First Monday

Defining Stewardship in the Digital Age by Diane M. Zorich

The 2007 WebWise Conference on “Stewardship in the Digital Age” brought together over 40 speakers to explore the issues of preserving and accessing cultural heritage in digital form. The following article summarizes the conference presentations, prevailing themes, and challenges that remain, and suggests that digitization forces us to rethink assumptions about preservation and access in the context of cultural stewardship.


Conference Coverage
Challenges Ahead
Re–examining Stewardship




Throughout history we have sought to collect, preserve, and transmit the tangible and intangible products of our culture. Unfortunately, our success rate is not very good. Author Stuart Kelly reminds of us this fact in his work, The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You’ll Never Read. In this work, Kelly chronicles the many great literary texts that have been lost to us through the ages — from classical works such as plays by Aristophanes to contemporary works by Sylvia Plath. He ends his litany of loss with a chilling observation: “Loss is not an anomaly or a deviation or an exception. It is the norm. It is the rule. It is inescapable.” [1]

If loss is inescapable, as Kelly claims, why do we bother? Why do we strive, in the face of overwhelming odds, to preserve? Kelly believes preserving is what makes us human. We do it to prove our humanity [2]. More practically, we do it because it is the only means we have for securing long–term access to our cultural heritage. When we successfully preserve something, we reap a rich cultural reward that expands our knowledge, understanding, and joy.



Conference Coverage

At this year’s eight annual WebWise conference, the theme of “Stewardship in the Digital Age” urged us to consider how we can maximize our preservation successes in the digital era. Over the course of two and a half days, through workshops, panels, updates, keynotes, and “Q&A’s,” nearly 40 professionals discussed efforts, both large and small, on how we can enhance preservation and access to our cultural heritage.

The overarching concerns of these discussions were threefold: preserving the physical (objects) and intangible forms (language, ritual, etc.) of cultural heritage; preserving the digital surrogates that we are using to encapsulate this heritage for purposes of access and/or preservation; and preserving cultural materials that are increasingly “born digital” — the art, music, literature, film, and other creative expressions that are digitally created.

WebWise’s presenters approached these concerns in a number of ways. Overviews, such as Priscilla Caplan’s workshop on “Preserving Digital Collections” and Steve Puglia’s paper on preservation issues in the digital age, introduced us to basic digital preservation issues and vocabulary. Representatives from various federal funding agencies [3] provided updates of digital preservation funding, projects, and collaborations underway at their agencies. Reports on preservation surveys (for example, the Heritage Health Index (2005) and the Northeast Document Conservation Center’s (NEDCC) study of digital preservation readiness [4]) offered “snapshots” of the current state of preservation in cultural heritage institutions.

Several speakers introduced new tools to help with preservation efforts. Robin Dale, for example, spoke about auditing and certification guidelines that will help users assess digital repositories (Center for Research Libraries, 2007). An entire panel of speakers discussed CDWA Lite, a new XML schema (CDWA Lite, 2007) that describes core records for art which are harvestable through the Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting (Open Archives Initiative, 2007). And Richard Rinehart introduced MANS, a media art notation system for “born digital” art works (Rinehart, 2007).

Case studies bolstered the conference theme by illustrating how stewardship plays out in practice. For example, Sue Medina discussed a statewide, low–cost solution for preserving locally created collections in Alabama. Jodi Hanel and Audrey Christensen spoke of the challenges of preserving contemporary, experimental art in a digital archive. And Jane Sledge discussed how the National Museum of the American Indian is “stewarding potential” via community engagement and its collections information system [5].

Two keynote speeches set the underlying tone and reinforced the core messages of stewardship, access, and preservation that permeated the conference. Elizabeth Broun of the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum focused on issues of access and the provision of information. Using the Museum’s experiences to highlight how the notion of access is changing among our constituencies, Broun discussed how museums must act on this change [6]. Deanna Marcum of the Library of Congress, brought that institution’s experience to bear on preservation and access, noting that the two go hand in hand in the digital era and that the key to successful stewardship is collaboration [7].




Given the scope and diversity of conference sessions, a surprising number of common themes emerged. The most overarching theme can be characterized by the aphorism “everything old is new again.” The concepts of curation, preservation, and access discussed throughout the conference are actually age old traditions rooted in our institutions’ missions and core values. Putting the word “digital” in front of these concepts means new challenges, not new changes, to our our missions and values. Yet many organizations continue to treat digital as different. As Kristen Laise noted in her discussion of the Heritage Health Index, 31 percent of cultural institutions feel they are not responsible for preserving digital collections [8].

A second major theme was collaboration. No one can work in isolation on digital preservation and access issues because the needs and requirements are too great. We all benefit from (and generate) economies of scale, pooled expertise, larger funding, and more robust infrastructure when we collaborate. And collaboration means not just crossing over our museum/library/archives divisions, but entering whole new communities such as science, engineering, and the commercial sector.

