Making Community Spaces Safer
February 23, 2021

Making Community Spaces Safer: On Being “Transformational”

Over the course of 2020-2021, members of the Educopia staff will be contributing blog posts to the “Making Community Spaces Safer” series. Each post will explore one of our organizational values and describe our efforts to live into that value, including our successes, our failures, and the hard-won lessons that occur in between. We will announce new posts on the Educopia website and on Twitter.

In a previous post, I touched on the spark that I see cutting through the long fuse of my work in digital preservation and a focus that I continue to bring to bear on my ongoing engagement with the affiliated communities at Educopia. That spark is an emerging principle and a philosophy I now affectionately refer to as sovereignty. And in the subtlest of ways and in all hindsight I am finding that the MetaArchive Cooperative has been instrumental in lighting that spark on the fuse of my career. 

When I first got the privilege of working with the Cooperative it was as a contract consultant hired to carry out and document an external audit of both the organization and the technical infrastructure—the machinery that made the Cooperative tick. Then as now, I found the Cooperative to be unlike anything else on the scene when it comes to digital preservation solutions. It was and remains the first international, member-owned, distributed digital preservation network. Rather than encumber and endanger institutional assets by storing them off in some remote and opaque third-party cloud service, the MetaArchive built the very first private academic cloud using institutionally-sourced and hosted hardware and open source software. 

As I moved on to become the Cooperative’s first Program Manager (2010-2015), we set about together to grow and diversify that academic cloud to become a safe haven for other smaller and sometimes under-resourced non-academic institutions and consortia to secure their data and digital collections. The MetaArchive has continued to grow and change and diversify over the decade and a half (+) that it has been in operation—remaining the longest running community-owned solution in existence. 

This past autumn (October 2019) I returned to MetaArchive after a brief hiatus of research and work, wherein I attempted to replicate this very unique MetaArchive model of securing sovereignty for institutional digital assets—this time exploring use of the model at more limited state/regional scales. With the demise of subsequent efforts to build large scale academic clouds—like those attempted by the now defunct Digital Preservation Network (DPN)—the question had to be asked whether there are not better structural, sustainable, and geographically-respectable ways of organizing community-based and collaborative digital preservation? That research has now successfully launched a brand new state/regional network (the Michigan Digital Preservation Network) that holds potential for eventually connecting into larger networks like MetaArchive. It is possible that we can still achieve something akin to a national digital platform for digital preservation, but it will undoubtedly need to expand, contract, and be free to decouple on smaller scales over time as politics and budgets change.

Changing for Continued Impact

With the Michigan Digital Preservation Network off-and-running towards good success, it was understandably a joy to be invited and welcomed back to co-labor with the MetaArchive through a brand new brilliantly constructed process of strategic transformation that Educopia and the Cooperative jointly refer to as the Changing for Continued Impact series. The CfCI process launched in late 2019 and has reached its desired culmination and success with the 2020 MetaArchive Annual Meeting (August 2020). The work now begins in earnest to put into implementation the many changes and improvements approved by the membership to ensure that MetaArchive can thrive through these extreme days of technological and organizational shift. These are changes and improvements that include:

  1. Piloting explorations and evaluations into a next-generation infrastructure that leverages Software Defined Storage (SDS) and new scalable platforms;
  2. Brand new institutional- and practitioner-level engagement and mentorship opportunities; and
  3. Streamlined cost models and improved technical staffing/support

These and several other initiatives flow from the CfCI process. In less than a year, through the chaos of our ongoing pandemic and the distress of our societies reckoning with the violent abuses of law enforcement and state power on BIPOC and other marginalized communities, the MetaArchive has pushed through to emerge as an enduring safe haven for the sovereign control of threatened digital assets. If you’d like to understand more about the origins of the Changing for Continued Impact (CfCI) series for MetaArchive, you can read all about it in Educopia’s 2019 Annual Report. What is most important for this post is to appreciate why the changes and improvements highlighted above are so significant in these transformative times.

