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A is for Archives: the ABCs of preserving digital information

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An abecedarian is one who is learning the fundamentals of something, as in the alphabet, or in this case, digital preservation. Today I am beginning a series that will explore the topic of digital preservation in an alphabetical way. Each post will use a word or phrase as a device to explore a concept and point to a what I hope is a useful resource for understanding a specific aspect of the practice of digital preservation.

Goudy's original drawing for a plate in The Alphabet. Prints and Photographs Division, The Library of Congress.

A is for Archives. Archives are a type of organization whose purpose is to maintain documents and other forms of information created in the course of an organization’s business.  Principles of archival practice are very useful when considering the long-term preservation of any type of digital information. Archives do not keep everything created by the organization but rather develop records retention policies about what is most important and how long it should be kept. Archives keep records that are determined to have enduring value.

With the volume of digital data doubling every year, selection and focus on the value of what needs to be saved is critical for all organizations. It is estimated that in 2011 1.8 zettabytes, or 1.8 trillion gigabytes, of digital data will be created. While is quite often stated casually that we should save everything because storage is cheap, most stewardship organizations are facing very constrained budgets and limited expertise.

A very good resource from the National Archives and Records Administration is a report from the NARA Toolkit for Managing Electronic Records. Libraries, archives, museums and other cultural heritage organizations pondering the value of collecting new forms of digital information will find a good framework for decisions in A Report on Federal Web 2.0 Use and Record Value. The report presents a study of six federal agencies, their use of social media and an assessment of the value of the media as records for retention. The types of value assessed were business, evidential, informational and contextual. In the case of web 2.0, contextual value refers to functionality, layout and metadata that add to the informational value.

As new forms of information emerge, it is challenging to grasp and articulate the need for preservation. This discussion of social media identifies characteristics that help determine the guidelines for selection for preservation. Government, academic, non-profit, and commercial archivists, librarians, and curators will find something to think about in this report.

The first step is to select the information—content, data, records, objects, resources—to be saved.

What do you think is the most important consideration in selecting digital information to be preserved?

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