Briefly Noted: What is LOCKSS?

LOCKSS (Lots of Copies Keep Stuff Safe) is a digital preservation effort based at Stanford University Libraries, and an interesting glimpse into how libraries are evolving their storage and preservation strategies in response to an ever-increasing shift from print to digital formats: “academic libraries are faced with the urgent problem of creating and maintaining digital collections with the staying power of traditional hard copy books and journals. Information stored on paper can survive for millennia; information stored digitally today may not be recoverable next week.”

Redundancy, as the initiative name implies (I love descriptive acronyms), is the key. While digital formats bring their own host of vexing issues (such as digital obsolescence), space constraints are not an issue in the same way they would be for physical copies of publications, so lots and lots of copies is the way to go:

“In a traditional paper-based library system, libraries act for their institution to acquire copies of important ‘stuff,’ keep copies on shelves, and give access to local readers. Libraries cooperate to exchanges copies for purposes of repair and replacement. Readers can easily find copies. ‘Bad guys’ have trouble finding and destroying all copies. Libraries ensure content persists simply by supporting their local communities. The result: a cooperative, affordable, decentralized, preservation system with LOTS OF COPIES.

A LOCKSS library system functions in much the same way. Libraries still act for their institution to acquire copies of important ‘stuff.’ Instead of using paper, they keep copies in LOCKSS boxes, which cooperate with each other to detect and repair damage. They give access to local readers, and they make it difficult for bad guys to find and destroy all copies. Again, librarians, through LOCKSS, ensure content persists simply by supporting their local communities. The result: a cooperative, affordable, decentralized preservation system with LOTS OF COPIES, but this time, in digital format.

In other words, lots of copies is the best way we’ve come up with thus far to prevent that whole 1984 thing.

All of this is part of the much larger and more complicated topic of digital preservation. We really do have no idea what future form data will be stored in. The handy-dandy DropBox-type cloud storage and pocket-sized portable hard drives of today might someday seem as obsolete as Apu’s punched card tic-tac-toe computer program (“Much Apu About Nothing”).

The LOCKSS project — and similar preservation efforts — are an insurance policy of sorts, for how our ebooks and electronic journals might exist in some shape or form in the not-so-distant future. The ethos of LOCKSS was encapsulated rather nicely in their choice of Thomas Jefferson quotes:

“…let us save what remains: not by vaults and locks which fence them from the public eye and use in consigning them to the waste of time, but by such a multiplication of copies, as shall place them beyond the reach of accident.

And also, here’s a nifty “How It Works” diagram, for those that are interested.


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I run the ThinkLab at the University of Cambridge, and research digital habits, productivity, and wellbeing.

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