Preserving Digital Archives: Choosing Which Digital Archives to Preserve

Margot Note

Margot Note

January 14, 2019

Appraisal and selection for digital artifacts are similar in the broadest sense to the appraisal and selection of physical archival collections. The framework that each institution uses to guide its selection process is influenced by the scope and subjects of the collecting agencies.

Technical Appraisal

The long-term preservation of digital material relies on the understanding of how file formats work. It requires access to appropriate software and hardware and the skills to use them. If these factors are unavailable in an archival institution, digital preservation will be unsuccessful. Therefore, technical appraisal that considers how digital files can be read, documented, processed, and preserved becomes instrumental.

Choosing Which Digital Archives to Preserve – Common Selection Criteria

The factors that help with choosing which digital archives to preserve depend on the discipline, but some general criteria apply. First, the content should have relevance to the mission of the archival repository. One hopes that this is a given, but it’s important to note that the materials should support the organization’s mission and strategy.

Historical values should be considered as well. Do the digital files have enduring value? Are they culturally or socially significant? Assessing value involves inferring anticipated future use based on current and educational values.

The reliability, integrity, and usability of the digital files need to be determined. Are the materials in preservation-friendly file formats? Are there limits to the materials (including intellectual property or privacy) that would make the files inaccessible for research?

Funding is an important factor to consider. Costs for managing and preserving the resource may be estimated, and are justifiable when assessed against evidence of potential future benefits. What is the likelihood that external funding can be secured to support the preservation of the materials?

Is the digital content unique? Consider the extent to which the resource is the only or most complete source of information that can be derived from it. Research whether it is at risk of loss if not accepted or may be preserved elsewhere.

Lastly, are the files fully documented? Do they contain information necessary to facilitate future discovery, access, and reuse? Is the information comprehensive and correct, including metadata on the materials’ provenance and the context of its creation and use?

Selecting Everything is Unwise

In an era when the production of digital files is frenetic, and storage costs are considered cheap, some advocate for keeping everything, arguing that it is impossible to know if the information will be of value in the future. They also contend that that costs of keeping all digital files are less than the costs of selection.

Trained as a records manager, and as one who sees the costs and risks of keeping it all, I argue differently. The rate of growth continues to expand, which causes backing up files for digital preservation to double the number of materials. There are limited resources available for managing and preserving these materials, including the costs of creating metadata. Additionally, search mechanisms for accessing large collections are inadequate. The discovery of information gets harder, as we lack adequate, accurate tools for precise searching. Selection also curates quality collections that have high research value.

Selection Requires Human Intervention

No matter how sophisticated our digital systems become, high levels of human input are required when choosing which digital archives to preserve. While some decisions could become automated in some time in the future, we still need to balance the benefits of saving some digital materials over others. One thing is for sure: a discipline-specific selection framework and the experience of professionals guides the appraisal of digital archival materials. Archivists continue to rise to the challenges of selection to maintain digital artifacts in a changing technological landscape.

Margot Note

Margot Note

Margot Note is an archivist and records manager who helps individuals and organizations harness their history. She writes for Lucidea, whose digital archiving solutions help archivists offer public portal access and enable them to provide documentation and in-context multimedia views into collections. See also more of Margot’s recommendations for digital archives.

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