U.Va. Library Receives $870,000 Mellon Foundation Grant to Preserve Unique Digital-Only Materials

Listen to the UVA Today Radio Show report on this story by Marian Anderfuren:

May 24, 2010 — The University of Virginia Library has received a major grant from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation for a two-year project to model how institutions can preserve and deliver rare materials that currently exist only in digital form.

"Born-digital" materials include the works of contemporary writers and architects, as well as archives of current political figures and organizations. These materials are quickly becoming significant collections that require careful, planned stewardship to ensure their preservation and availability to scholars now and in the future, said Martha Sites, an associate University librarian and a principal investigator for the grant.

Programmers and archivists from U.Va. are working with counterparts at Stanford and Yale universities, as well as from England's University of Hull, to create a model for digital collection management that can be easily shared among research libraries and other institutions charged with preserving rare materials.

"In the past we received paper manuscripts from notable writers; now we're getting their work on hard drives," said Bradley Daigle, director of digital curation services for the U.Va. Library and one of the principal investigators. "We don't want to lose the record of the artistic development of this work, nor do we want it locked up in technology that may become obsolete in the future. It's a huge problem that requires a huge solution."

The universities plan to use 13 "born-digital" collections as their test base for the project. Examples from the U.Va. Library include "papers" that are actually correspondence, drafts and other materials in digital form from former Virginia Sen. John Warner and from author and critic Alan Cheuse, who is also a book reviewer for National Public Radio, creative writing professor at George Mason University and a former U.Va. English professor. The results will make these collections accessible to researchers for the first time.

The grant also provides for four digital archivists and a programmer who will explore and test how to process, preserve and deliver different digital collections across multiple institutions. The common approaches devised to archive born-digital "papers" will not only be designed to be used by different institutions, but they will also be demonstrated and proven in practice by the four partner universities. The work will include the creation of Web-based tools and services to let librarians, archivists and eventually users themselves describe, link, preserve and deliver digital information.

"Most libraries and archives currently lack a framework for collecting and delivering these materials," Sites said. "The ethical and practical issues that accompany the business of stewarding born-digital collections have not been fully explored, and almost no best practice guidelines exist. This grant will make it possible to inform best practices and build tools that other cultural institutions can easily use in this crucial work."

The project is to be completed by October 2011. For information, visit the University Library website.