The economics of digital preservation

What incentives will help?

by Tom Storey

OCLC Research Scientist Brian Lavoie

Each year, the body of knowledge that’s born digital and exists solely in electronic format continues to grow. And so does the risk of it disappearing forever, due to technological obsolescence or just plain neglect.

What should be done to ensure that the cultural heritage and intellectual capital that’s now generated in digital form is properly preserved for generations to come?

Part of the answer lies with economic incentives, according to a white paper recently published by the OCLC Office of Research.

“Economics is fundamentally about incentives, so a study of the economics of digital preservation should begin with the incentives to preserve,” says Brian F. Lavoie, OCLC Research Scientist who authored the study, The Incentives to Preserve Digital Materials: Roles, Scenarios and Economic Decision-Making. “Securing the long-term viability and accessibility of digital materials requires an appropriate allocation of incentives among key decision-makers in the digital preservation process.

“But the circumstances under which digital preservation takes place often lead to a misalignment of preservation objectives and incentives. Identifying circumstances where insufficient incentives to preserve are likely to prevail, and how this can be remedied, are necessary first steps in developing economically sustainable digital preservation activities.”

As noted by the widely cited 1996 report by the Task Force on Archiving Digital Information, digital preservation is a huge concern among educators, librarians, curators, archivists and other officials who fear losing important information and knowledge that’s born digital. Nonetheless, Mr. Lavoie notes that sustained programmatic approaches to digital preservation, as well as market-based digital preservation services, are just beginning to emerge, despite the urgency to preserve valuable, often expensive digital resources. “Digital preservation is an activity that is largely conducted on an ad hoc basis.”

In his paper, Mr. Lavoie identifies three key decision-making roles present in digital preservation efforts, and develops five organizational models characterizing the structure of digital preservation activities. He then uses the decision-making roles and the organizational models to explore economic issues associated with the incentives to preserve digital materials, and considers several real-world digital preservation initiatives in light of this framework.

His complete report can be found at:

Among the reasons he cites for the slow development of digital preservation programs and services:

  • The owner of digital materials may not benefit directly from long-term preservation and will therefore be reluctant to bear the costs, even though the materials may represent a valuable part of the scholarly or cultural record.

  • The range of preservation services potentially needed is diverse, which may restrict market size and limit production efficiencies by reducing economies of scale.

  • In circumstances where there are several owners of a digital object, none will have the incentive to be the first to preserve, since all other owners would presumably benefit. Once the resource is preserved for one owner, it is perceived as being preserved for all, since the preserved copy is substitutable for all other copies.

Although more research is needed in this area, Mr. Lavoie suggests several prescriptions for enhancing incentives in circumstances such as those described above:

  • Subsidize digital preservation when private incentives to preserve do not take into account social benefits.

  • Tailor preservation services to the needs of particular institutions or communities where possible, but search for ways to leverage infrastructure across the range of services in order to realize economies of scale.

  • Combine the benefits of preservation with the benefits of access to ensure that all stakeholders contribute to the costs of preservation.

Mr. Lavoie proposes a four-point research agenda to further advance the understanding of the economics of digital preservation. Research efforts should focus on: 1) accumulation and synthesis of case studies in digital preservation, 2) designing effective strategies for boosting the incentives to preserve where needed, 3) understanding how an efficient market for digital preservation services should be structured, and 4) developing effective pricing strategies for digital preservation services.

“Digital preservation can hardly be classified as a new topic anymore,” says Mr. Lavoie. “Yet we still find ourselves not very far from the beginning in terms of exploring its economic ramifications.

“Ensuring that appropriate incentives to preserve exist is the fundamental economic imperative of digital preservation, and an essential first step in securing the future of the vast corpus of information in digital form.”



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