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Is There Such A Thing as Digital Preservation?

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I am frequently asked about the difference between “traditional” preservation and digital preservation. My honest answer is that there are very few distinguishable differences.

Book Conservation Hammers, Some rights reserved by Northeast Document Conservation Center on <a href="
Book Conservation Hammers, by Northeast Document Conservation Center on Flickr.

Preservation activities are never traditional – there is constant innovation in preservation techniques. Digital preservation is in many ways still developing its tools and techniques, but physical preservation is also evolving.

All preservation activities are about actions and documentation of actions taken on collections.

Material science plays a huge role in preservation.  I was once in a meeting with representatives of a preservation initiative where I heard the following declaration:  “There is no such thing as digital preservation, only the preservation of digital media.”  My (very brief) initial response was one of great surprise, followed by immediate recognition that, of course, my surprise was wrongheaded.  Research into the qualities of physical materials, be they paper or magnetic storage media, is vital for preservation. New treatments and actions are being developed, and understanding of the archival nature of all media types is always being expanded.

People often say that born-digital collections are more at-risk than physical collections when planning for preservation needs.  It certainly can often be the case that there is only one instance of a born-digital file on a single piece of media, and the fragility of the media may mean there is only one chance to read the media and copy the file into a managed environment.  But is it certainly also the case that there are countless physical items in library, archives and museum collections where handling for research use could damage an item beyond recovery, and there is only one shot at preservation. And disasters can strike just as suddenly for any type of collection.

All collections need ongoing management and assessment. All collections require inventorying. Digital is no different.

I also hear that the skill sets are different. This is in part true. There is additional expertise in file formats, familiarity with potential risks in storage infrastructures, forensic analysis of files and auditing of storage and the use of tools to migrate files (and file formats) as appropriate that is needed.  But, at the core, the skill set is one of being able to identify risks, analyze collections for risks, make decisions about needed preservation actions and take them. There is some specialization in the handling of digital media and files, but that level of specialization in preservation is not uncommon.

I often say that there is no such thing as a “digital library”  — it’s just the library.  Now I am wondering if I should also be saying that there is no such thing as “digital preservation” — it’s all just preservation.

Comments (6)

  1. Thought-provoking comments, Leslie, as always. I’ll add that I long for the day that I get to be “archivist” in title rather than a “digital archivist” or “systems archivist” or any of the other myriad variations on the title.
    ~ Courtney, an archivist who helps preserve and provide access to digital media things but thinks a lot about all the other stuff, too

  2. A very interesting post. I would agree to the “preservation of digital media” stuff, but I have no problem with the title “digital archivist”, as I know next to nothing about the preservation of analogue media at all. Aren’t the special challenges in the two absolutely different?
    Yvonne (responsible for Digital Preservation only)

  3. There are definitely special challenges, Yvonne, in the preservation of digital materials, just as there would be if you were a paper specialist or an A/V specialist. It’s the concept that digital preservation is completely different from “traditional” preservation that I felt the need to comment upon. And I also have come to dislike referring to some aspect of the profession as traditional when it really is a single continuum of practice.

  4. I am currently researching digital preservation in preparation for an educational program to be presented next summer at the American Association of Law Libraries. Based on a survey done by LIPA, (the Legal Information Preservation Alliance) our members are wanting educational programming on current issues, case studies, establishing and managing repositories, “how to” to conduct digitization and preservation projects. Where does one begin? The final paragraphs of this article give me some hope that parameters can be defined. Research I have done on digital preservation has presented an overwhelming array of information. How to begin learning?

  5. It’s really interesting, this tension/polarity between analog and digital preservation. On the one hand, they share much in terms of principles, goals, ethics and spirit. Yet on the other hand, the skills and methods of practice are quite different. That seems to get in the way of closer involvement. I have observed and contemplated this subtle tension for some time.

  6. “All collections need ongoing management and assessment. All collections require inventorying. Digital is no different.”

    If we look at the overall historical amount of material that needs to be archived and managed, it grows exponentially. During the times of the early Romans, Greeks and Babylonians, there were some artifacts that survived into the 20th and 21st centuries. There are a much larger number of World War 2 artifacts. And now in the 21st Century, we are generating a huge number of artifacts for physical and digital – such as artwork, music, technology, literature, and much more.

    We are now at a time when we cannot archive everything. What do we archive? Who determines the importance of what is archived? Who pays for the archive management? I would think that the person paying the money makes the decisions. But what if it is tax money paying for it and government agents making the decisions? This means that the people making the decisions are not those who are directly paying for the archiving. Is this a good thing?

    Michael Homestead
    Impact Windows and Doors Miami

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