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Digital Preservation

By Veronica Howe, Collections Manager

7 May 2020

Our Project Conservator Pam Murray recently wrote about the 10 agents of deterioration that can affect physical items in the archive.

We also need to be able to care for, and make available, the increasing proportion of archives that comes to us in digital format. Managing it demands new ways of thinking, often challenging traditional archival practices.

Here are some of the ideas that have come out of research we have been doing to inform development of our future digital preservation strategy:

Things that mattered to people end up in archives and museums but, without care and management, they only persist for a period of time related to the durability of their mediums. Many digital files created in recent years are already inaccessible, and yet the British Museum has stone tools from the prehistoric era.

Digital objects can be hard to understand. It is challenging to articulate what is actually inside a digital object and what is external to it when objects reference aspects of other objects as part of their everyday function.

Digital items challenge traditional ideas about collections. Sometimes the contents of a hard drive can be managed as a single item, sometimes it is a collection of items.

Nothing has been preserved, things are only being preserved. Preservation is ongoing work. Although this is true of all preservation, the timescales for action are significantly shorter for digital material.

The approach we take towards ensuring long-term access depends on the nature of the collection. A large collection of high-resolution video has different preservation needs to digitised texts.

Deciding what matters in digital preservation is contingent on potential future use.

Backing up data is not digital preservation - short-term concerns of being able to restore data are very different from the long-term issues of ensuring future access to content.

Hoarding is not preservation. Making copies of digital objects is not preservation because without a coherent approach to collecting and cataloguing, content will not be discoverable and accessible.

No single tool exists to ensure long-term access to digital information.

There is no software that “does” digital preservation. Any system used to preserve and/or enable access to digital content is temporary. You need to be able to get stuff out of it because it will not last forever.

A repository is not just a piece of software. Ensuring long-term access to digital archives requires long-term commitment of financial resources, hardware, staff time, policies and planning.

So what is digital preservation?

Digital preservation is about making the best use of resources to mitigate the most pressing preservation threats and risks. It is never done, it not something that can be accomplished or finished. It is a continual process of understanding the risks of losing content, or the ability to interact with it and using available resources to mitigate those risks.

We don’t know what tools and systems people of the future will use to access digital content, so staying aware of trends in digital technology development will be key to mitigating risk. We can only base our current work on the technology we currently have so will need to look to the future in a way we didn’t need to with previous archival media and formats. Varying levels of effort will be required to preserve different kinds of digital material.

Archives have never been able to save everything. We will need to focus on building capacity to protect what matters most.

A very positive aspect of all this is that digital media affords significant new opportunities for engaging communities in the development of digital archive collections. Because digital preservation is more directly connected to, and involved in deciding what we want to collect, we can rethink what it is possible to collect. Digital preservation has the potential to enable more equitable approaches to collecting, preserving, and providing access to the past than has previously been possible.

Many of these ideas are articulated in greater detail in Trevor Owen’s The Theory and Craft of Digital Preservation.