Shifting Concepts of Preservation in a Digital World

Margot Note

Margot Note

November 26, 2018

As our understanding of digital preservation, curation, and stewardship matures, archivists and other information professionals have begun to question some of our assumptions about preservation. To address current needs, the practices we have developed and taken for granted for decades are transforming in the digital environment.

In this new era, we are creating principles that apply to digitized and born-digital materials, while continuing to acquire, store, and provide access to physical records of enduring value.

New Paradigms

The volume, variety, and velocity of the digital revolution, along with its technical challenges, add additional complexity to archival practice. Digital preservation has transformed the procedures of archivists and information professionals. Many preservation methods we have used with physical materials no longer translate into the methodology of preserving digital resources—requiring us to create new ways of thinking about saving history.

No Going Back

For example, preservation practice traditionally dictated that treatments should be reversible whenever possible. A handwritten letter is encapsulated in an archival-quality plastic enclosure, from which it could be easily removed. We would not laminate the letter (as was sometimes done in the past) because the process was irreversible and, over the long term, damaging.

In our contemporary times working with digital materials, we sometimes must make changes that are irreversible. We migrate digital files to new formats when the older formats are unusable; we emulate computer programs when the equipment and software are no longer available. These transformations make information accessible in a new format, hopefully without constraining its original functionality. There is no going back because there’s nothing to return to.

Originals and Copies

Our concept of originals has also changed. For physical materials, the originals should almost always be preserved. We traditionally only reformatted items that were untreatable as a last option. For example, microfilming and photocopying were used for reformatting to improve ease of access and to decrease storage space.

For digital materials, the information content is what is important, not necessarily the carrier, like a floppy disc. Copying as a strategy for preservation is nothing new, yet the complexity of copying digital objects presents fresh challenges. While microfilm exchanges paper for film, multifaceted digital files require careful migration and emulation practices.

Neglect No More

Benign neglect, the idea that noninterference would benefit collections more than continual attention would, has also been reevaluated. As archivists, we’ve all examined closets filled with boxes of paper files that haven’t been touched in decades. For the most part, physical materials do not deteriorate rapidly if ignored, thus buying time before preservation attention is needed.

Digital objects, in contrast, face file formats that become obsolete, are stored on media that deteriorates, and rely on hardware and software that may no longer be available. Benign neglect has never been an option for digital materials. Digital information has to be actively managed over time, starting from the moment of creation.

Evergreen Principles

Despite the differences in preservation for analog and digital materials, some perennial practices still are applicable, no matter what the object. For instance, appraisal of collections will continue to be necessary, due to limited resources. Determining the best materials of enduring value also allows for high-quality collections. All materials have what is known as inherent vice, the tendency to decay. To understand preservation, we must understand the structure of the materials—whether they are made of cellulose fibers or bits and bytes. As always, archivists will also continue to address information at the collection level, rather than as individual objects.

Preservation Now

More importantly, analog or digital preservation always considers the needs of patrons, since collections are preserved to be used. Taking preservation action now, rather than later—especially for digital materials—helps ensure the survival of research materials for our users. By identifying, preserving, and providing access to documentary heritage regardless of format, we sustain cultural heritage for the next generation.

Margot Note

Margot Note

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