How safe are your historical collections and the future of scientific research that depends on them? - Arkivum

Articles / 19 Oct, 2018

How safe are your historical collections and the future of scientific research that depends on them?

A new study released last month has reinforced the long-held understanding by curators and archivists that museum and other historical collections are vital to the future of scientific study. The timing of these results also illuminated a significant problem in archival access, preservation and discovery.

The early stage findings were published earlier last month and, as the California Academy of Science stated, “The research potential is vast: Teams continue to make new-to-science discoveries by simply delving deeper into their collections.”

The huge collections of fossils and other artefacts in museum has been heralded as one of the most important untapped resources in science. For example, studying how previously uncatalogued organisms adapted to climate change and correspondingly, how they might react in the future.

Once it’s gone, it’s gone

In a cruel twist of timing, the report came out just days after the Brazil National Museum was decimated by a fire that saw over 20 million irreplaceable artefacts destroyed. Entire lives’ work went up in smoke as did the potential for significant scientific discovery on the non-digitised specimens. Under funding was blamed in the aftermath as a pivotal reason the fire was so devastating. That’s a key point to note. Unfortunately, it’s easy for us to put these important projects on a back-burner until we have enough time, money or resource, but the reality is that you can’t predict disasters and by then it is too late. Your collections and research are lost forever.


Deploy a strategy to protect your assets

When you have items in your collections that are a combination of the following three vital elements for scientific significance, and therefore of critical value to the research community, it’s imperative you have a strategy to protect those assets.

Precarious: In a fragile format – be that physical collections or of course, digital data in old formats and / or legacy systems.

Valuable: Of historical, cultural or scientific significance to your organisation or the wider world.

Irreplaceable: Can the item be replicated? Ignoring the obvious answer museums would need to give to this question, even primary research data which arguably, can be “done again” is in practical terms, not going to be repeated if lost.

It’s worth considering what percentage of your organisational collection falls into all three areas.

Three Vital Elements for Scientific Significance

Whilst natural disasters aren’t ever going to be 100% preventable, there are ways to guarantee the safety of your collections if they’re preserved properly. Nothing surrogates a physical artefact, but digital preservation is the way out of the trio outlined above. Digital Preservation is often confused by non-experts as digital storage, back-up or digitisation. They might make up areas of digital preservation but are certainly not sufficient measures on their own. Arkivum calls these things Data Life-Cycle Management, because it’s more than saving something away in a virtual box and not touching it – data doesn’t do well if you do that. It corrupts, it suffers from bit rot, file formats become too old to be read on contemporary devices and therefore rendered inaccessible, the medium it’s stored on degrades …it DIES.


A growing problem

Digital data – both born-digital and digitised collections – needs far more TLC than their analogue counterparts. Data needs continuous management just to keep it at status quo. Given how vital collections can be to science and art as well as for the enjoyment of the wider public, it’s alarming how many collections-based organisations are still struggling, as the Brazilian National Museum did, to secure adequate funding for a fit-for-purpose data lifecycle management system. Organisations need a way to make their case easily and with the adequate level of risk identified.

How many more horror stories should we wait for before collections-based organisations have enough evidence that digital archiving and preservation should be at the very top of their agenda?


To find out more about Arkivum register onto our webinar on 7th November 2018 at 16:00 GMT / 11:00 EST- Protecting research data through data archiving and safeguarded storage

Paula Keogh

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