The importance of digital preservation

on Friday, 20 August 2021. Posted in Archives, History Centre

As an archive service, preservation is at the heart of what we do; together with collecting records and making them accessible, it forms the holy trinity of archival functions. Record keepers and archivists have been preserving records for centuries and if we were to examine boxes at random in our strongrooms, we would no doubt come across records on centuries old paper, parchment or vellum. Many of these records are still in perfect condition and will continue to be so in perpetuity as they are housed in climate-controlled conditions.

However, it is now widely accepted that paper records are created less and less these days, with many offices proudly proclaiming to be ‘paper free’. Yet the information and data must still be recorded, must still be collected, and most importantly must still be preserved. Herein lies the problem, the media on which digital records are stored are not nearly as stable as traditional record formats. For example, a hardback financial ledger stored in the correct conditions could last for centuries, whereas a thumb drive containing the same information may not last for a decade before it becomes corrupted. Not only this, with advances in technology comes the issue of obsolescence. For example, CDs were the ‘go to’ audio format as 15 years ago, though now how many of us even own a CD player? That’s before we even consider cassettes, audio reels, Betamax and cinefilm. All of these require specialist equipment to work with the content. Audio-visual material in these formats often gets donated to archives and we have plenty here at Wiltshire & Swindon History Centre and it is our responsibility to make them as accessible as possible. While this is sometimes impossible, we will always strive our best and explore all possible options. However, collecting the specialist equipment would not be the best course of action. When possible, it is best to have them digitised, as it is considerably easier to use a digital file, though this still does not solve the problem. We must now consider the concept of ‘bit rot’; that is, when the quality of a digital file diminishes over time and through overuse.

With so much to consider (the above barely scratches the surface), it is of little surprise that the discipline of digital preservation was born. It was clear that digital preservation practitioners would be required to monitor changes in technology and the affects this would have on the long-term preservation of digital material. The nature of their work, ensuring records survive in perpetuity, is inextricably linked to the work of archivists and it is of little surprise that many archivists now train in digital preservation.

While the majority of the records we receive here at WSHC arrive in paper format, we as archivists now need to be aware of this new discipline, as digital accessions are becoming more frequent. Indeed, some organisations now employ digital archivists, whose remit is solely focused on digital records and digital preservation.

While we do not have a specialist digital archivist, our archivist team is working together on implementing a digital preservation programme, which requires extensive amounts of work before it can even begin. For example, in order to get an idea on the scale of the project we have been working on a Digital Asset Register, which will help us understand how much digital material we hold, where it is all stored and in the formats in which the material is currently stored. From this we will be able to ascertain which material is at highest risk of loss, but also which material can be immediately worked on, i.e. do we have the facilities to digitise it in house.

The next stage will be to import all digital material into a digital preservation system, in this instance we will be using Preservica. It’s a great bit of kit once it’s up and running and when our digital assets are ‘ingested’ into it, we can configure it to manage them and ensure that their long-term preservation is ensured. This is done in a myriad of ways, but one example is that it creates high, archival quality digital files as a master copy, and from these access copies (of a lower quality) can be made, shared or disseminated. It can also migrate from dated file formats to contemporary, archive friendly formats and this can be done on a recurring basis, in order to prevent bit rot. While much of it can be manged by the programme, due to the fast-paced nature of technology progression, it is of the utmost importance that we continuously evaluate and adapt the project, once it is up and running.

It’s a great project to be working on and will prove immensely valuable. First and foremost it will preserve important parts of Wiltshire history, and eventually it will make material, hitherto unreadable, accessible for all.

This is a huge subject, far too big for one little blog, but we will keep you up to date with how things progress.

Max Parkin, Archivist

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