What is Digital Preservation?
Paper records can remain accessible and readable for hundreds of years, provided they are appropriately housed, but to ensure the same longevity of digital records there are active steps which need to be taken.
Digital preservation is the active management of digital content over time to ensure ongoing access
What are the risks to digital content?
Is there software available to open the records? Software is constantly changing. It either replaces previous versions, like Microsoft Word, or falls out of use, like WordStar. If you don’t have the right version of the software that created the record, or a tool that can open records of that type, or version, the records cannot be opened or read.
Is there hardware available that will accept different physical media? Storage media, like software, is prone to trends in usage. Floppy disks are now considered out of date with very few devices available that can read them. CDs are similarly beginning to fade from use in favour of flash and cloud storage. If records have been saved on media that is becoming obsolete it is important to transfer them to more stable storage before it becomes difficult, expensive or impossible to do so.
Has the physical media deteriorated? If objects like CDs and floppy disks have not been looked after it’s likely that they will have become damaged over time. Such damage could be caused by scratches, contact with water or corrosive elements, contact with magnets (if the media is magnetic), or excessive temperatures. If the media is damaged it is likely that the records saved on them will either be damaged or inaccessible.
Have the records remained the same as they were when the Archive received them? Digital records are vulnerable to corruption, whether that’s through accidental or malicious editing or deleting, viruses, damage to the media the records are saved on or even from actions as simple as moving records from one location to the next. If a record has become corrupted it is no longer authentic, and therefore not trustworthy.
Do we know where all our 'digital stuff' is? It would not be unreasonable to suggest that someone could have in their possession two or more computers (either desktop or laptop or both), a tablet, a smartphone, a digital camera, social media accounts (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram or more), some external media like flash drives or SD cards and possibly cloud storage accounts like iCloud or Dropbox. As a result of this digital content starts to scatter and over the years as we accumulate more of these physical and virtual devices, replacing older ones, we forget where all our ‘digital stuff’ is…that’s when it’s at risk of loss, corruption, accidental deletion or alteration.
What does this mean for people creating digital content?
It is considered good practice, and in some cases a legal requirement, to manage digital records appropriately:
- For members of university staff Our Records Management department has published guidance on why and how you can look after your records prior to, and if, they are to be transferred to the Archive for long term preservation.
- For external donors of digital material There is a wealth of guidance online covering personal digital archiving. The Library of Congress has an excellent resource on the subject, covering looking after digital photos, audio, video, documents, websites, email and social media, which would be a good place to start if you are considering donating your archive to an institution. A video, from the University of Albany, on Low-cost ways to preserve family archives is also worth watching.
For more information please contact the Digital Archivist at the Centre for Research Collections, firstname.lastname@example.org