The Heritage Health Index Findings on Digital Collections
First Monday

The Heritage Health Index Findings on Digital Collections by Kristen Overbeck Laise



Abstract
The Heritage Health Index, the first comprehensive survey of the condition of U.S. collections, concluded that immediate action is needed to save millions of artifacts held by archives, historical societies, libraries, museums, and archaeological and scientific research organizations. The study, conducted by Heritage Preservation in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services, revealed new and compelling data on the preservation needs of digital materials. While the recommendations of A Public at Risk: The Heritage Health Index Report on the State of America’s Collections (http://www.heritagepreservation.org/HHI/summary.html) apply to all types of collections, the extensive dissemination and publicity that the study has received makes it an effective advocacy tool for digital preservation.

Contents

Introduction
Data on Digital Materials
Recommendations
Appendix A: Survey Background
Appendix B: Definition of Digital Materials
Appendix C: Definition of Condition

 


 

Introduction

The Heritage Health Index, the first comprehensive survey to assess the condition of U.S. collections, released its findings in December 2005 and concluded that immediate action is needed to prevent the loss of millions of irreplaceable artifacts held in public trust. Heritage Preservation, the country’s leading conservation advocate, conducted the study in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) in 2004 and published the results in A Public Trust at Risk: The Heritage Health Index Report on the State of America’s Collections. The Heritage Health Index examined the state of preservation of 4.8 billion artifacts held in 30,827 collecting institutions, large and small, from internationally renowned art museums and research libraries to local historical societies and archives. Because the study included such a diverse group of cultural institutions, its findings on digital preservation issues are new and compelling.

The goal of the Heritage Health Index was to cross professional boundaries to look at collections in a wide variety of institutions, large and small, and to assess the condition of the full range of collections. The Heritage Health Index asked institutions to report on all aspects of conservation and preservation and to estimate the quantity and condition of the collections for which they have a preservation responsibility. As a result, important baseline data now exists on condition and preservation needs of materials at archives, libraries, historical societies, museums, and scientific and archaeological research organizations. More information on how the survey was conducted may be found in Appendix A.

The Heritage Health Index has received significant attention. As of June 2007, 25,000 copies of A Public Trust at Risk: The Heritage Health Index Report on the State of America’s Collections have been distributed to various audiences, including Congress, foundations, and allied organizations in the cultural field. Heritage Health Index data has received national and international attention and has been the subject of stories in The New York Times, Associated Press, Reader’s Digest, and Christian Science Monitor and on National Public Radio and ABC television.

 

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Data on Digital Materials

Another aspect that propels us to look to other organizations is the recognition that other archives, libraries, museums, and many other institutions face the same challenges that we do: technological obsolescence, increasing varieties of digital information, increasing complexity of what is created in digital form, enormous growth in volumes. These challenges are so big that we need to capitalize on opportunities to collaborate in developing and implementing solutions.

The Heritage Health Index documents the condition of digital collections at all institutions that hold them. It was particularly important to include digital materials in a comprehensive survey about U.S. collections since they are increasingly becoming larger portions of collecting institutions’ holdings and introduce new and unique preservation challenges. While planners of the survey assumed that many of the institutions in the United States are not actively involved in digital preservation activities, they believed that the Heritage Health Index could provide valuable data on the extent of digital holdings and what issues institutions were facing regarding their care. The survey found that one–quarter of institutions provide online access to collections content, and as of late 2004, when the Heritage Health Index was conducted, another eight percent planned to have content online within a year. A definition of digital materials may be found in Appendix B.

U.S. collecting institutions have taken preservation responsibility for nine million physical items that store digital materials, such as floppy discs, CD–R, DVD-R, and data tapes. Two–thirds of these materials reside in libraries, 13 percent in historical societies, 10 percent in museums, eight percent in archaeological repositories and scientific research collections, and three percent in archives. See Figure 1.

 

Figure 1: U.S. collecting institutions care for nine million digital items
 
Figure 1: U.S. collecting institutions care for nine million digital items.

