and Preserving Collections IV
Part 4: Digital-Based Material
Digital preservation is in its infancy but, long story short, don’t 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, baby’s first smile, e-mails from dearly departed, important income tax information, and
Gramma’s 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 don’t care about saving our
information, (and research shows we don’t) 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 Canada’s Pioneer
Digital Conservators, Sue Bigelow at the City of Vancouver Archives.
by Rebecca Pavitt -