Digital preservation is in its infancy but, long story short, dont count on sharing your digital Kodak moments with your great grandchildren. Unlike physical objects that can be held, touched and cherished, digital objects need machines to create, store, retrieve and view them. If the machines go, so goes the information. I had a first-hand reminder of just how ephemeral most of my post-2000 records were. My new Stargate hard drive died due to inherent vice and I was left with: nothing.
To the uninitiated, this might seem like a blessing from heaven. All of those nagging, undone, file management/computer housekeeping issues one has been meaning to deal with are, well, dealt with. Tabula rasa Nirvana! Microsoft recently did an extensive survey, asking people how important it was for them to keep their digital information. The result was an unexpected and resounding Not at All! The overwhelming majority of participants said they would welcome losing the contents of their hard drive they compared it to a cleansing house fire that would free them from their burdensome files.
Attractive as that scenario may sound, I can personally vouch for the fact that the brutal reality is otherwise. Accounts receivable, babys first smile, e-mails from dearly departed, important income tax information, and Grammas audio family history all gone in the poof of a microchip.
Fortunately, most of my information was retrievable (at a cost) and I now have a back-up hard drive. Every evening a clever little software program copies my new files to the back-up drive. If I had really learnt my lesson, I would have had a second software program copy my files to an off-site location (cloud storage). Ever one for locking the barn door after the horse has escaped, I am sure I will start doing this after the big one hits.
But back-up is just part of the story. Every software upgrade, every new operating system, every hardware innovation, will render your files just that more obsolete. Unless you view and refresh all of your files in the new systems, the visual look or audio sound may change, and information packets are at risk of loss. Even if you migrate and transfer religiously (and who does?) there is nothing to prevent proprietary software systems from closing shop, or from simply ceasing to support older file versions. After all, if we dont care about saving our information, (and research shows we dont) why should a for-profit company spend good money helping us do so?
Well-heeled corporations and publicly funded institutions with IT departments and/or digital conservators are in a slightly better position than the private file manager. As early as 1996 in the U.S., the Commission on Preservation and Access and the Research Libraries Group created a Task Force on Digital Archiving, which led to the publication of two reports: Building a National Strategy for Digital Preservation issues in Digital Media Archiving (2002) and Preserving our Digital Heritage: The National Digital Information Infrastructure and Preservation Program (2010).
Recommendations coming out of these studies include:
- sustainable, open source, digital file formats with universal/standardized descriptive metadata (to allow searchability and retrieval)
- identifying and organizing the items that are important to preserve (and winnowing or allowing the natural death of the remainder)
- multiple backups of important items stored in multiple locations
- regular migration/transfer to new formats and media
For more information on digital preservation visit www.digitalpreservation.gov/ or contact one of Canadas Pioneer Digital Conservators, Sue Bigelow at the City of Vancouver Archives.
Previously: Organizing and Preserving Collections - Part 3: Photo-based material
Next issue: To Line or Not to Line: structural remedies for canvas paintings by new contributor Nadine Power, a fine art conservator specializing in Painting Conservation