Technical, Organizational, and Cultural Considerations for Digital Preservation

Margot Note

Margot Note

March 28, 2022

The digital preservation problems archivists and records managers face are threefold: technical, organizational, and cultural.

Technical

The principal technical problems are technological obsolescence and media stability. Currently, typical media may be good for up to twenty years, with some optical media manufacturers claiming much longer stability; these factors also depend on external factors, such as the environment. Archivists should use high-quality, name-brand, well-tested media for long-term retention. Even with the best of care, some media (CDs, for example) are prone to failure after a period, and all media will eventually need to be replaced. The adage of “one and done” does not apply here.

Technological obsolescence is the greater issue because even stable media need hardware and software to be usable, and both hardware and software change rapidly, placing an organization on a perpetual technology treadmill to maintain usability over the years. In addition, newer technologies with higher storage densities and quicker retrieval times replace optical systems long before the optical media fail. The technologies issue also includes the explosion of data formats. A final aspect of the technology is the need to retain the documentation necessary to understand the technologies. Documentation is often maintained separately and can be lost as systems are moved offline.

Organizational

Two major areas of organizational problems are preservation planning and commitment to preservation. Many institutions do not plan for the long-term retention of records from systems owners and IT staff. Planning and budgeting for long-term retention is hard because the costs are down the road, often after many managers are either retired or have moved on. In addition, funding for long-term retention and preservation is usually removed from budgets because current needs take priority over future ones. Frankly, many decision-makers see the future as somebody else’s problem.

The related issue is long-term organizational commitment. Many organizations get into electronic recordkeeping for its short-term advantages, such as improved access, retrievability, reuse, and repurposing. However, most of these real benefits are on the information management side of the ledger, e.g., for facilitation of transactions or for use as evidence of transactions, rather than as evidence for longer-term legal, financial, and rights and obligations purposes. Once the active life benefits are exhausted, the idea of maintaining the records in usable form becomes an expense that is eliminated by putting the records into long-term storage without thinking of the infrastructure (e.g., hardware and software) that will be needed to access them later. In some cases, the electronic records are abandoned when a project is over, or the unit is reorganized.

Cultural

The most straightforward answer to the technological and organizational problems described above would be to manage the electronic records in the first place, breaking them into series to separate the ones that would need long-term retention from the ones that would be disposable and then making cost/benefit decisions about the formats for long-term retention. The major cultural block to this is the inability to see beyond the current needs to a time when the organization will not need all of the information in electronic form. The second cultural block is the unwillingness of individuals and organizations to face up to their responsibilities for the long-term maintenance of records. With paper-based collections, long-term care was a low or no-cost issue for management. Archivists and records managers handled it, and the problem went away from management’s perspective. Now the problem is recurring and cross-organizational, requiring at least periodic if not constant attention. Unfortunately, many organizations are unprepared for this shift in responsibilities.

The Path to Preservation

In the coming years, the information management field hopes that digital preservation will be simplified as archival materials are migrated to an ever-narrowing range of formats. Until then, archivists, records managers, and other allied professionals must contend with the technical, organizational, and cultural roadblocks that impede the path to preservation. 

Margot Note

Margot Note

Margot Note, archivist, consultant, and Lucidea Press author is a regular blogger, and popular webinar presenter for Lucidea, provider of ArchivEra, archival collections management software for today’s challenges and tomorrow’s opportunities. Read more of Margot’s posts here.

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