July 21, 2024

Potential Crisis May Be Brewing in Preservation of E-Journals


(This story was updated to correct full name of LOCKSS)

A recently released study of e-journal preservation at Columbia and Cornell universities revealed that only about 15 percent of e-journals are being preserved and that the responsibility for preservation is diffuse at best.

Even as electronic materials now account for around 60 percent of collection expenditures (and print dwindles in importance), the report, Preservation Status of e-Resources: A Potential Crisis in Electronic Journal Preservation, questions whether the necessary infrastructure is in place to ensure that this scholarly record remains intact over the long-term.

“Users assume that someone is taking care of preservation needs and that today’s e-journals will be available years from now just like the scholarly content created and archived hundred years ago in print media,” Oya Rieger, a co-author, told LJ.  “So, we feel that the challenge is quite substantial and alarming – if our mission is to preserve and provide access to scholarly record,” said Rieger, who is an associate university librarian, digital scholarship services, at Cornell University.

The report focused on how the two universities, which collaborate on digital preservation through their 2CUL partnership, use the services of Lots of Copies Keeps Stuff Safe (LOCKSS) Alliance (based at Stanford University) and Portico (provided by ITHAKA).

“I think this is a serious and growing concern, but not an imminent danger.  The real issue is one of ‘If this goes on …’ said Robert Wolven, a co-author of the report. “Portico and LOCKSS have been very successful in securing most of the content from major journal publishers, but that’s only a fraction of the total e-journal content that’s being collected by libraries, and securing the remainder will be more difficult and more complicated,” said Wolven, who is an associate university librarian, bibliographic services and collection development at Columbia University.

In November 2010, the universities established a joint team to explore the issue because they did not fully understand how to leverage the LOCKSS preservation system for their own collections. For example, there was no clear understanding of the difference between LOCKSS and CLOCKSS.

Nevertheless, scholars and publishers were relying on libraries to ensure preservation, even as the libraries had come to rely heavily on these less than fully understood services to carry out the mission.

“We need to go beyond a surface understanding of preservation strategies and understand how these systems work in our own library environments in enabling access to digital content,” Rieger said.

In addition, there was no process in place to identify e-journals for preservation.

“Our study revealed that we have a long way to go, and libraries can’t afford to be complacent,” Wolven said. “LOCKSS and Portico need library involvement to be successful. E-journals are far more diverse than many people realize, and will need more than one approach to ensure that they’re preserved,” he said.

Among the report’s findings:

— At Cornell 26.1 percent, or 11,883 titles, are preserved between LOCKSS and Portico. However, the study only covered journal titles with an ISSN, eISSN or both, which meant half of the collection was not considered. This led to the final conclusion that only about 13 percent of Cornell’s journals were being preserved.

— Columbia had a similar result, with 17 percent of the 55,000 titles examined being preserved in Portico.

“Given this lack of preservation coverage overall, we think it is important for the CULs to do what they can to improve the state of e-journal preservation as a whole,” reads the report.

LOCKSS provides a collaborative preservation infrastructure that allows libraries to provide, via a local “LOCKSS box,” continual access to electronic content, provided a publisher has authorized such preservation. The report recommends using the schools’ influence with publishers “to whom they pay substantial licensing fees, to improve the state of e-journal preservation as a whole.”

Neither of the libraries have taken advantage of LOCKSS so far by gaining access to a canceled subscription or a closed journal or by participating in a failure-recovery test.

The report notes that of the 35-40,000 titles not preserved, 25 to 30 percent are from distributors or aggregators. Despite the importance of this content, its preservation proves extra difficult because the publishers often retain most rights and the distributors have not acquired the right to make the content available to a third party as an archive.

Victoria Reich, the executive director of the LOCKSS program at Stanford University Libraries, said the 2CUL report was “spot on” and highlighted the need for libraries to be empowered to create and preserve their own local electronic collection which they have custody of. The equivalent of a digital stack.

“I think Oya and Bob have done the community a great service in highlighting these important issues and hopefully spurring action,” Reich said.

Preservation has never enjoyed the kind of support it needs and not enough is being done, according to Kate Wittenberg, the managing director of Portico, which is a third-party digital preservation archive (LOCKSS is not an archive).

“We need to work together with publishers and libraries to preserve more content faster, and the report has jump-started this conversation,” Wittenberg said.

Wolven and Rieger wrote in the report that the universities have “by inertia more than design” used “a least-effort, dark-archive strategy and only minimally, if at all have they integrated preservation considerations via LOCKSS or Portico in e-journal license management or in e-journal collection management as a whole.”

“Because many e-resources are not yet preserved and because responsibility in Cornell and Columbia for e-resource preservation decision-making has historically been diffused, knowledge and experience about preservation solutions is also distributed, without clear leadership,” Rieger told LJ.

The present situation raises critical implementation questions, according to Rieger, such as what needs to happen when a journal is canceled to have access to back issues or what kind of mechanism needs to be put in place between the electronic resource management license record for journal subscriptions and LOCKSS to support uninterrupted access to digital content.

The report recommends that staff resources be formally reallocated to e-resource preservation. It suggests a coordinated effort among collections, scholarly communication, and IT staff, but it also calls for “a clearly designated sponsor in library upper administration who can provide direction and advocate for support.”

Wolven and Rieger made a presentation about the report at a Coalition for Networked Information forum in December.

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.


  1. Libroarian says:

    LOCKSS is Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe.

  2. C.Mizukoshi says:

    We seem to have already experienced or come across this kind of issue that all prints in solid ink could last longer than those in ink often used in printers, which won’t last for preservation. I really understand that resources in libraries are for use and libraries are not like museums.

    However the mission of libraries is to let users access to any kinds of materials even if they are out of date. No matter what kinds of books(either physical books or electrical books), there are out of print books or even unavairable e-materials due to the lack of original sources, and will not be in print or online anymore.

    National Diet Library in Japan has a mission to preserve any kinds of books purblished, not yet the complete infrastructure for electrical resources there seems to have been. If we could maintain this kind of mission to preserve on/off line materials for use, the role of libraries could be expanded.