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Describing Digital Preservation: As Easy as a Walk in the Park

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The following is a guest post by Erin Engle, Digital Archivist, NDIIPP.

When my family and friends ask what I do at the Library of Congress, I invariably get questioning looks when I use the phrase “digital preservation.”   The looks turn even more quizzical when I talk about my work managing a project focusing on the  preservation of geospatial information.  It’s a double whammy of confusion that often leads to “oh that sounds very interesting” when the person means “I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

Elevator speed, by iursu, on Flickr
Elevator speed, by iursu, on Flickr

Digital preservation is such an abstract topic that it’s hard to describe with a proverbial 30 second elevator speech. I talk about how we as a society – institutions and individuals alike – are creating more and more digital content (photos, videos, electronic documents) with the latest software and hardware technologies (computers, smart phones, apps).

I mention that we may want to save some of this content, maybe not all of it, for posterity because what we create today represents our cultural digital heritage.  I go into the technological and social challenges associated with providing access to the content in 50 or 100 years.  “That’s where digital preservation comes into the picture,” I declare earnestly.  “It’s the series of actions to archive, or preserve, digital materials to ensure they are accessible in the future.”

For those looking for a more structured description, many institutions and organizations define digital preservation in similar or slightly different terms. At NDIIPP, we say digital preservation is the active management of digital content to ensure long-term access over a period of time (we even produced a nice 3 minute video about it).  The American Library Association’s short definition states that “Digital preservation combines policies, strategies and actions that ensure access to digital content over time.”  The Digital Preservation Coalition’s handbook notes that “Digital preservation refers to the series of managed activities necessary to ensure continued access to digital materials for as long as necessary.”

But describing what digital preservation is doesn’t describe my job.  Because what’s left out of talking about the “it” is the social side of preserving digital materials.  And this is where roles and responsibilities for the “active management of digital content” come into the picture.

central park 01, by dalem, on Flickr
central park 01, by dalem, on Flickr

NDIIPP has always said that no one institution alone can preserve our nation’s cultural digital heritage; it requires a network of collaborative, committed partners to create a national digital collection. It’s the same for the professionals working in the field.  Various people with expertise in different domains within organizations and partnering institutions are needed to decide what digital content should be archived, to work with subject matter experts on archiving digital content, to build the technical infrastructures to support the transfer, workflow and storage for large amounts of data, to design and create interfaces or software for users to access the data, and to foster collaborative relationships for the stewardship of digital content.

A large institution must rely on more than one person to perform these responsibilities. (There certainly is no one “digital preservation” librarian or archivist here at the Library).  The action and tasks of preserving digital content requires collaborative teams, who are able to function within their respective individual roles while understanding the roles and responsibilities of each other.

In my position, I deal with the social side of digital preservation. I work with the brilliant people who perform the tasks of archiving content, the data managers who ensure multiple backup copies are made and secured, and the NDIIPP partners who are working directly within their content communities on archiving and preservation challenges.  Much of what I do on a daily basis deals with promoting the relationships among these various experts and teams within the Library and within our NDIIPP partnership network.  I also perform outreach activities to raise awareness of the benefits of personal digital archiving, help develop programs about digital preservation for various audiences, and think about innovative ways to enhance our social media and web communication strategies.  My work aims to make it a little easier for everyone to understand the importance of preserving digital content.

Call me a dreamer, but one day I hope it will be as easy to  describe digital preservation as it is to take a walk in the park!

Comments (6)

  1. This is a great post. As an advocate, student, and lover of all things digital preservation, I also find myself having a hard time summing up exactly what the “it” behind digital preservation is.

    I wonder too how this this kind of terminology will change over time. For example, when archives were popping up in the late 1800’s, I doubt very much they tossed around the phrase, “analog preservation”. Insofar as the digital realm is an evolution of the analog, I wonder at what point it will simply be “preservation”?

    Whenever that day may come, an excellent post, thank you.

  2. I’ve always found it easiest to use analog analogies. Most people understand (sometimes a bit too well) that libraries take care of books. I tell people that I take care of digital materials (and I give a few “such as” examples) the same way libraries have always taken care of books.

    It works. It’s sloppy, as most analogies are, but it works.

  3. Thanks for your comments! Analogies are great ways to connect with your specific audience to get to them to the point of, “OH I get it.” And using appropriate terms or phrases for different audiences, I’ve found, is just as important in conversations about digital archiving or preservation.

    One way I try to connect with my audiences is to say that regardless of the format (books or hard drives), at the end of the day, there is still a preservation need to care for that specific material. How one does that differs for analog and digital materials, but I’ve found it helps to get people on the same page to begin to explain some of the challenges.

  4. Great post Erin. I have been working with the blank stares from family too. I tend to find that it works best to tell comparative stories.

    My go to examples are the following.

    1. the many volumes in the complete correspondence of Thomas Jefferson compared to the 6 million emails churned out in each year of the Clinton Whitehouse.

    2. Things like the journals of any historical literary figure juxtaposed with Rushdie’s hard drive at the Ransom Center.

    So far, those kinds of juxtapositions between historical corollaries have seemed to work the best for me.

  5. Great post!
    Sometimes a “scare tactic” works in our organization. Such as “Remember that great video from 1975… well the recorder it plays on is obsolete.” After the gasps, following up with, “We are working to ensure that you and all future generations will be able to benefit from our organization’s digital heritage by putting everything in digital form and making sure it stays in a viable format.” That gives reassurance and people more often than not profusely thank our team!

  6. Thanks for the post, and the comments as well!

    I am part of a European Project for Weblog Digital Preservation and, as part of the non-academic side of this project, I am still trying to understand more completely the actual processes behind the repository we are developing. My company is involved more from the side of our connection to bloggers – so the semantics and ontologies, and data modeling are all new for me. I found that I needed quite a number of analogies to make it understandable for myself. 🙂 So, thank you for contributing to this. I read this blog regularly.

    If you would like to take a look and/or comment on our project, please do. I agree that digital preservation requires a large group of individuals and institutions – also spanning the continents.

    Thanks a lot!


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