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Digitization is Different than Digital Preservation: Help Prevent Digital Orphans!

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USB-drive Graveyard, by Ben and Laura Kreeger, on Flickr
USB-drive Graveyard, by Ben and Laura Kreeger, on Flickr

The following is a guest post by Kristin Snawder, a 2011 Junior Fellow working with NDIIPP.

“If it’s scanned, then it’s preserved, right?  I mean, it’s in the computer now so that’s all I need to do!”

I’ve heard this response when I ask if something is digitally preserved and it raises concerns.  Lumping scanning together with digital preservation causes confusion and I want to take this opportunity to shine a light on some of the differences between the two.

Scan all you want, but think about preservati­on, too.

While scanning can be a prelude to digital preservation, the two are distinct.  It is quite possible to launch a scanning project, perhaps with temporary funds, and stop when everything is digitized.  So now what about those poor digital files sitting on a hard drive somewhere?  Do we forget about them?  The answer, sadly, may be yes.  As a colleague put it, these files are now orphans with no one to watch over them and ensure their future.

Many institutions see the immediate value of having materials available electronically.  This is valid reasoning.  Many researchers no longer want to come and see the materials.  They want access from the comfort of their own couch and fuzzy slippers.  But, in the hurry to meet user expectations, institutions may scan large quantities of materials without having a solid plan for preserving the digital images into the future.

Digital Preservation is an active, long-term commitment; scanning is a time-limited process.

Scanning is a process fixed in time.  You scan something once and if you do it correctly you are done and can move on to the next project.  Digital preservation is different, because it involves active management over time.  If you scan and then forget about the digital file, it may not be usable to future users.  You have to look at it as a long term commitment.  Think of it in terms of our orphaned data being adopted by a loving digital preservation department somewhere.

The issues involved in digital preservation are extensive.  Technology advancement, digital decay, data integrity and storage, and  economic sustainability all come into play.  These issues, along with the very rapidly growing volume of digital content, make digital preservation a moving target.

The goal should be collaboration–leave the baggage at the door!

Owned Cat-dog, by Sephiroty Magno Fiesta, on Flickr
Owned Cat-dog, by Sephiroty Magno Fiesta, on Flickr

Now I don’t want any readers to get the impression that I think scanning and digital preservation are mortal enemies.  In fact, the best solution would be to make them best friends and collaborators.

Making good decisions in the scanning process can lead to easier and better digital preservation.  Addressing issues such a file format and metadata in the scanning stage can greatly enhance the preservability of digital materials.  The goal should be that one feeds into the other.  Scanning should be a first step in a longer process, and, as with many journeys, the first step can make all the difference.

Comments (22)

  1. Thanks for casting a light on this important issue. Any recommended reads/useful sites for those of us who’d like to learn more about your ideas on collaboration?

    • Lee Ann: Collaboration is a big part of what we do–in fact we just launched our most ambitious collaboration initiative yet: The National Digital Stewardship Alliance. There is lots of info here:

  2. This is a great, important point to be stressing. I am evaluating ways to preserve all the digital files I have of family photos and keepsakes.

    Also, “digitizing” isn’t just scanning – I have hundreds of digital photos of keepsakes that can’t be scanned, such as my gr-gr-grandmother’s fox stole, my gr-grandfather’s eyeglasses and eye wash cup, my gr-grandmother’s wooden break-mixing bowl (she lived to 113 and had this bowl for ~94 years), and so on.

    I photographed the items in a nice setting, as a RAW file, then worked on a copy of the file to crop, correct white-point, etc. I also photograph album pages with all photos in place, intact before attempting to remove them from the acidic pages. This preserves the order and context – and is much faster than trying to scan an entire page.

    Not everything can be scanned, but most family keepsakes can be digitized, and I encourage friends to do this in case of disaster.

    • Deb: You make some great points, and it’s clear that you are going the extra mile to create high-quality digital copies of important keepsakes. Any you are correct–digitization doesn’t always mean scanning! Thanks for pointing that out.

  3. I like to preserve something outside the computer because I think it is inevitable that the computer will break down and not be usable. So I preserve pictures and writings on a CD.
    To make sure people generations from now can open it I write the program it was written in on the CD.
    Is that a sound approach?

    Digital technology is so slow that I am sure something will replace it. You give the computer a command, and the computer sits there. It thinks about the command. Up comes part of a screen, then another part. It’s as if the computer is making wine. That’s how slow it is.
    It is contrary to human nature to accept such slow technology. That is why I believe something will replace digital.
    So if we really want to preserve things we have to always be ready for the next changeover. In the future digital technology will seem primitive, and future generations will feel sorry for us that we had to use it.


