Myth #4: Digital = Permanent

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

May 18, 2022

Most of us are so comfortable with the immersion of seamless technology in our lives that it’s easy to forget how quickly something digital can be lost. 

Consider the “Gold CD”, the archival-quality CD that is stated to last for 100 years! Those CDs may last for 100 years. But, how are we going to access what’s on the CD? Computers no longer come standard with a CD drive and the hardware to access information on CDs will become increasingly harder to find. And even if you have access to a CD drive in 2122, will you still be able to open the files in an appropriate software program? My point is, as much as we think we have technology figured out from a preservation and access perspective, we don’t.

We Can’t Trust That Digital = Permanent: Files

Digital files were created by a computer program. The earlier the file was created, the more likely the program was proprietary and the harder it will be to access successfully. With this issue in mind, digital preservation best practices have urged us to use non-proprietary file types so that the chances of accessing them at a later date are improved. We hope that this will become less of an issue, especially when we consider the PDF as a case study. In order to support mass adoption, Adobe (the proprietor) published its code so that developers can build tools to access and present PDF files. As a result, not only is PDF the de-facto file type to use for digital file preservation, we’re also much more confident in its use because we have the tools available to access it. 

We Can’t Trust That Digital = Permanent: Devices

In just the last 60-years, we’ve developed so many different mediums to capture and convey text, images, audio, and audio-visual information. Each medium developed was proprietary, and typically required its own playing (access) device. Just twenty years ago digital files were routinely saved to physical mediums such as USB-sticks, CDs, DVDs, and zip discs so that information could be transferred from one computer to another. These mediums and the devices they require to be accessed have a lifespan, and it’s much shorter than any of us thought.

Paper Beats Tech

When considering the various data recording mediums we’ve invented, paper is by far the superior product. Paper beats any current technology (within present-day context) because:

  • It has demonstrated centuries of staying power as a tool that remains in popular use;
  • It doesn’t require a special device for access; and 
  • As an organic-based medium, it can last for centuries (or longer) as long as there’s little inherent vice and the storage conditions aren’t actively destroying it. 

Recommendation: Margot Note has recently published Digital Preservation Without Tears, the archivist’s guide to digital preservation. Download your free e-copy here.

The Future is Unproven, But Promising

There is much to be careful about regarding digital files, but there’s also reason for us to be optimistic. The rate at which technology is improving is exponential. Principles and best practices for digital file management that were once only common place in digital preservation circles are now becoming widely adopted. For example:

  1. Many of the data creation products we use are connected to cloud services (Google Drive, Microsoft Access, Dropbox, etc.) that facilitate file synching and versioning. Accidentally deleting files or writing over files is now less of an unresolvable crisis if we’re using one of these services.
  2. With these digital files in “the cloud,” we’ve also removed one of the challenges to digital preservation which is access to the actual medium. The Gold CD and CD Drive conundrum. 
  3. Another benefit to files being in “the cloud” is that they’re actually on several different severs across a minimum of three separate geographic locations—another digital preservation best practice being met. This means if a natural or man-made disaster occurs in one area, your data is still safe on two other servers.

Conclusion

The future is uncertain. When creating your digital preservation portion of your digital policies, make sure to consider the file types used, where and how files are saved, and how they may need to be accessed in the future. And just remember: nothing is permanent.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

If you’d like to learn more about this topic, register here for Rachael’s upcoming webinar, “5 Museum Digitization Myths to Delete Forever” on May 25, 2022. Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, digital museums, collections management, and grant writing for a wide variety of clients. In addition to several titles published by Lucidea Press, she is a regular contributor to the Think Clearly blog and an always popular presenter. And remember to check out Lucidea’s Argus solution for powerful and innovative museum collections management.

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