We also must shed our institutional skins. To paraphrase the classic New Yorker cartoon, on the Internet, nobody cares if you’re a museum (or a library, or an archive). The vast majority of users — in excess of 80 percent, according to the OCLC “Perceptions Report” (DeRosa, 2005) — find our collections through search engines, not through our homepages. We need to shift strategies to respond to this reality. Conference speakers urged us to create the best collections metadata we possibly can, and then make this metadata available via data harvesting so users can find our materials for the purposes they want. The reality of information access today is that if we continue to isolate or “silo” our collections on our Web sites, we limit rather than enhance access.

Several additional themes emerged from the discussions of digital preservation activities. A frequently repeated mantra was “digital preservation is a holistic endeavor.” We cannot preserve a digital object or a digital collection in isolation: we must preserve the entire digital ecosystem where the object or collection is found. Following closely on this idea was the notion that digital preservation requires lifecycle management strategies. Planning for digital preservation must begin at the moment a digital resource is created, using methodologies such as data curation and archiving, and must continue for the life of the resource. There is, as Deanna Marcum stated in her keynote address, no discernable end to this process. Thirdly, we heard that digital preservation is a transformative process. Unlike the preservation of physical materials, the only way to preserve something digitally is to change it. For this reason, we must consider the “essence” of what we wish to preserve, not solely the form.

One of the most frequently stated themes was also one of the most succinct: there is no simple solution. There also is no one solution. We must be cognizant of all the different strategies and methodologies for preservation and access, be aware of best practices, current trends, and new developments, and choose solutions that work within our own local context.



Challenges Ahead

Conferences such as WebWise routinely identify challenges that must be overcome. For digital preservation and access, those challenges include the need for: file format standards, vocabulary services (such as query expansion, vocabulary–assisted searching), greater clarity about the characteristics and quality of the digital objects we are creating, distributed networks of trusted repositories, large scale storage technologies, and engagement of more communities such as commercial industries and the private sector. We also need training at all levels, from formal opportunities sponsored by our professional organizations and schools to less formal methods for small and poorly staffed institutions.

Most immediately, we must raise awareness of preservation issues and needs within and outside of our communities. The staggering results of the Heritage Health Index and NEDCC preservation surveys make it clear that cultural heritage collections are at great risk, a large portion of our communities are ill prepared to deal with the problems, and we have inadequately conveyed the issues to our local constituencies. We also need to raise awareness in our daily activities. When we create a digital resource, we must ask ourselves “how are we going to preserve this?” and start implementing good preservation practices in our everyday routines.

Another challenge is learning to borrow from beyond our communities. The Open Archival Information System (OAIS) reference model (Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems, 2002), for example, was developed for the sciences but has been embraced by the humanities, and the many instances of its use by conference participants demonstrates how fruitful this borrowing has been. Similarly, the American Council of Learned Societies (ACLS) report on cyberinfrastructure (ACLS, 2006) was modeled on efforts undertaken by the National Science Foundation (NSF) for the sciences and engineering and is now being used to instigate action in the humanities community. Borrowing and building on the works of others clearly yields significant returns and is another reason for breaking out of our institutional barriers, collaborating, and staying aware of developments in all sectors.

As in any large–scale undertaking, there are always questions of economies of scale. How can we join forces to make preservation and access less costly and more productive? For example, digital repositories are cropping up in many places — at universities, in state archives, in federal agencies. Would it be more efficient to combine or reorganize some of these individual repositories into larger regional repositories? Could duplicate efforts be reduced this way? Do we need a critical mass of such repositories before regionalization becomes feasible? Questions such as these must be continually asked of all preservation and access activities.

We also must broaden our constituency in our digital preservation and access efforts. The admirable and effective efforts of large–scale collaborations among the federal funding agencies are critical for seeking solutions for high profile, at–risk collections and for keeping the topic on the national (and Congressional) agenda. We now must bring aboard smaller organizations and their vast, but largely hidden, cultural materials. Small organizations are thought to comprise more than half of all collecting institutions in the U.S. If we fail to help them along, we are committing a form of benign neglect, leaving behind a significant portion of the community and untold cultural collections.

How do we broaden the constituency? Creative collaborations provide one opportunity. For example, federal institutions that do not qualify for grant funding might partner with smaller organizations who do. Large scale projects could add representatives from smaller organizations to their working groups and advisory committees. Tools and products could be scaled to levels more appropriate for smaller organizations. Efforts both large and small are needed to bring the knowledge and work presented at this conference to smaller cultural institutions.

Finally, we need to find ways to preserve cultural heritage that is not in the possession of cultural institutions, but instead is owned by individuals, families, or other social groups. Several speakers offered ideas on how to “surface” and preserve these materials through community engagement. Anne Graham spoke of the Olympic Pennisula communities who offered personal materials for use in her project. Mark Louden demonstrated how the high profile of the American Languages project generated donations and loans of audio language materials in private hands. Both these projects actively sought community participation, resulting in the discovery of important cultural materials that would otherwise not have been available nor preserved.