 

Counts of physical items, such as floppy disks or CDs, are easily understood, but counts of online files are more complex. An online file could have one piece of information or thousands of bytes of information in it. To get a better understanding of the condition of physical items that hold digital information, Heritage Preservation considered the Heritage Health Index data about online files separately from digital material on physical formats.

Considering online collections, U.S. institutions have taken preservation responsibility for 55 million files. Archives hold 47 percent, libraries 31 percent, museums 18 percent, archaeological repositories and scientific research collections three percent, and historical societies one percent. See Figure 2.

 

Figure 2: U.S. collecting institutions care for 55 million online files
 
Figure 2: U.S. collecting institutions care for 55 million online files.

 

Survey respondents were asked to estimate the percentage of their collections in need using broad, easy to understand definitions (see Appendix C). Thirty–nine percent of digital items are in unknown condition, 46 percent are in no need, 15 percent are in need, and less than one percent are in urgent need. The percentage in unknown condition ranges from three percent at historical societies to 50 percent at libraries. The percentage in need also covers a broad range, with 86 percent in need at historical societies and two percent in need at libraries. Perhaps if libraries knew the condition of more of their digital materials they, like historical societies, might have a greater percentage in need. See Figure 3.

 

Figure 3: Condition of digital items
 
Figure 3: Condition of digital items.

 

The condition of online files includes 59 percent in unknown condition, 36 percent in no need, five percent in need, and less than one percent in urgent need. Archives, which hold the greatest number of online files (almost 26 million), reported 84 percent of collections in unknown condition. Libraries, the second largest holders of online files, have 48 percent in unknown condition. Like physical digital materials, there appears to be a link between the percentage of collections in unknown condition and the percentage of collections in need; archaeological repositories and scientific research collections have the lowest percentage in unknown condition (three percent) and the greatest percentage in need (64 percent), while archives have the highest percentage in unknown condition (84 percent) and one of the lowest percentages in need (two percent). See Figure 4.

 

Figure 4: Condition of online files
 
Figure 4: Condition of online files.

 

In addition to asking about the quantity and condition of materials, the Heritage Health Index gauged how many institutions have recognized that digital materials should be a preservation activity by asking, “Does your institution’s conservation/preservation mission or program include the responsibility to preserve digital collections?” Only 31 percent of institutions responded that their institution’s preservation mission or program includes digital materials, 52 percent do not, and seven percent don’t know; 11 percent stated it is not applicable for their institution. Archives (52 percent) and archaeological repositories and scientific research collections (49 percent) are more likely to include digital materials in their preservation programs or missions than libraries (23 percent), historical societies (33 percent), and museums (36 percent).

Another survey question asked whether institutions are involved in the preservation of digital materials and electronic records, and 27 percent of institutions have staff involved in digital preservation, such as migrating data to current software, while six percent have external providers doing such activities. Additional questions on digital preservation asked institutions about the need to preserve digital collections; 46 percent of institutions (and 68 percent of archives) cite a need for the preservation of digital collections.

Digital materials were included in the question that asked about causes of damage to collections. Institutions were asked if access to collections has been lost due to obsolescence of playback equipment, hardware, or software. Although the findings apply to all machine–readable formats, including motion picture, recorded sound, and digital materials, they are nonetheless informative. Forty–six percent of institutions have experienced no loss, 28 percent have had some damage, four percent have had significant damage, and 22 percent of institutions don’t know — one of the highest “don’t know” responses for this question about causes of damage.

When considering these findings on digital holdings, it is interesting to note that 79 percent of historical societies, 74 percent of museums, and 43 percent of archives have none of their collections information available online. This is not surprising considering that 65 percent of institutions cite a need for finding aids/cataloging collections. At libraries, however, 63 percent have more than 80 percent of their collections information available online.

 

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Recommendations

Because the Heritage Health Index addressed the condition and preservation needs of all types of collections, the survey’s recommendations do not specifically pertain to digital materials; however, all recommendations could be applied to them. Based on the findings of the Heritage Health Index, Heritage Preservation recommends that:

  • Every institution recommit to providing safe conditions for the collections they hold in trust.