Exploring Next-Generation Infrastructure

During the period of time that I worked away from the MetaArchive community, the balance of capacity for institutions to source and host their own infrastructure has tipped dramatically. I returned in October 2019 to a collective of institutions that had either strategically or under some combination of internal/external pressures made massive shifts toward use of commercial cloud platforms for both their computing and their storage. The cost-savings and the benefits for innovation are simply too much for most institutions to pass-up. Without casting hard judgments on such decisions, the most important thing to synthesize is that this rapid shift to the cloud has proven disruptive to a community that has prided itself on hosting its own hardware/software as a principle of sovereignty. 

Thankfully, through the CfCI process the community has rallied and managed to conceive of a third way between the dark waters of proprietary vendors and those of the open source. Beginning in 2021 the MetaArchive will begin formal explorations of brand new Software Defined Storage (SDS) alternatives to the Cooperative’s long-running use of LOCKSS. Software defined storage options offer flexibility for deployment in both locally-hosted as well as vendor-supported environments, and improved scalability and mutability of objects to enable greater curation of data on ingress and at-rest. All of which should aid in both longer-term sustainability and real-time control.

New Member Engagement & Mentoring Opportunities

Also beginning in 2021, the MetaArchive will allow new prospective institutions to take advantage of a one-year non-committal on-boarding membership experience that can then extend into a full three-year term. For institutions interested in thus testing the waters of distributed digital preservation for the first time and beginning to work with a community of like-minded peers, the Cooperative Members and Central Staff  will work with  these prospective institutions to experiment with new technologies and both learn from and share their advancements with the broadest and most diverse community currently organized for the field of digital preservation. For those institutions that decide to commit from the start, the Cooperative will also reward their engagement with a 50% membership fee discount for that first year. 

Furthermore, in addition to this new dimension of flexible membership experience for institutions, the Cooperative is also pioneering new free individual memberships for practitioners, irrespective of their institutional status as members. Individuals will thus be able to join the Cooperative at no charge and engage other individuals and member institution representatives in peer-mentoring programs designed to deepen both hands-on experience with digital preservation/curation technologies and foster critical engagements with practices and policies.

Streamlining Costs and Deepening Support

Finally, and most importantly, the MetaArchive is emerging through this season of transformation wiser to the true and long-term costs of operating a robust, viable, and responsive community-based alternative to commercial solutions. Which is to say that the Cooperative can no longer take for granted that its membership has the administrative/technical resources or capacity to support the many moving parts that have made the backbone of the network function—namely things like membership fees, storage fees, technology refreshes, software subscriptions, etc. In a rapidly shifting paradigm where institutions are seeking to reduce overhead, consolidate service contracts, and simplify external partnerships, the MetaArchive is responding appropriately. 

Starting in 2021, the Cooperative will be collapsing and equalizing its institutional membership fees, reducing charges for storage fees, and even doing away with storage fees altogether for members that contribute negotiated and in-kind technology resources to supporting and advancing the ongoing operations of the network. To make things even lighter on the membership, the Cooperative and Educopia will also be working together to further staff-up the administrative and technical needs of the network. Despite the daunting cutbacks to higher-education and cultural sectors throughout the pandemic, the MetaArchive Cooperative is exemplifying strength and resiliency. 2021 finds the community with an ample reserve fund from which it will draw to deepen its support to its members.

It has been a remarkable journey for the MetaArchive through the Changing for Continued Impact (CfCI) series. A community that has been facing daunting challenges to its viability in recent years due to rapid consolidation of technology in the commercial cloud platform sector is transforming itself in-line with its core values and philosophy. In doing so it puts itself forward as a shining example of a community taking an intentional and principled stand for sovereignty in an age of capitulation to big technology and its control and surveillance over data and the digital. It has been an honor to work alongside and in service to the Cooperative members and leaders. Thanks to their hard work the MetaArchive will continue to be a safe haven for data for institutions of all types and sizes.

At Educopia we strive for systemic change. Educopia helps organizations across different domains work together to develop and to demand more open, accessible, and affordable systems to support knowledge production, collection, preservation, and dissemination.