The Challenges of Digital Preservation

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What Does a Digital Preservation Specialist Do?

Digital preservation is a complex business. Even when heritage organizations have a digital preservation policy and know what they need to save, there are many technical and practical barriers to implementation.

Storage selection and management is a key factor, as are institutional security and privacy policies. Other challenges include funding and staffing.

Preserving Digital Content

Digital preservation is the series of managed activities required to keep digital content alive, discoverable, accessible and usable. This might involve creating high-quality digital surrogates of analog materials that have been digitized, or preserving born-digital collections such as institutional archives, websites, electronic audio and video content, born-digital art and photography and research data sets. Digital preservation requires constant attention to the rapid pace of technological change and to the development of cost-effective best practices and business models.

Various technologies are used to store digital content, but even a well-maintained hard drive may only last a few years before becoming unusable due to mechanical failure or media obsolescence. Digital preservation specialists must also be aware of organizational and policy challenges that might affect their ability to protect and preserve content.

Many interviewees reported the need to balance storage selection and management with budget constraints. Interviewees also identified the need for digital preservation to be integrated into broader GLAM (galleries, libraries, archives and museums) business systems.

Preserving Data

When preserving digital data, the archivist must make sure that the content stays functional. This requires planning, policies, resources (time, funds and people) as well as the right technology to keep information functional over the long term.

It is also important to determine what resources are worth preserving. Organizing them in a way that is human-readable and avoids special characters is key, as is backing up the data. Choosing a trustworthy research data repository to deposit the data in is essential.

Several interviewees noted that storage selection and management is one of the most difficult aspects of their jobs. The need to compare systems based on cost, features and institutional security are challenges that they face regularly. In addition, many rely on the expertise of their service providers to implement and manage systems that they may not be familiar with. The need to understand how a preservation system fits within the overall technological framework and staffing configurations at an institution is also an issue.

Preserving Electronic Documents

As file formats change rapidly, a digital preservation specialist must be able to migrate files to newer applications at scale. This can be done through emulation, replication or refreshing and attaching metadata to copies of the original files.

Another crucial task is ensuring that original documents can be reconstructed. This is accomplished through the use of fixity markers which are created as part of the ingest process. These can be used to verify the integrity of a file and to alert staff if an issue arises.

A number of preservation specialists interviewed pointed out the need to focus more attention on preserving born digital information, as opposed to archiving already digitized content or materials. They also expressed concern that heritage organizations are focusing too much on implementing digital preservation curation systems and not enough on planning for the long term storage of large and complex digital assets, software and data. Storage selection and management are complex issues with many factors to consider including cost, institutional security policies and the availability of appropriate resources for ongoing preservation curation.

Preserving Images

Preserving digital photos is a huge concern for many people and requires an understanding of the underlying structures. Creating an organized, accessible structure can help to prevent the loss of important files. It is a good idea to organize photos in small groups by size, type and subject matter. This will make it easier for future generations to find and access the files. Also, it is a good idea to give each file descriptive file names.

Photographs should be kept in a dry* (30-50% relative humidity) cool** (70degF or below), stable environment. They should be stored away from natural and artificial light. Framing can help to limit light exposure. It is best to use UV-filtered glazing for frames and to use archival mount boards for the backing. It is best to avoid the use of spray adhesives and sticky tapes when mounting photographs. They degrade over time and leave behind tacky residues that are difficult to remove.

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