First Monday

Surveying the Digital Readiness of Institutions by Ann Russell



In 2004, IMLS made a museum leadership grant to the Northeast Document Conservation Center (NEDCC) to develop a methodology for assessing the preservation needs of digital collections in museums and libraries. As a regional conservation center, NEDCC’s mission is to help institutions preserve their collections for the long term, and we were concerned about whether digital assets being created today would remain accessible, not for hundreds of years, but even for 10 or 20 years.

In addressing this problem, NEDCC saw that it had a common cause with IMLS, which awards federal funds for digitization of collections of materials and requires applicants to provide a sustainability plan. We were aware that applicants were having trouble with this question, as indeed was the entire field.

For 30 years, NEDCC has been performing on–site surveys of the traditional preservation needs of smaller and mid–size institutions. As more digital materials were entering these collections, we saw a need for our field service staff to acquire a new set of skills and tools for advising institutions on digital preservation. But these skills and tools had not been developed yet.

In carrying out the project, NEDCC worked in partnership with four national institutions, the Museum Computer Network, the Center for Research Libraries, the American Institute for Conservation, and Heritage Preservation. The methodology built on bringing together digital experts together and experienced preservation surveyors to share perspectives and invent new survey procedures.

The first activity of the project was to gather quantitative data on the status of digital collections in museums and other cultural heritage institutions by means of an online questionnaire. The data indicated that although 92 percent of institutions were already digitizing from source materials, only 29 percent had written polices or plans for digitization. While 59 percent of respondents reported that their digital materials had a need life of 25 years or longer, which was the longest option offered in the questionnaire, only 13 percent had written plans or policies for digital preservation. This data suggested that institutional planning for digitization lagged far behind creation and confirmed our view that institutions needed help with policy development to related their digital activities to their strategic planning.

In July of 2005, NEDCC and its partners convened a colloquium of digital experts and preservation professionals in Boston to analyze the data and work together to forge a new survey tool. The group began by looking at other survey models, especially CAP, the Conservation Assessment Program, which participants found to be the most promising. Funded by IMLS and administered by Heritage Preservation, the CAP program enables smaller museums to bring in conservation consultants to perform general preservation assessments and write reports identifying priorities. Heritage Preservation adds value to the initiative by screening the applications for surveys and maintaining a roster of qualified surveyors. They also provided training for surveyors and support them through a detailed surveyors’ manual and online tools.

The primary recommendation of the colloquium was that there was a need for a national technical assistance program on digital readiness. Participants felt that a written self–assessment tool would not be adequate to help institutions, especially for smaller groups, many of which are not even aware that they ought to be concerned about the fragility of their digital assets. What is needed by this audience is expert–facilitated on–site surveys, tailored to the goals and resources of the institution. The vision that emerged from the colloquium was the eventual establishment of a technical assistance program that could be funded by IMLS or other federal sources. Colloquium participants felt that such a program should be administered by a national organization that was perceived as neutral, such as Heritage Preservation, and that it should be open to libraries and museums as well.

Based on the recommendations of the colloquium, the next activity of the project was to conduct test–bed surveys of the digital readiness of cultural heritage institutions to develop the assessment tools and procedures. Eight institutions were selected for pilot surveys, including five museums and three libraries of different sized and types. Each survey was made up of three components:

The written reports provided useful qualitative information about the institutions visited. Taken together, they provided a valuable snapshot of the status of digital practices and digital readiness of cultural heritage institutions today. The surveyors observed a number of common issues and problems, which they summarized in a trends report.

Significantly, they surveyors found that most institutions are in the project stage, rather than the program stage, of digitization, even those that have sophisticated IT infrastructures. In general, institutions do not include digital preservation as part of their mission. Individuals involved in conservation and preservation have not been included in institutions’ digital initiatives. Most institutions still store content on CDs or DVDs, with a few moving content to servers or external hard drives. At many institutions, staff responsible for digital collections believe that backup equals preservation. Nonetheless, the surveyors often found that the backup copy was stored in the same room as the masters. Monitoring of files was lacking or at best infrequent. A need for staff training was observed at every institution visited. Interestingly, most museums and libraries remain reluctant to collect born–digital materials because they do not know how to accession them. Museums that collect computer generated contemporary art confront special challenges.

As the project draws to a close, staff and consultants are focusing on developing written tools that will be beneficial to institutions and help to train future surveyors. These include the survey questionnaire, which can be used by institutions to measure their digital readiness; a surveyor’s handbook, including one or more sample survey report; the quantitative data gathered by the project; and, the qualitative data as summarized in the surveyors’ trends report. These products can be found shortly on NEDCC’s Web site at

The pilot surveys were carefully evaluated by an outside consultant by means of questionnaires filled out by the survey recipients as well as interviews with the surveyors. Surveyors observed that perhaps the greatest value of the site visits was bringing staff together as a group, as this was the first chance to look at all of the units involved in digitization in a systematic way.

The recipient institutions responded positively to the pilot survey and reported making changes almost immediately. Eighty percent rated all three components of the survey, i.e., the questionnaire, the site visit, and the report, as very useful or quite a bit useful.

Of the 52 recommendations that were made in the various survey reports, respondents said they discussed 54 percent, and that they had implemented or planned to implement 48 percent of them. The evaluation consultant interpreted this to mean that the surveyors were on the right track in the kinds of recommendations they were making. Leading the list of actions planned or implemented by the survey recipients were implementing institution–wide best practices and investing in infrastructure to provide reliable long–term storage.

The major challenge to the project was the lack of guidelines for digital preservation best practices currently available to the field. As one colloquium participant commented, “We can’t tell people what best practices is; we don’t even know what good practice is.” For this reason, one of the final activities of the project will be surveying a few large institutions that already have digital preservation activities under way, so that we can present a snapshot of the leading edge of current best practice and perhaps identify some useful models.

As the long–term goal of the project is to contribute to an overarching strategy for digital preservation, the project team would like to share with funders and colleagues a number of recommendations for elements that should be included in such a strategy:

These recommendations constitute a large agenda. What is at stake is democratization of digital preservation so that small and mid–size institutions can be players in creating sustainable digital collections. Federal leadership, oversight, and funding, will be needed to bring this about. That is why I am delighted that IMLS has signaled an interest in making digital preservation a priority in its 2006 National Leadership guidelines. Working together with the federal cultural agencies, the field can move this agenda forward. End of article


About the author

Ann Russell is Executive Director of the Northeast Document Conservation Center.



Contents Index

Copyright ©2007, First Monday.

Copyright ©2007, Ann Russell.

Surveying the Digital Readiness of Institutions by Ann Russell
First Monday, volume 12, number 7 (July 2007),