Re–examining Stewardship

When examining preservation and access in the digital age, we need to reconsider our notions of stewardship. What defines successful stewardship in this arena? For physical collections, good stewardship is maintaining objects in a relatively homeostatic state so they can be accessible for research, reflection, and enjoyment. For digital art, good stewardship means encapsulating the behavior (rather than the form) of a work so it can be “performed” in the future for the same purposes. These vastly different strategies suggest that stewardship encompasses different means to reach a common end.

We also need to rethink the relationship between preservation and loss within the context of stewardship. It is not an “either/or” proposition. The repatriation of a sacred Zuni object provides an example of how successful preservation can occur amidst loss. For the Zuni, a Native American tribe in the southwestern U.S., a war god is among the most sacred of items in their culture. Made of carved wood and imbued with spirituality, the war god is an object built for obsolescence: the Zuni place it in the open air to be eroded by the wind, which releases its power for the benefit of humanity. It is probable that the Zuni place their war gods, once they have been repatriated, back into the outdoor environment that ultimately results in their disintegration. But in the loss of this “object” there is, paradoxically, preservation. By placing the war god in its intended context, the Zuni preserve and transmit an important part of their heritage, tradition, and cultural memory. This is a form of stewardship that defies conventional norms.

When thinking about stewardship, particularly preservation and access of physical collections and their digital expressions, loss is (as Stuart Kelly claims) inescapable. So when the tangible and intangible products of culture can be preserved, we have scored a victory over the vicissitudes of time. But it is a false to believe that when something no longer physically exists it ceases to be. If cultural institutions can collect the essence and importance of such “lost” works by digital means, and transmit these qualities to successive generations, that is a victory as well. WebWise 2007, with its rich and diverse program, illustrates that successful stewardship for cultural heritage collections is a multi–faceted endeavor and one whose traditional notions are being challenged in the digital arena. End of article


About the author

Diane M. Zorich consults for cultural organizations on information management issues. Before establishing her consultancy, she was data manager at the former Association of Systematics Collections in Washington, D.C., and documentation manager at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. She is the author of Introduction to Managing Digital Assets (1999, The J. Paul Getty Trust), Developing Intellectual Property Policies: A “How–To” Guide for Museums (2003, Canadian Heritage Information Network), and A Survey of Digital Cultural Heritage Initiatives and Their Sustainability Concerns (2003, Council on Library and Information Resources). Her latest publication on information policies in museums will appear in Museum Informatics (Routledge, 2007).



1. Kelly, 2006, p. 338.

2. Ibid.

3. The National Science Foundation (NSF), National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH), National Archives and Records Administration (NARA), Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) and the Library of Congress.

4. For information on this survey, see the various summaries and papers published on the “Preservation Toolkits” section of the NEDCC Web site at

5. Jane Sledge, 2007. “Stewarding Potential,” First Monday, volume 12, number 7 (July), at

6. Elizabeth Broun, 2007. “Envisioning American Art 2.0,” First Monday, volume 12, number 7 (July), at

7. Deanna Marcum, 2007. “Digitizing for Access and Preservation: Strategies of the Library of Congress,” First Monday, volume 12, number 7 (July), at

8. Kristen Overbeck Laise, 2007. “The Heritage Health Index Findings on Digital Collections,” First Monday, volume 12, number 7 (July), at



American Council of Learned Societies, 2006. Our Cultural Commonwealth: The Report of the American Council of Learned Societies Commission on Cyberinfrastructure for the Humanities and Social Sciences. New York: American Council of Learned Societies, at, accessed 20 May 2007.

CDWA Lite, at, accessed 20 May 2007.

Center for Research Libraries, 2007. Trustworthy Repositories Audit & Certification (TRAC): Criteria and Checklist, at, accessed 20 May 2007.

Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems, 2002. The Reference Model for an Open Archival Information Systems (OAIS), at, accessed 20 May 2007.

Cathy De Rosa, 2005. Perceptions of libraries and information resources: A report to the OCLC membership. Dublin, Ohio: OCLC Online Computer Library Center, at, accessed 20 May 2007.

Heritage Preservation, 2005. A Public Trust at Risk: The Heritage Health Index Report on the State of America’s Collections. Washington, D.C.: Heritage Preservation.

Stuart Kelly, 2006. The Book of Lost Books: An Incomplete History of All the Great Books You’ll Never Read. New York: Random House.

Open Archives Initiative, 2007. “Open Archives Initiative Protocol for Metadata Harvesting,” at, accessed 20 May 2007.

Richard Rinehart, 2007. “The Media Art Notation System: Documenting and Preserving Digital/Media Art,” Leonardo, volume 40, number 2 (April), pp. 181–187, and at, accessed 20 May 2007.



Contents Index

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Defining Stewardship in the Digital Age by Diane M. Zorich
First Monday, volume 12, number 7 (July 2007),