This post is part of a continuing series of alphabetically titled digital preservation topics.
A few months ago, I met a special collections librarian at a conference. I asked if her library was receiving digital materials in their acquisitions. She said, “Yes, but we are not doing anything with them at this time.” I suggested that she begin to follow the work of several efforts in the area of digital preservation forensics. If preservation of these collections is a goal and the collections are appraised and accessioned, then some considerable work will need to be done to make them useful for the long-term.
This highlights a digital preservation challenge particular to manuscript or other special collections. If the author, scientist, public official, artist, or academic is notable and of interest for special collections, there is the increasing likelihood that these “papers” collections will be a mixture of digital and paper. If the appraisal of these collections does not include some inventory of the hardware and software used by the donor to create the documents, then there will be a very intensive investigative task to process the files and materials and make them useful into the future.
Think about receiving a box of cryptically labeled floppy disks. Where do you begin? Will you have a device that can read them? Will you be able to understand the data on them? Should you copy them to another media? Should you migrate the files to a newer format? Take heart there is good experience to learn from.
Forensic preservation requires specific expert knowledge and tools to analyze digital media and files. There is a growing body of expertise being developed in this area. An extensive discussion of this emerging preservation strategy can be found in Digital Forensics and Born-Digital Content in Cultural Heritage Collections. This practice borrows tools and approaches from law enforcement and computer science. It facilitates the analysis of files and media for format, provenance and authenticity. The information derived from the analysis can then be used to migrate or transform the information for future re-use. It can be used to document the history of the data creation and changes.
Analytic tools are also being developed and deployed. My colleague, Leslie Johnston, wrote a blog post earlier this year that provides extensive links to tools and projects. It is worth reading and following the links.
Many of us enjoy detective fiction and watch crime scene television shows. Are we ready to become thoughtful investigators of the digital materials that will be the evidence of this time in history?