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Audio, Film, Video

Digitization and the Preservation of Knowledge

Below is an excerpt from Indiana University President Michael A. McRobbie’s State of the University address, delivered Tuesday, October 1, 2013. This excerpt discusses the time-based media digitization project highlighted in the following post.

Digitization and the Preservation of Knowledge

“For over 25 centuries, the great universities of the world have always had three fundamental missions:

  • the creation of knowledge (that is, research and innovation),
  • the dissemination of knowledge (that is, education and learning), and
  • the preservation of knowledge.

We tend, these days, to mainly associate the first two of these missions with a university. These have been my focus in my six previous State of the University speeches. However, the advent of the digital age, with the development of the Internet and the World Wide Web, is giving renewed rapidly increasing focus to the importance of the third mission of a university—the preservation of knowledge—and is allowing us to think about it in completely new ways. Thus, in this speech, I want to dwell on this mission in some detail.

Previously, the preservation of knowledge—thought of in the broadest way to include not just material from books and journals, but collections of other objects (and their vital meta-data) such as photos, paintings, prints, sculptures, cultural objects, sound recordings, video, film, scientific data—was the almost exclusive preserve of the library and museum. It is this accumulated knowledge, in all its immensity and complexity, that provides the fundamental and essential foundation for the first two missions of a university—for research and for education. But access to this knowledge has often been place-dependent and it has not been broadly accessible or shareable.

The Internet, the Web and digitization have changed all that. Suddenly, all knowledge, even in this broad sense, is in principle digitizable in at least some form, and hence can be made accessible and shared and transmitted over the Internet. It is only limited by data storage and the data transfer capacity of networks, and of course, the ability to find it via search.

Likewise, vast amounts of material at Indiana University, which had been patiently accumulated and curated over decades, can, again in principle, be made instantly and inexpensively available in digital form at any time not only to students, scholars and scientists throughout IU, but across the country and around the world. The digitization and accessibility over the Internet of this type of material, is now essential throughout the academy. There is no academic area, from anthropology to zoology, that has not, to greater or lesser degree, become highly digital. Data is being generated, collected, processed, analyzed, visualized and stored in digital form. Simulations and modeling are being carried out completely digitally. And the historical and contemporary archives of nearly all areas of scholarship, certainly the main material, have been converted fully into digital form.

Such digital material is also vital to fully realizing the promise of online education. It is essential that all the material on which online instruction in a course or degree is based, be all available digitally if the online student is to be freed from the limits of an education fixed in space and time. And, of course, it makes every type of “blended” residential and on-line education possible.

All of these collections also represent the investment, over many decades, of the people of the State of Indiana, the federal government, foundations and businesses in research and scholarship at IU, as well as the generosity of donors who have entrusted vital and irreplaceable collections to IU. And the new vast amounts of born-digital data being generated today represent their continuing investment. The digitization of these legacy collections ensures that all of this material will be made available to the broadest possible audience and that it is preserved in perpetuity. In this sense, it fully maximizes the value of all these collections to the IU community, the state, and beyond in the digital age.

It is also the collections of such objects, many of which will continue to evolve in size as will the scholarly dialog concerning them, that also define the character, values and heritage of an institution like IU. These “assets” also provide a key element in institutional differentiation for us and they underpin and buttress some of our key academic strengths.

IU has, in fact, been a major national leader in large-scale and wide-ranging digitization projects for over 20 years.

  • The IU Variations Project in the Jacobs School of Music commenced in 1990 and in partnership with IBM, the National Science Foundation and a number of foundations, developed an advanced digital music library to support instruction. IU now has a world-renown digital music capability that our students still use today to access over 20,000 digitized scores and audio recordings. Some may even recall the IBM TV commercial from Italy that referenced Variations at Indiana University.
  • This success helped accelerate the IU Digital Library Program in the 1990s that pioneered and developed well over 50 highly unique, digitized collections that span from the “Chymistry of Isaac Newton” papers to the “Victorian Women Writers Project.”
  • In 2004, then as Vice President for Research and Vice President for IT, I commissioned the Cyberinfrastructure Research Taskforce to assess what scholars needed for data access and preservation. This seminal report from that faculty taskforce continues to guide IU strategy to this day and led to the establishment of the IU “Scholarly Data Archive” systems with over 42 PetaBytes of online storage for research data, one of the largest and most sophisticated at any university in the country.
  • In 2007, IU joined with the CIC universities and Google to digitize millions of our book holdings as part of the Google Book Search Project.
  • And in 2008, IU co-founded with the University of Michigan The HathiTrust, which now has over 70 partners and is one of the most important digital libraries in existence.

