields of the 1990s stock market, combine to force us to make choices about the things that we will provide to society, about what we in fact owe to the community. There is no going back, and we all know that digital technology has made learning more efficient. That is a good thing. But in this new environment we need some new coordinates, new terms that can guide us in fulfilling our societal role.

In times like this, and perhaps in all times, we have to "follow the money." We must conclude that our basic role is that which our funding mandates. Previously that mandate was embodied in the compact between the community and its libraries and museums, which identified the basic expectations and obligations of those institutions. This compact called for responsible stewardship, i.e., the care, preservation, and accessibility of the collections and holdings entrusted to the library.

This compact, albeit often an implied one, derived largely from the statutory obligations of non-profit organizations and the inherent conditions of public funding. The revenue foregone by the state and federal governments through exempting from taxation the income of charitable corporations and charitable trusts, i.e., non-profits, is foregone on two conditions, one explicit and one implied. The explicit condition was that there be no return to the private benefit of the officers of the organization itself, i.e., that there be no profits received by those controlling the organization.

The reasoning was that in the absence of the profit motive the officers of the corporation would operate the trust in a way that would be "above the market," would serve higher, charitable purposes or the public interest. Hence, the implied condition. Orphans would be fed, the young educated, and society improved through history and culture. Where libraries and museums fit into this scheme was as the repositories of knowledge and preservers of cultural patrimony on behalf of the community.

Similarly public funds, the other major source of funding for cultural institutions, were disbursed for the purpose of improving the greater good of the commonweal, be that nation, state or municipality. Public funds were used to improve the capabilities of American society at large, or even to improve the quality of life (graft, pork-barrel budgets, and corporate welfare notwithstanding). This made good sense not only civic terms but in terms of enhancing the competitiveness of American society in the world economy.

Hence, in receiving philanthropic or public funds libraries and museums incur a debt to the commonweal, a fiduciary role. Their obligation as publicly supported institutions (directly through public funds or indirectly through tax-exemption) involved the long-term preservation and security of cultural materials; making those materials available to a general audience or to the supporting community; and a general accountability to their supporting community. This is a nineteenth century model, very much adapted to nineteenth century values and economics, and to the world of the concrete asset.

But how does this apply in the new realm? Given our vastly expanded capabilities for delivering information and culture, we ask, what are the basic things that we owe to society? What do we do first and foremost? Does the stewardship role, in fact, apply when we are dealing not with things but with intangibles, and when we are working in a global environment rather than serving a contained community?

In our search for answers it is interesting to look at that larger world that we share with the for-profits: not the Internet but the global economy. There are powerful forces at work there that are driving the changes in our little subset of that domain. Especially interesting are the stories of two industries: energy and banking, industries that have changed radically over the past century. While both industries are quite alien to the traditional museum and library worlds, they possess two important similarities. For one thing, both deal with resources. Second, their stewardship of these resources has a direct bearing on the welfare of society, so much so that each have necessarily evolved a robust regulatory apparatus.

The Energy Industry. Much like libraries and other cultural institutions most of today's energy companies began with holdings of material assets: coal, oil, huge natural gas deposits or minerals in the earth, which existed in a particular place. Soon, industry leaders learned that they did not need to own the ground in which those deposits were held, just lease it or better yet simply own drilling rights to it. This was particularly useful if those deposits were underneath federal land. (For this the industry and the federal government had to "unbundle" the idea of public ownership of the lands from ownership of the minerals beneath.) Next, the oil companies, gas companies, and power companies diversified and handled multiple sources of energy, as a hedge against scarcity or glut of any single energy type. Then they found that they could trade not only the resources themselves but also the rights to those resources, and even the value of future and undiscovered resources.

When the FTC began looking closely at Enron -- one of the mammoth energy companies -- earlier this year in connection with its acquisition by Dynegy, it discovered that it had become less an energy company than an investment company trading in the energy field. Enron's chief activity, it turned out, was brokering rights and futures on natural resources and energy reserves, more so than the buying and selling the resources themselves. The holdings became almost immaterial. What became most important was the company's ability to guarantee that those leases, or rights, or options corresponded, ultimately, to real resources somewhere. (In the end, aided it seems by their auditors, Enron collapsed not because the amount of energy resources they owned fell short, but because the link between what they owned "on paper" and their real assets was severed.)

Bear with me. Banks as well, began with holdings. They originally bore an even closer resemblance to our libraries and museums than did energy companies: storing wads of old paper and things made of precious metals. Like libraries and museums, their business was chiefly to take deposits and make loans. As the world grew larger, and banks took an interest in the larger community, money had to be moved greater distances and more quickly. It became necessary for banks to deal not in moving money around but to be able to transfer information about money around, and to guarantee that money was where it was claimed to be to validate that information. (If you have ever had to explain to an eight-year-old how an ATM machine relates to the money in your bank account, you will understand what I mean here.)

A convincing case for the inseparability (even interchangeability) of money and technology in the global environment is made in Thomas Friedman's book The Lexus and the Olive Tree. Friedman talks about the speed at which capital travels around the world through electronic technology. Enabled by technology and accelerated by free trade agreements, capital is drawn to markets rapidly by opportunities, or even perceived opportunities, and can abandon those same markets just as quickly (sometimes toppling local economies in the process), while no currency is actually moved in the process.

