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Myron GutmannDirector, Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR), University of Michigan

"Social science data has the stature of being the oldest digital media in the world," said Myron Gutmann, director of the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) at the University of Michigan, during a recent briefing at the Library. The longtime importance of social science data is the reason why the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (NDIIPP) has partneredwith ICPSR.

ICPSR is an international organization, originally founded in 1962, that maintains, preserves and provides access to a vast archive of social science data for research and instruction. The social sciences (economics, geography, law and history, among other fields) generate data of long-term value to researchers, government and industry. This data is a tremendous cultural resource, making it possible to understand societal transformations and glean patterns of change through an analysis of information in, for example, censuses and economic and survey data. The continuing preservation and accessibility of the information is of paramount importance to the nation and the world.

Gutmann has an intuitive grasp of the importance of social science data as a tool for historical study. Prior to joining ICPSR in 2001, he was professor of history and geography and director of the Population Research Center at the University of Texas at Austin. He has been incorporating social science data into his research for more than 30 years, applying data study to a diverse breadth of interdisciplinary historical research, especially in the areas of health, population, economy and the environment.

ICPSR's experience with the preservation of social science data made it an ideal collaborator when the NDIIPP consortial partnerships were announced in September 2004. That project, the Data Preservation Alliance for the Social Sciences (Data-PASS), is acquiring and preserving a broad range of at-risk data, including opinion polls, voting records and large-scale surveys, concentrating on materials that are produced in digital form.

Gutmann is concerned that "anything that is not archived quickly poses particular problems for preservation and access," which is why Data-PASS is working with social science researchers to get them thinking about preservation as early as possible in their experimentation.

He's also deeply aware that "no one organization can retain and preserve everything over the long term." In that regard, ICPSR's consortial model exemplifies a strong cross-institutional commitment to the preservation of social science data. Still, while the technological details of preservation have yet to be settled upon, it is the more fragile social challenges of determining common standards for appraisal, content selection, acquisition and preservation that make the digital preservation issues so challenging.

While we have a fair amount of social science data preserved," Gutmann concludes, unfortunately, "quite a lot that is important is probably lost. That's why we're trying to build a partnership that would systematically try to rescue the at-risk content of social science, and to set up a system going forward that would protect these investments."