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Digital preservation - Knowing where to start

Digital preservation is a hot topic, particularly in the world of heritage, culture and memory institutions such as museums and galleries. Memory institutions in particular face increasing demands on their collections, which range from physical and digital artworks to museum artefacts, local history/public archives and beyond.

These demands might be driven by the need to better manage costs and enable better academic access, or by the fact that some artefacts are degrading so quickly that digital preservation is the only way these assets will be accessible and useable in the future.

Some organisations already have a strategy in place and are currently in the throes of digitally preserving their assets. A large number of organisations however are only just starting to think about this. These folks are trying to get to grips with the basics of digital preservation, such as what it is, where to start and what they need to do in order to implement a digital preservation programme.

Let’s start with an understanding of what we mean by digital preservation. Simply put, it’s the process of managing and storing digital assets (image files, audio files, video files, text files, you name it) and their associated metadata in such a way that they are guaranteed to be accessible, available and useable in the future. It is also about digitising physical assets, for example paintings, film, audio, photographs, paper documents and so on, into a digital form and providing the ability to access those too. Digital preservation processes apply equally to assets that were ‘born digital,’ such as digitally recorded audio, as they do to digitised analogue and physical assets – they all benefit from digital preservation.

So now that we have established what digital preservation is, how do you know if you have a digital preservation requirement?

You’ll know you have a need if, for example, you have an increasing demand for remote access to the physical items in your collection. There could also be institutional requirements to provide wider, public access to these items. You could also have an increasing number of static digital files that are being stored on expensive storage media such as traditional discs, and that are in the backup window. Digital preservation of these will reduce your primary storage and backup costs, and save you money. Likewise, if you have dwindling availability of convenient and low-cost storage facilities or space, due to the rising costs of storing physical assets, the availability of digitally preserved renditions of your assets could enable the originals to be located in less accessible and therefore less expensive storage. Another certainty is that if you have objects or artefacts that are either fragile or are degrading to the point that they are becoming increasingly hard to access, this will also drive a need. And finally, a strategic desire to guarantee the accessibility, availability and authenticity of heritage assets for generations to come is often a key digital preservation driver.

Once you know you have a need, the first step is to define your digitisation strategy - to understand what it is that you want to preserve and how. It’s important to remember that digital preservation is as much about preserving the meaning and context of the asset as it is about preserving the asset itself. It is therefore essential to preserve, alongside the digital asset, metadata about the digital asset (this is vital if you’re ever to find and manage your assets in the future).

You will also need to think about whether your digital assets lend themselves to a migration-based strategy and whether this is based on straightforward file-format preservation and long-term data archiving processes. File format preservation is the process of maximising the accessibility of the file through its repeated migration to any number of more stable or current file formats. Data archiving is the process of storing all of the resulting digital assets for the long term, using active archiving principles and processes.

Your digital preservation strategy will also need to cover the people and processes you are going to use. You will need to think about the quality of the digital assets you are going to preserve (especially as it relates to the digitisation processes of physical or analogue assets) and your IT infrastructure and associated support. For example, are you going to use a hosted and managed service or are you going to take care of this yourself? Does your data need to stay on your premises or can it be offloaded into the cloud, using a third party managed storage service? Using a cloud-based service makes a lot of sense if the cloud option is something you are considering. It’s easy to use, there’s nothing to set up and your data will be secure and accessible without all the hassle of managing your own digital preservation solution.

In fact, one of our clients, MoMA, has just deployed a sophisticated digital preservation system using Arkivum in order to preserve thousands of heterogeneous media assets. In terms of the benefits, MoMA found that not only did the move help it meet very high preservation standards, it was also financially a very smart decision, as it delivered economies of scale to the organisation, which was of particular importance considering the size of its digital collection and the fact that the need for access was infrequent.

Whichever route you take, you will likely need to consider a phased approach. The strategy that will be most appropriate to your organisation will be the one that prioritises the digital preservation factors that are driving your specific institution.

In summary, establishing a digital preservation strategy, no matter how simple, really is the very first step. You do need to think long term though, and in particular, whether you have digital assets already or if you need to think about digitisation, and whether these assets also lend themselves to a migration-based strategy. Finally, think about where you want your preserved assets to be stored – cloud, on premise, or hybrid.

If you are looking for a bit more information about how to get started with your digital preservation programme, why not download our eBook: Digital Preservation – A How-To Guide for Beginners.

Nik Stanbridge, VP Marketing, Arkivum

Image source: Shutterstock/Nomad_Soul