Framing the Digital Preservation Conversation

One of the best things about Thanksgiving is the food. But equally yummy is the company that comes with the holiday. Last weekend, I spent Thursday with family, and some of their friends, and some of their family.  It was an excellent celebration with a houseful of warm and inviting people, many of whom I met for the first time.

Digital Photo Frame, by osde8info, on Flickr

Digital Photo Frame, by osde8info, on Flickr

Invariably, when you meet new people, you get the, “what do you do?” question. I also get the “what exactly is that?” follow-up question. Over a year ago, I wrote a post talking about how I explain my job and digital preservation.

For the most part, I still stick to the 30 second speech. I’ll also point out any relevant current events, which I find helps articulate the immediate need for the preservation of digital materials. For example, I mentioned the serious damage Eyebeam Institute’s digital archives sustained during Hurricane Sandy.

But I try not to focus every conversation on stories of loss. I like to tie-in topical posts on this blog that talk about preserving unique digital collections.  It helps me frame deeper conversations for particular audiences or interests. In my experience, highlighting the discussions and interviews around digital stewardship stories of culture and history elicit more “oh, now I get it” moments. Here are a few of those types of posts that stick out in my mind:

For the practitioners out there, how do you describe your work or explain digital preservation to new friends? Feel free to share your stories and those conversations here.


  1. Abbie Grotke
    November 27, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    I like to start it off with the very dramatic “I archive the Internet!” That usually gets fun reactions – “Wha???”. And then I explain a bit more, usually talking about campaign websites (people get that they go away quickly).

  2. Sharad Shah
    November 27, 2012 at 4:25 pm

    Actually, this goes into a conversation I had during the Meetup. First of all, there are two archivists: the collections processors who work behind the scenes and the reference archivists who handle patrons.(We’re not even going to touch librarians, because that just gets messy.)

    As for digital archivist, as far as I am concerned, there’s two major types–each placing different levels of emphasis on the job title.

    There’s the DIGITAL archivist–the professional I associate more as being a digital preservationist (but “archivist” sounds cooler than preservationist, so I completely understand). They focus on digital born records/material and look for ways to preserve the longevity of these materials. They use words like “fixity” and enjoy comparing emulators.

    Then there’s the digital ARCHIVIST. They take documents which are both physical and born-digital, and create online collections and finding aids. They use words like “Dublin Core” and enjoy comparing Digital Asset Management Systems (DAMS).

    While I definitely appreciate the former (been messing around with computers since 1982 and I love staying up to date–or trying to), when I talk to people, I emphasize my experience in the latter. To keep it simple, I would tell people I create digital collections.

  3. Euan Cochrane
    November 27, 2012 at 7:40 pm

    I have found the recently produced Atlas of digital damages is a great prop to use when trying to explain digital preservation. Having the visual examples of what we are trying to overcome really seems to help connect with people and make it real to them.

    Also, I’m a strong proponent of emulation as a digital preservation strategy and I’ve found that when you show emulated environments to non-experts they almost invariably instantly connect with them, and often start to gush with emotional responses triggered by memories of the old software. And in the case of those who have never used the old software they are often fascinated by the difference and similarities to what they have used recently. Being able to connect with people by giving them an experience like that seems to really help to get them to understand digital preservation and to drive home the importance of what we do

  4. Yvonne Friese
    November 28, 2012 at 3:53 am

    Usually I try to be very generic and say that I work in a library. If my conversation partner seems to be interested in what EXACTLY I do, I tell her or him that I am responsible for the digital object being available for the users for a long, long, a very long time.

    Usually people than have a picture in the head that looks like this:
    Me sitting in front of a computer, copy & pasting files all day, doing a manual backup.
    Maybe, with a bit more phantasie, they see me typing Metadata and structure folders with an earnest looking face.

    I guess most people get the ghist of what my actual task is, but they usually don’t have any idea what I actually DO all day.

    So what am I doing all day?
    Trying to figure out how to automate normalisation workflows within our preservation system? (Well, yes, sort of, but how can I possibly explain this to my dentist within 30 seconds?)
    Finding out why DROID does not recognise some of our JPEG-files?
    Discussing with workmates in New Zealand why JHOVE might not be the perfect match for valuating PDF-files?

    Thanks to Sharad Sha I now know that I am a DIGITAL archivist (or a digital preservationist), but I am reluctant to use this term, especially as my mother tongue is german and the translation sounds pretty strange. In fact I enjoy to compare migration tools, use words like fixity (well-formedness is very nice, too, which never fails to make quite an impression on people).

    On lazy days I just stick with “I work in a library”, letting people see me carrying books and smiling at users, offering my help to search journal articles and putting books back into shelves.

  5. Sarah
    December 5, 2012 at 9:59 am

    Hello Erin,
    You said in your post that you “try not to focus every conversation on stories of loss”, which I think is a good idea. However, I’m currently searching for a story of data loss that is a historically significant loss to our culture to use in a display about Digital Preservation and why it is important. I was wondering if you could help point me in the right direction? It is easy to find examples of personal data losses, but I was wondering if you might know of something on a larger scale.
    Thanks for any help you may be able to provide.

  6. Erin Engle
    December 7, 2012 at 11:26 am

    Hi Sarah, thanks for your comment.

    I don’t know of a story of a large scale data loss of historically significant information. Many of stories of almost data loss come to mind. I recall a few years ago, NASA lost or taped over the original footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing, but the agency was able to restore copies of the original broadcast.

    I’d suggest taking a look at the @digpres411 twitter feed. It provides regular links to historic digital stories, which may include stories of loss to help with your research.

    We can see if any readers can help out too.

    Does anyone know of other sources of information or a story about culturally important data loss?

  7. Sarah
    December 10, 2012 at 12:52 pm

    Thank you for your response! I will look through the twitter feed to see what I can find. And if anyone else would like to respond, we do have a blog post on this topic on our project website:

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