These collections represent some part of a huge spectrum of material from written material at one end where the size of digitized documents might be measured in a few Megabytes, to repositories of genomic or particle physics data, measured in Petabytes—thousands of millions of megabytes. It also includes what are called time-based media objects—basically sound recordings, video recordings and films. IU has an extensive range of extraordinarily rare and, in some cases, irreplaceable and unique collections in this area. These collections contain material from a wide range of areas in the humanities, the arts and music, the social sciences, and the health sciences—areas of great traditional strength at Indiana University. A comprehensive recent study estimates that there are over 400,000 objects of value at the IU Bloomington campus alone, and maybe 100,000 or more further objects at IUPUI and the regional campuses.

But nearly all of this vast amount of material is difficult to access. Much has been recorded in what are now obsolete formats for which few playback devices remain in existence. And as is tragically too often the case, some of this material is at risk of deterioration or is already deteriorating. So unless we take action now many of these precious objects—many potentially vital to scholarship and part of the heritage of IU—will be lost forever. This represents material accumulated at considerable cost over many years and now of even greater value.

So I am delighted to announce today, together with Provost Robel and Vice President Jose, that IU will establish the Indiana University Media Digitization and Preservation Initiative with total funding from all three of our offices of $15 million over the next five years. The goal of this initiative is extremely ambitious—it is, in short, to digitize, preserve and make universally available by IU’s Bicentenary (consistent with copyright or other legal restrictions) all of the time-based media objects on all campuses of IU judged important by experts. This initiative will be carried out as part of a public/private partnership with a leading international company in the area, Memnon Archiving Services.

There is increasing interest in this area not only in academia but commercially as the gravity of the preservation situation with such material becomes more widely recognized. Hence we expect that the initiative will make IU a leader in this field and truly pre-eminent, and open up many new opportunities for partnership and collaboration. More announcements will be made about this initiative in the weeks ahead.

Many people have been responsible for the extensive work that has lead to this initiative that was initiated by former Provost Karen Hanson—thanks are due in particular to Vice President for Information Technology Brad Wheeler, Dean of University Libraries Brenda Johnson, Vice Provost Sarita Soni, Professor Ruth Stone, Associate Vice President Laurie Antolovic, and Mike Casey.

This Initiative will be of great importance to all campuses and many schools at IU by providing them with immediate Internet access to large amounts of material now almost inaccessible and at threat of disappearing forever. This initiative will also provide some outstanding opportunities for education and research in the School of Informatics and Computing and the proposed new Media School. And the extensive amounts of visual material will open up major new opportunities for film studies in the Media School and for the nationally acclaimed IU Cinema.

All of this, of course, leverages IU’s decades-long investment in information technology infrastructure—through storage, through supercomputing—a major enhancement of which I announced in my State of the University speech last year—through our hardened data centers, and our cutting-edge networks.

The transformation of the third mission of universities from the physical to the virtual world of digitization is both essential and irreversible. IU has been a leader in this area through the projects and initiatives I mentioned above, and with MDPI will remain a leader. But IU’s unique strengths in these areas now suggest an even bolder and maybe unprecedented goal—that is to pursue our third great mission as a university—that of the preservation of knowledge accumulated or created at IU, completely digitally. We have reached a point where it is appropriate to draw all of our digitization efforts together into a true university-wide strategy—what we might call IU’s Digitization Master Plan. The goal of this plan is to digitize and store in some form all of our existing collections judged by experts and scholars to be of lasting importance to research and scholarship, and to ensure the preservation of all new research and scholarship at IU that is born digital.

I am directing today that Vice President for Information Technology Brad Wheeler, Vice President for Research Jorge Jose, and the University Dean of Libraries Brenda Johnson, working in conjunction with campus academic leadership and faculty, formally develop an IU Digitization Master Plan to support research, education and the preservation of knowledge at IU. The principal recommendations of this will be incorporated into the IU Strategic Plan for the Bicentenary.”


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