Many doctoral institutions now accept and archive (or are planning to accept and archive) theses and dissertations electronically. Virginia Tech pioneered this quite some time ago, and it has caught on slowly but steadily for reasons of cost, convenience, access, and necessity.
Necessity? Afraid so. Some theses and dissertations are honest digital artifacts, unable to be faithfully represented in ink on paper or in other analog fashion. Others might be flattened into analog, but that wouldn’t be their (or their author’s) preference. Still others contain digital artifacts of various sorts. Source code. Multimedia. Data.
ETDs don’t pose any special digital-preservation challenges over and above the usual. (I got into an exchange on Twitter yesterday about a dissertation presented with a web content-management system, raising the issue of the artifact’s sustainability given the CMS dependency. But any CMS with any content involves those same issues.) What they do present, given their popularity among faculty, students, administrators, and even (some) librarians, is an opportunity.
Institutions consider dissertations to be vital institutional history. (Master’s theses?well, that varies from institution to institution, and even within institutions.) There can be no question of throwing away a dissertation simply because it’s digital; an institution receiving digital dissertations has no choice but to do something about them.
Now, a lot of institutions, it seems to me, aren’t doing much or are doing the wrong things. (If your institution has an unaudited pile of CD-ROMs, that’s the wrong thing. Perfectly understandable given the circumstances, but still wrong in today’s technology environment.) This shouldn’t be surprising or terrifying, nor is it excuse to excoriate the institutions. We all do our best with what we have and what we know at the time.
However? the tools now exist for us to step up our digital-preservation game, and ETDs give us an unassailable, mission-critical reason to. Remember, the problems aren’t specific to ETDs, so if we solve them for ETDs, we’ve solved them for a wide swathe of other kinds of documents and data as well.
Perhaps instead of spinning jargon-laden webs of words such as “cyberinfrastructure,” we should start with an easy-to-recognize problem that we already know we have.