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NIU to help libraries avoid ‘bit rot’

DeKALB – With the help of a $575,000 grant, a group of university librarians and curators hope to have an answer to a growing problem.

Lynne Thomas, curator of rare books and special collections at Northern Illinois University’s Founders Memorial Library, learned in October that NIU, along with four other universities, secured a grant to study the best practices for storing digital data.

The federal National Leadership Grant came from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

“Libraries have been taking on digital objects for the last 10 to 15 years,” she said. “The grant will help us learn how to scale [the process] down for institutions with fewer resources.”

With the passage of time, storage devices can degrade over time, a phenomenon known colloquially as “bit rot.”

Thomas said saving digital objects such as PDFs and video files from bit rot is a problem librarians and archivists have been working to solve for years.

But it’s mostly large, well-funded institutions that can afford today’s archiving systems.

Librarians and curators from Chicago State University, Western Illinois University, Illinois Wesleyan University and Illinois State University are joining NIU in a group called Digital Preserving Digital Objects With Restricted Resources.

The group will study how smaller institutions can affordably store digital data. Thomas and Drew VandeCreek, director of digital initiatives at NIU Libraries, wrote the grant application.

A group of about a dozen people involved with the study met at NIU on Wednesday to work out project phases and schedules.

Their goals include educating other institutions about best practices and learning about challenges institutions face in storing digital materials.

“We’re hoping to get down to the smallest of organizations,” said Jaime Schumacher, Digital POWRR project manager. “We owe it to future generations to preserve digital photos just like hard copies were preserved for us.”

The grant allowed NIU to hire Schumacher as project manager, who will help guide the study and implementation process through the two-year life of the grant.

Thomas said staff from NIU and partner institutions plan to match the grant through staff time spent on the study. The group plans to do surveys about what universities and community entities need as far as data storage.

The study will finish when the group hosts a national conference by spring or summer of 2014 to share their findings.

They hope to find a range of answers for every kind of institution that needs to store digital data.

“The goal is to figure out solutions that work, no matter the size of the budget or the size of the staff,” Thomas said. “The report will be the standard for the field. I like to think of it as a map for how best to navigate digital preservation.”

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