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ODU's Nelson on Team that Wins International Digital Preservation Award

Computer Scientist Michael Nelson

The unique Memento architecture that has been dubbed "time travel for the Web," and which has been developed by a team of researchers including Old Dominion University computer scientist Michael Nelson, is the 2010 winner of the Digital Preservation Award from the Institute for Conservation and Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC) based in London.

Nelson, an associate professor in ODU's Department of Computer Science, and Herbert Van de Sompel, a computer scientist at the U.S. Department of Energy's Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL), lead the Memento research team. Other members are Lyudmila Balakireva, Robert Sanderson and Harihar Shankar of LANL and Scott Ainsworth, a graduate student at ODU. The project has been supported by the Library of Congress under the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program.

"Memento offers an elegant and easily deployed method that reunites web archives with their home on the live web," explained Richard Ovenden, chair of the DPC. "It opens web archives to tens of millions of new users and signals a dramatic change in the way we use and perceive digital archives.

"The ability to change and update pages is one of the web's greatest advantages, but it introduces a sort of structured instability which makes it hard to depend on web pages in the long term," Ovenden added. "For more than a decade, services like the Internet Archive have provided a stable but partial memory of a fragment of the web, but users had no way of linking between current content and earlier versions held by web archives.

"The Memento project resolves this by letting users set a time preference in their browsers."

Nelson said the Memento research team was honored to be included among the nominees. "Then to be the winner among this impressive list of finalists makes us very proud." The winners received an award of about $2,000 and a trophy.

"Hearty congratulations go to Dr. Nelson," said Mohammad Karim, the ODU vice president for research. "This is really great news for all of us at the university."

Chris Platsoucas, dean of the College of Sciences, noted that Nelson's cutting edge work in computer science was rewarded with a $500,000 National Science Foundation Young Career Development Award in 2007, and added, "This is a much deserved achievement of great significance, which reflects the quality of Professor Nelson's research and the respect and recognition of his peers."

In September, when DPC announced the five finalists for the award, the organization's executive director, William Kilbride, said, "Digital data is fragile so we have to think hard about what sort of digital legacy we want to leave behind. Our generation has invested as never before in digital resources and we've done so because of the opportunity they bring. Pervasive, fluid and fragile, digital data is a defining feature of our age. But it will take a coordinated effort of research and training to ensure that our digital memory is available tomorrow."

In addition to Memento, this year's finalists included one other United States-based project, a pan-European project, an initiative of the National Archives of the U.K., and one trans-Atlantic blue ribbon task force.

"Winning the Digital Preservation Award is a really significant achievement," Kilbride said. "There is no other prize like it, so it attracts a genuinely international field and is only awarded after exacting scrutiny."

Nelson said he and his colleagues believe what differentiates Memento from other preservation projects is that Memento is an amplifying technology - it helps to better integrate existing archives instead of the current situation where archives essentially compete against each other.

"Much like Amazon did with books and music, we're interested in exploring the 'long tail' of archives by providing a framework for inter-archive access. There are many small Web archives, but collectively their holdings can form a formidable resource. When combined with large, well-known archives like the Wayback Machine, we come close to having a history button for the Web," Nelson said.

Memento's approach is based on a straightforward extension of the widely used "HTTP" tool that results in a way to seamlessly navigate current versions of Web resources as well as prior versions that might be held by Web archives and or embedded within wikis. The user simply enters a Web address in the browser, sets the time slider to a desired date and sees the Web as it used to be.

The other shortlisted projects are "Web Continuity" from the National Archives in Kew, England; "PLATO 3: Preservation Planning Made Simple" from Vienna University of Technology; the work of the international Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access; and "Preserving Virtual Worlds" from the University of Illinois.

The judges, in addition to Kilbride, who is the DPC executive director, and Kevin Ashley, who is director, Digital Curation Centre, Edinburgh University, and chair of the judging panel, are: Adrian Brown, assistant clerk of the record, Parliamentary Archives; Pip Laurenson, head of Time-based Media Conservation, Tate, U.K.; Zoe Lock, lead technologist for ICT, the Technology Strategy Board, U.K.; Eefke Smit, director for standards and technology, Scientific, Technical and Medical Publishers Association, The Netherlands; Dave Thompson, digital curator, The Wellcome Library; Matthew Woollard, director designate, the U.K. Data Archive; and Richard Wright, senior research engineer, BBC.

More information about the award is at http://www.dpconline.org/advocacy/awards or http://www.conservationawards.org.uk/.

This article was posted on: December 3, 2010

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