    • Tom–It is always a good idea to have separate copies of your important digital files, such as you do by copying files to a CD. It is even better to have more than two copies and store the additional copies as far apart as possible. Check out our guidance at

  4. Could you expand on each of these items;
    digital decay, How is this manifest? What is a best practice to prevent it?

    data integrity What is the most effective way to confirm the integrity of the data?

    storage, a reoccurring method I heard is to use multiple media to back up the data, i.e. DVD (gold), two external hard drive which are rotated with one being stored off site.

    Would you comment on Cloud storage?

    Thank you,
    Wayne Eastep
    [email protected]

    • Wayne: Digital decay can mean degradation of storage material, such as a CD-ROM or computer hard drive. Most storage devices have a rather limited life, and the best way to deal with it is to make new copies of the data every 5 years or so. Decay can also mean “bit rot,” which means accidental changes in the data itself. Coping with this is a challenge–it’s related to confirming data integrity, which often involves using a “hash” algorithm. Comparing the original hash with a new computation of it reveals if there have been any changes.

      Using multiple media to back up your data is just what we recommend for optimal preservation.

      Cloud storage has some advantage and disadvantages–see our recent post at

  5. I would like to learn more on this subject,
    Prevent Digital Orphans!
    Hib Casselberry, FLA, HLPS
    Historian & Archivist on Florida Lighthouses since 1970.
    Hillsboro Lighthouse Preservation Society, Inc.
    Member: Florida Lighthouse Association, Inc.
    National & Florida Trust for Historic Preservation
    since 1978 to date.

    • Hib: I’d recommend that you start with our website, It’s got articles and links to a wide variety of information about scanning and digital preservation.

  6. Scanning and digitizing documents is just one step in the process of preservation. Having your documents stored somewhere in a digital format doesn´t mean a lot. Why? Look at the best example out there, the internet. It has an incredible amount of digital data, but what good is that to a user if you are not able to disclose it. If it is not properly indexed and made accessible in a meaningful way, the digital data remains just that, data. Only when we can add meaning to it, put it in a context, will it become information. And that is something we indeed should preserve.

  7. Thank you for this article. It will be very useful for our small member libraries and historical societies that often have to convince their Boards that digitization isn’t the end-all. The staff might say this until they are blue in the face, but if LC says it – in lay language, people sit up and listen.

  8. LOC’s efforts to explain digital preservation issues are greatly appreciated here, including the address to personal archiving.

    I particularly enjoyed Kristen’s guest post because she tackles a particular bugbear of mine and one that seems to be confusing folks in the UK too, including some archivists. Our summary ‘take’ on this issue is in our FAQ for archivists at: (see Question 7).

    Regards to friends and colleagues across the pond.

    • Malcolm: Thanks for your comment. We suspected that the issue extended beyond our borders!

  9. Long term preservation of digitized objects requires more than lots of copies remotely placed. It starts with the formats used to store the digital, the metadata that is created, and the ability to link the metadata with the digital materials. Scanning or digitally photographing objects is the start of the journey. Just like sitting down in front of a blank page with a pen.

    The Egyptian, Aztec, and Sumerian use of stone preserved their thoughts. Just like digital formats will preserve ours. The selection of standard formats and long term translation capability will result in preservation.

  10. Kristin,

    Great article. From the comments, these are issues that need to be addressed, and you are getting people to think about them past what we are currently doing. Good job. I am very impressed.

  11. When I was in library school, way back in 2000-2001, my preservation professor taught us that digital preservatoin was an oxymoron. She suggested that it wasn’t about preservation per se, but about the digital rescue with migration of data, emulation, creating surrogates, etc. In a matter of years, this debate seems to have calmed down or maybe the concept has been accepted by the majority. But everytime I hear the words digital preservtion I have flashbacks to these lessons. It truly is an exciting time to be a librarian!

    • Janet: Thanks for the link!

  12. its a good thing you have thrown light on such an important issue. i like the photos. cat and dog as friends lol

  13. Thank you very for the informative topics..timing for my workshop on Records Management.

    More power! and keep it up!!

  14. sir I’m from Pakistan ,, I am a student at MLIS 3rd semester ,, I’ve a presentation on the topic ,,but I can’t get it really ,,bcz we are little poor in English ,, can anybody of you give an example that how the digitization is different from the digital preservation??? actually my presentation’s topic is ,the process of archiving digital information. I’ll be happy and thankful to you ,,if I get the correct answer.

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