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U-M leads $4 million project to preserve poll and survey data


In the thick of a presidential election, the latest findings from surveys and polls are reported daily. But much of the data behind the news on American public opinion are literally here today and gone tomorrow.

"At least half the survey and poll data collected since the 1940s has disappeared," says historian Myron Gutmann, director of the Inter-university Consortium for Political and Social Research (ICPSR) at the Institute for Social Research. "We're not sure yet if it's gone permanently or not."

Gutmann is the principal investigator on a new $4.1 million project to acquire and preserve data from opinion polls, voting records, large-scale surveys and other social science studies. Funded primarily by the Library of Congress, the world's largest library, the three-year project is a broad-based partnership between ICPSR, the world's largest academic social science data archive, and five other institutions.
"At least half the survey and poll data collected since the 1940s has
disappeared."
—Myron Gutmann

Others involved in the project are the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut, the Howard W. Odum Institute at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, the Henry A. Murray Research Center at Harvard's Radcliffe Institute, the National Archives and Records Administration, and the Harvard-MIT Data Center.

"This effort will ensure that future generations of Americans have access to vital material that will allow them to understand their nation, its social organization and its policies and politics," Gutmann says.

For three-quarters of a century, public opinion polls, social surveys and other kinds of structured interviews have tracked people's values, attitudes, knowledge and behavior. Surveys have done more than predict the outcomes of elections or tell us when presidents gain or lose popularity. They inform us about aging, health and health care, race relations, women's rights, employment, and family life—the full story of the social and cultural tapestry that makes up our nation. They provide the data necessary for sound, empirically based policy-making.

A huge quantity of this data is missing or at-risk. "It has not been archived, and without aggressive activities to locate and preserve it, it will disappear for good," Gutmann says. "This at-risk data can be found on the computers of individual researchers and research institutions, in bookcases and libraries, even in boxes of punched cards stored in warehouses. Some data reside on Web sites that don't have truly persistent URLs."

The good news, Gutmann says, is that the missing material has left tracks that researchers affiliated with the new project will follow, in the form of news releases, public grant announcements and publications describing the research. After identifying and finding at-risk content, the project aims to acquire the data, assure its security and prepare public use files that safeguard confidentiality.

"Our goal is to assure that the material remains accessible, complete, uncorrupted and usable over time," Gutmann says. "Rapid technological change will always threaten the viability of digital materials produced in previous years under obsolete technological conditions. But this project will greatly enhance our ability to preserve important data collections."

Through its National Digital Library (NDL) Program, the Library of Congress is one of the leading providers of noncommercial intellectual content on the Internet (http://www.loc.gov). The NDL Program's flagship American Memory project, in collaboration with other institutions nationwide, makes freely available more than 8.5 million American historical items.

In December 2000, Congress authorized the Library of Congress to develop and execute a congressionally approved plan for a National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program. A $99.8 million congressional appropriation was made to establish the program.

The goal is to build a network throughout the country of committed partners working through a preservation architecture with defined roles and responsibilities. The complete text of the "Plan for the National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program" is at http://www.digitalpreservation.gov. It includes an explanation of how the plan was developed, who the Library worked with to develop the plan and the key components of the digital preservation infrastructure. The plan was approved by Congress in December 2002.

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