  • Every collecting institution develop an emergency plan to protect its collections.

  • Every single institution assign responsibility for caring for collections to members of its staff.

  • Individuals at all levels of government and in the private sector assume responsibility for providing the support that will allow these collections to survive.

Through the dissemination of A Public at Risk: The Heritage Health Index Report on the State of America’s Collections and presentations about the survey, Heritage Preservation has encouraged institutions to act locally to make a national impact by:

  • Using the Heritage Health Index data to alert local decision–makers and press about the needs of the institution’s collections.

  • Using the Heritage Health Index data to highlight how the institution cares for collections.

  • Featuring preservation prominently in the work of the institution, e.g., exhibits, newsletters, or donor incentives.

 

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Appendix A: Survey Background

A Public at Risk: The Heritage Health Index Report on the State of America’s Collections is online in its entirety at http://www.heritagehealthindex.org, along with a downloadable PowerPoint® presentation, selected data graphs specific to types of institutions, and additional preservation resources. For more information on Heritage Health Index findings on digital materials, consult chapter four of A Public at Risk: The Heritage Health Index Report on the State of America’s Collections.

The Heritage Health Index was developed with the input of 35 national associations and federal agencies. The survey questionnaire was written with the advice of 100 leading collections and preservation professionals, including conservators, curators, collections managers, preservation librarians, and archivists. RMC Research Corporation conducted the survey and analysis.

Overall, the Heritage Health Index received a 24 percent response rate with 3,370 surveys returned. Heritage Preservation had identified 500 of the nation’s largest and most significant collections to participate in the survey and received a 90 percent response rate from this group, which included state historical societies, state archives, and all Smithsonian Institution and National Archives and Records Administration units.

The Heritage Health Index was made possible with major support from IMLS and the Getty Foundation, with additional funding from The Henry Luce Foundation, Samuel H. Kress Foundation, Bay and Paul Foundations, Peck Stacpoole Foundation, and Gladys Krieble Delmas Foundation. For additional information, contact Heritage Health Index project director Kristen Laise at klaise [at] heritagepreservation [dot] org or 202–233–0800.

 

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Appendix B: Definition of Digital Materials

The Heritage Health Index considered digital materials to include floppy disks, other disks, CD–R/DVD–R, and data tape, and they were to be reported in number of items. Online collections were to be reported in number of files. The survey’s Frequently Asked Questions asked survey respondents to carefully consider whether digital or digitized materials are items they take a preservation responsibility to maintain. For example, it was recommended that most electronic material made available at an institution through a subscription not be recorded in the survey unless the institution maintains the master digital files for the resource.

 

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Appendix C: Definition of Condition

Unknown condition: Material has not been recently accessed by staff for visual inspection and/or condition is unknown.

No need: Material is stable enough for use and is housed in a stable environment that protects it from long–term damage and deterioration.

Need: Material may need minor treatment or reformatting to make it stable enough for use, and/or the collection needs to be re–housed into a more stable enclosure or environment to reduce risk of damage or deterioration.

Urgent need: Material needs major treatment or reformatting to make it stable enough for use, and/or the material is located in an enclosure or environment that is causing damage or deterioration. For machine–readable collections, deterioration of media and/or obsolescence of playback equipment or hardware/software threaten loss of content. End of article

 

About the author

Kristen Overbeck Laise is the Vice President for Collections Care Programs at Heritage Preservation, a national non–profit organization that advocates for collections. She directed the Heritage Health Index, the first comprehensive survey of the condition and preservation needs of U.S. collections. Ms. Laise is currently directing another national initiative, Rescue Public Murals. Previously, she coordinated the Conservation Assessment Program, a technical assistance program for small museums administered by Heritage Preservation in cooperation with IMLS. She holds a BA in History from Earlham College and an MA in Art History from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where she worked with the History of Cartography Project.

 


 

Contents Index

Copyright ©2007, Heritage Preservation, Inc., All Rights Reserved.

The Heritage Health Index Findings on Digital Collections by Kristen Overbeck Laise
First Monday, volume 12, number 7 (July 2007),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue12_7/laise/index.html





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