What is digital preservation?
Digital preservation is about ensuring future access to digital files and assets, regardless of if they are born-digital or digitised versions of physical objects, far into the future. Depending on your business, this might be for anything from 2 years to 50 years plus. Maybe even forever.
The DPC (Digital Preservation Coalition) defines digital preservation as “the series of managed activities necessary to ensure continued access to digital materials for as long as necessary… and refers to all of the actions required to maintain access to digital materials beyond the limits of media failure or technological and organisational change.”
Digital preservation is often the next step once you have your data safeguarded.
What isn’t digital preservation?
It’s important to take a moment here to emphasise that digital preservation is about much more than just storing and backing up your digital files and data. Of course, these are both important as part of your complete long-term data management landscape and complement what digital preservation does, rather than replaces it.
Read here to see why backup isn’t the same as digital preservation.
What do I need digital preservation for?
There are two key aspects to this. One, is about storing these digital objects in a way that guarantees access of them far into the future, regardless of any changes in technology or organisations ceasing to exist. The second aspect is much newer as it has previously been very difficult to provide technically, this is usability of that data far into the future.
Although digital preservation is by no means a new area, it’s certainly one of increasing importance as we are now generating larger amounts of digital assets and in a wider range of file formats from different data sources than ever before. You might need to preserve PDFs, emails, social media messages, voice recordings, instant messenger posts or even entire websites.
Some organisations, such as museums, libraries or art galleries, may want to preserve their digital assets for as long as possible as they are recording our cultural heritage for future generations to observe and understand. This could be Andy Warhol’s videos including his 1964 silent film, Empire, which is currently distributed by the Museum of Modern Art’s Circulating Film and Video Library.
Other organisations, such as those operating in highly regulated markets, may need to implement robust retention schedules so they have complete control over the data they keep and how long for, purging any data that is no longer required to remove any costs or risks from keeping the data needlessly. This could be research data from a pre-clinical trial in a pharmaceutical company or a bank’s financial trading data.
In regulated markets, the problem of digital preservation becomes even more complex as you have to maintain compliance of that data for decades and continue to meet regulatory requirements at all times, regardless of if you interact with the data or not.
Who does this problem affect and how?
In simple terms, this problem affects everyone. How many times have you gone back to an old document to reuse it, only to find you can no longer open it? It’s something that we have all experienced at some point. The question is, how do we decide what does and does not need to be preserved? It can be an expensive strategy to preserve everything by default, so an important part of your project planning is to define your strategy for what data needs to be preserved, and who will need to access it and what they need to access it for.
The problem of digital preservation affects a wide range of users and departments within any organisation. Often, different types of users need to access the same data but for different reasons and to use the data in different ways.
In a CRO (Contract Research Organisation) for example, the different user types could be categorised (in broad terms) as compliance, business and IT users. As a business, they need to keep research data for decades, ensuring this data remains compliant and meets regulatory requirements throughout that time, so they can either reuse the data to expedite their research processes or so they can provide reports on any clinical trials.
Compliance users need their data to adhere to best practice principals and meet any compliance or regulatory requirements relevant to their industry. They also need to be able to report on that data and prove compliance. Business users need a single source of truth across their long-term data and easier access and ability to reuse that data to support their research and discovery, and aid collaboration. IT users have the difficult problem of getting their data under control and making sure the right people can access the data at the right time and that data is only kept for as long as required.
It is somewhat ironic that technology is required to solve this problem which was caused by technology in the first place. The technology industry is a highly innovative one, transforming at pace. We can’t take for granted that software (and hardware) that exists today will necessarily exist next year, or that new versions of applications will still be compatible with the files we are using today.
Digital preservation is a complex problem for every organisation. Your data management flows often need to guarantee 100% data integrity at every step and capture a full audit trail and chain of custody to tell the full story of what has happened to that digital asset. Files need to undergo regular normalisation and re-normalisation processes to manage file formats and to guarantee ongoing access. Audit trails and accompanying metadata need to be preserved too along with the associated digital object.
Digital preservation isn’t a plug and play process
It’s important to note here that digital preservation is an ongoing set of processes, that you, as information professionals will continue to refine, add to and change over time. Digital preservation is about keeping things accessible for small periods of time, which results in the long-term as keeping it alive “forever”. People don’t have a policy on day 1 that suits the “forever” use case so they have a 5 year policy, as example, and keep reviewing that. This way, you can protect against any long-term changes that would prevent access to your digital assets.
Human decision making and a purpose-built technology combined are the key to successful digital preservation. It isn’t a “fire and forget” process as it needs ongoing management.
5 takeaway points to consider:
- Digital preservation is a complex process of actively managing your multimedia files over time to ensure future access for years to come
- Digital preservation shouldn’t be instead of implementing a backup process and well-defined storage strategy that lets you scale cost effectively. It complements it and they should all feature in your long-term data management strategy.
- Consider the different file formats and data sources you need to include in your digital preservation strategy, and who needs to access them from across your organisation and community.
- What are you looking to achieve with digital preservation? Are you documenting culturally important artefacts for future generations to understand more about this period of time? Or are you preserving the data for a set period of time in line with regulatory requirements so the ability to implement a robust retention schedule workflow is important?
- How do you know you can trust the integrity of the data, especially over a long period of time?
Here are some good resources to get you started:
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