These sectors have learned, and their recent histories illustrate, that the distinction between materials, information, and money are not fixed but fluid and permeable. They have experienced a dematerialization of economic worth, the value of intangibles, be they mineral and natural gas rights or copyrights, the knowledge that there is oil in the ground or access to networks for trading in that oil.

What is necessary to make this work, and this is much of the important work in banking and energy, is maintenance of a complex and extensive apparatus of validation and certification. That apparatus certifies the value of the intangible commodity traded. This apparatus consists of the agreements, licenses, leases, and contracts. It includes regulatory oversight on the part of the Federal Trade Commission and the Securities and Exchange Commission. It also includes mechanisms for intra-industry third party validation of worth, by organizations like Standard and Poor, Dun and Bradstreet, and auditors such as Arthur Andersen. Simply put, certitude has value.

Even outside the banking and energy industries the coin of the realm, so to speak, is increasingly an intangible one. This was recognized in the Brookings Institution's study last year on the valuation of intangible assets in American businesses, and the IRS is now weighing reasons to adjust some of its practices to reflect the tremendous value that exists in non-brick and mortar properties such as patents and copyrights.

But what does this have to do with stewardship, or with museums and libraries? I believe that the fact that our economic system values these things in the same ways that it used to value gold, and later currency, suggests that our stewardship responsibility should apply as strictly to digital resources as they do to the funds that we receive from the federal government and from other benefactors, and to the tangible cultural property that resides in our collections

What does this mean for libraries? Clearly it means that we must manage and preserve the digital resources that we create and acquire, just as we manage and grow the funds entrusted to us and the cultural heritage materials in our care. This responsibility, I would argue, is less like traditional preservation than it is like resource or even fund management. It is so unlike traditional preservation, in fact, that that term hardly applies. In effect, the challenge is not only to protect and preserve the object itself, but also to protect the worth or usability of that object. With cultural materials this worth depends upon more than its continued functionality. In an environment of easy replication and versioning, worth also depends on its authenticity, on that link between the digital derivative and its source document, be that a real manuscript, photograph, text, or other kind of object, or a born-digital creation.

Here museums and libraries face a far more complex set of circumstances and contingencies than we did with traditional preservation, which is successful just by preventing change in the composition of the object. Preserving the digital resource means guaranteeing its functionality and authenticity, and hence its value to the community. Certitude is essential to this value.

As in banking and energy, robust infrastructure is necessary to support this certitude. A part of this infrastructure consists of the servers, networks, hardware, and technology that support storage and use of the resources. But preserving the worth of digital resources also depends upon a larger infrastructure of validation and certification comparable to those that are in place in banking and energy. This is the system of warrantees, agreements, licenses, protocols, and other documentation, including:

The integrity of these materials is every bit as important as our ability to insure that a digital artwork, database, or digital collection will still work in future technological platforms. In short, the infrastructure of digital preservation is itself increasingly informational and contractual.

As in energy and banking, stewardship of resources in the cultural world will require locating and strengthening this underwriting capability, to provide the insurance policies that guarantee the survival of worth. Our work has already become highly contract-intensive. Given the intangibles with which we are dealing, and the increasingly distributed nature of preservation activity, we will have to build more of an apparatus or framework for validation or certification than we presently have. There will need to be better and more auditable documentation of commitments for domain-specific preservation or long-term responsibilities for migration.

There needs to be brokering and underwriting, by verifiably disinterested parties, of those commitments and obligations. Not so much to monitor, but to ensure that the resources will be sustained: a kind of functional cross between Lloyd's of London and Underwriters' Laboratories. As in the for-profit world transparency will be required to lend credibility to this function. The loyalties and allegiances of underwriters will have to be above reproach. We will have to identify or create the entity or entities that will carry out this role. It is a role that government cannot fulfill, because in the area of information security and cultural policy the government will always be suspect. Moreover, if we "follow the money" that supports our work to its source it is the community, not the government, to whom we are beholden.

I think that this is what stewardship means in the digital realm. What the community entrusts us with used to be collections, now it is other resources. The cultural heritage that we preserve is now less in the form of tangible materials, i.e., collections. Our "collections" now increasingly consist of a tenuous network/web of relationships, licenses, agreements, and other contingencies whose survival requires a different kind of diligence and attention if they are to endure. If this is true it is incumbent upon us, one could argue even a core function, to insure to the community that there is a "there, there," and that it will continue to be "there" in the future. To do this better we can look at the comparable fields, like energy and banking, that have shifted from custodianship of hard resources to soft. They are ahead of us, their evolution having been accelerated by market forces.

We should look to them for guidance, not for models. I doubt that there is any market interest whatsoever that will guarantee the protection of the worth of the digital cultural resources that we are creating and archiving. This is a quintessentially non-profit function, and its development and maintenance is an imperative for the library community. This supporting framework of certification and validation defines our stewardship role in the digital realm. Because it will, in the end, determine whether or not our resources retain their value to society, or whether they ultimately go dark. 1111 DLF abstract reilly Page 1 12/27/2001