June 18, 2014

Cost of Inaction Calculator

One of the big challenges in effectively advocating for archives is the struggle to quantify their value. Of course archives have a cultural and institutional value — those are the easier arguments that we often fall back on — but as I’ve written before, those are soft arguments that can lose impact over time or fail to define value in terms that an administrator or potential funder is looking for, i.e., measurable, numbers-based impact. There are numbers one can look to — visitors, requests, web stats, linear feet, items, monetary appraisal, etc. — but those are still difficult to map into what is often the number one quantification desired: Return on Investment. If I give you X, what metric of Y will result? 30% more visitors? 1,000 more website hits? 5 more finding aids? Not that these aren’t important stats, but they can be risky to promise depending on the project and may have little correlation to preservation efforts. Which I suppose is why many of the big money, popular projects we hear about are access focused, where digitization (primarily of paper) is done to present collections online, not as an act of preservation.

This is disconcerting because with audiovisual materials, reformatting is preservation, plain and simple. If you want to continue access audiovisual content into the future and maintain it in a high enough quality form for future preservation, it must be periodically reformatted, the new copy eventually becoming the item of record. Especially with magnetic media (audiotape & videotape), if any significant degree of our audiovisual heritage is going to remain accessible beyond our lifetimes it must be reformatted in the next 10-15 years. International experts have agreed that that is the window we have before reformatting becomes too expensive or impossible due to decay, loss of technology, and loss of technical knowledge.

Now, 10-15 is a scary number in this scenario, but, again, pulling on the heartstrings or the fearstrings (are those in the gut?) is an approach with limits. There is still that question: With the large outlay or resources required for digitization and storage, what do we get back? What is the return on that investment?

This is why we at AVPreserve have flipped the script. It is not ROI we should look at, but COI — Cost of Inaction. The Cost of Inaction, or how much loss do we incur — in numbers — when we do not act to preserve audiovisual collections. How many items over the next 15 years? How much budget expended in physical storage, rehousing, and staffing spent on those lost items, both in the past and over the coming years. And if we compare this to how much it would cost to digitize materials and store the files, how much is that cost compared to the expenditure to store inaccessible collections?

To answer these questions and give archivists data they need to advocate for reformatting, we have created The Cost of Inaction Calculator, a free online tool that helps organizations analyze the implications of varying levels of preservation actions when dealing legacy audiovisual collections. COI adds a new data point to ROI and helps articulate what stands to be lost or gained in terms of access, intellect and finances based on different scenarios.

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This tool is not an argument to digitize everything, but rather to help decision makers make informed decisions that promote and enable progress and taking action. Not everything can be preserved, but we can, we need to make our best effort here. The Cost of Inaction Calculator and supporting documentation are available at

Joshua Ranger

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