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Here Today, Not Gone Tomorrow

January 18, 2013

(Lisa Brooks is a co-founder of IssueLab and director of knowledge management systems at the Foundation Center. In her last post, she wrote about the importance of archiving old research.)

Sorry_closedAbout a month ago, IssueLab received an e-mail from a man in Jackson, Michigan, who runs an organization focused on mentoring high-risk youth. He found a report on the IssueLab site he wanted to share at a meeting he was about to host, and he wanted to know how he could obtain twenty-five hard copies. The report, The Promise and Challenge of Mentoring High-Risk Youth: Findings From the National Faith-Based Initiative, was published in 2004 by Public/Private Ventures (P/PV). The fact that the report was published nine years ago by P/PV made his e-mail especially interesting.

As many of you know, P/PV, after thirty-five years in operation, closed its doors in the summer of 2012. About six months later, the Public Education Network (PEN), which had been doing good work for twenty-years, closed its doors. One of the last tasks both organizations completed was to partner with IssueLab to preserve their respective publications. So while neither organization is around today, anyone can browse P/PV's research reports, case studies, and evaluations or PEN's white papers, case studies, testimonies, opinion polls, and survey results through the special P/PV and PEN collections on the IssueLab site. And that's a good thing, because as our friend from Michigan can attest, these publications continue to provide data, insights, and case studies that can inform the efforts of those working in the fields of education and children, youth and families.

What would have happened to P/PV or PEN's publications had they decided not to turn over stewardship of their published collections to IssueLab?

In a recently released report from the Commonwealth Fund titled The Archives of U.S. Foundations: An Endangered Species, author John E. Craig, Jr. wrestles with exactly this question and provides the sector with a thorough accounting of why foundations need to take seriously the archiving of their own publications. Among other things, Craig argues that foundations play a key role in social change through their efforts to build "the knowledge base for social improvements and scientific advancement and, through the support of individual researchers, contributing to the nation's intellectual capital." What's more (and directly to the point of this post), Craig notes that "foundation records are also frequently one of the few sources for historical research on small, relatively short-lived organizations (and their leaders) that had significant impact in their day."

Neither PEN nor P/PV were short-lived organizations, and in this case IssueLab rather than a foundation has assumed responsibility for archiving their research and publications going forward, but Craig's point is no less valid: organizations close their doors, and it is up to other organizations and individuals to preserve their legacies and learnings. IssueLab continues to ensure that the work of P/PV and PEN will remain a part of the historic record and that their documentation of specific social problems and solutions designed to address those problems will continue to be shared.

The story of P/PV, PEN, and IssueLab is a hopeful one, and the attention that groups like the Commonwealth Fund are giving the issue of knowledge preservation is encouraging. But the question remains: How can the social sector shift from "knowledge preservation by chance" to a more sustainable approach that encompasses the complete cycle of knowledge generation, distribution, and preservation in perpetuity? At IssueLab, we're looking for answers and for thought partners. Use the comments section below to post your thoughts and ideas, and let's get this much-needed conversation started!

-- Lisa Brooks

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