Museum Digital File Preservation: File Access

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

October 12, 2022

Last week we discussed museum digital file preservation and how to help safeguard digital file integrity. As digital preservation is an area often overlooked in museum digital program work, these posts are intended to provide introductory information and resources. 

As discussed in Myth #4: Digital = Permanent in the series 5 Digitization Myths to Delete Forever (via Lucidea’s Think Clearly Blog), I explain that digital preservation is about two things: 

  1. Digital file integrity; and 
  2. Digital file access.

In this second post, we’ll discuss digital file access and how the museum can help to ensure future access to important museum digital files.

Digital File Access

Digital preservation is also about maintaining the ability to access a file. One can lose access to a digital file in the following scenarios:

  • If it was created in an obsolete file type that can only be opened by an obsolete software program.
  • If it’s located on a damaged or obsolete device such as a zip disc, USB, external drive, cd, etc.

In order to mitigate the risk of file format (software) or device obsolesce, we need to be cognizant of: 

  1. How fast (or not) technology is changing; 
  2. When file formats in our collections should be updated; and 
  3. What the average lifespans are for the storage devices in use. 

Digital File Migration

The good news is that digital file types and software are actively elongating their lifespans. It’s now less of a concern to monitor file types as many are lasting a decade—if not decades. With that in mind, file type migration should be considered the moment you stop using a particular program; e.g.: Word, Excel, Adobe Acrobat, etc. Digital file standards and preservation are evolving rapidly, so anticipated file types for migration are impossible to predict. The good news is that it’s getting easier to navigate file type obsoletion because there are other tools and strategies to still access the same file content.

Digital Storage Device Maintenance

Digital storage device maintenance is two-fold as we attempt to protect against device malfunction and obsolescence. Similar to file obsolescence, device obsolescence will be more obvious to detect as you will no longer be using the computer, external drive, USB, etc. So, the main work is to help ensure digital file preservation from insidious and typically silent equipment malfunctions. To proactively protect yourself in this area it’s recommended to adopt a regular file backup and device replacement schedule.

Establishing a Digital Backup

If digital files are stored on a computer hard-drive or an external hard-drive, plan to run a backup to a secondary device (or cloud service) at an established cadence. The timing of backups should be throttled based upon digital file creation and/or acquisition. For example, if extensive digitization is happening and the files are stored to a hard-drive (computer or external), then a nightly backup would be prudent so as not to lose too much work should the worst happen. However, if file acquisition or creation is only a few files a day, then a monthly or even quarterly backup can be considered.

Invest in Equipment and Plan for Replacement

When relying on equipment like a computer or external hard-drive, make sure to plan for regular equipment replacement. For example, external-drives can last reliably for 2-years, but 5-years is a stretch. Computers tend to last longer, an average of 4 to 5 years depending on the brand. Regular replacement and investment into high-quality and reliable equipment are also an investment in digital preservation.


With the basics of maintaining digital file integrity and access in place, you can rest a little easier knowing you’ve helped to protect and preserve museum digital files.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Woody advises on museum strategies, digital museums, collections management, and grant writing for a wide variety of clients. In addition to authoring several titles published by Lucidea Press, she is a regular contributor to the Think Clearly blog and an always popular presenter.

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