Digital preservation, so much more than a backup
It is a common misconception (and one we hear a lot) that digital preservation is simply a backup of your data, stored in the cloud or on an external hard drive stored somewhere in the office.
This probably rings true for many even on a personal level; how many of us store our own data across multiple cloud storage services, USB sticks left in a desk drawer or with some other storage device? And when we come to access that photo or file years down the line, do we know where it is? Can we be certain that the data is still accessible and useable?
The challenge is not unique to individuals, but something faced by every organisation on the planet to some degree. A recent Arkivum report identified a broad range of challenges to successful digital preservation, from data being stored in multiple locations through to difficulties ensuring that archived information was accessible long into the future.
“Data preservation means more than just making a backup copy of your data; it means protecting your data in a secure environment for long-term access and reuse.”
– Stanford University
Digital preservation is the collection of the many activities, processes and technology to ensure the long-term access and preservation of data. That is why it is so much more than a backup.
An introduction to digital preservation
As covered above, digital preservation is the process of ensuring access to digital files and assets long into the future. This could be for years, decades or even longer than that.
I like to view digital preservation as three main elements;
- Searchability: This is about ensuring that the information you need can be easily found in the future. This means being able to search through your data properly so that you can look for specific authors or information contained within it. It is also important to consider all the associated metadata is properly recorded; in a normal backup you could potentially go in and edit each individual file, but this is not sustainable in the long-term. This issue maybe compounded further if information isn’t stored in a single repository.
- Accessibility: Once the information or data has been located, good accessibility ensures that it can be opened, read or even edited. This includes both having the confidence that the data hasn’t been corrupted or damaged, and in some instances physically accessed in the case of physical storage. Effective digital preservation ensures that valuable information is stored in multiple locations, regularly checked for validity and easily (and potentially securely) accessed by those who need it, when they need it.
- Usability: Finally, and linked to accessibility, you need to ensure the usability of your files once file formats evolve. This is often something not considered until it is too late for an organisation as they realise they can no longer access a file. Automated digital preservation tools can ensure that your data is regularly checked and updated to the latest and most appropriate formats.
These three elements must also be considered as a continuous ongoing challenge instead of a one-off fix. Digital preservation is a complex process of actively managing your files over time to ensure future access for years to come, continuing to ask the questions such as are file formats still supported, is the data still accessible and so on.
There is also an added level of detail many should consider when it comes to their digital preservation activities. This includes:
- Appraisal as to the worthiness of preserving that piece of data
- Identification of the data
- Integrity verification
- Characterisation of content
- Sustainability assurance
- Authenticity verification
- Access allowance and logging
- The addition of metadata about the preservation process
- And so on…
Within many organisations, a small number of people are expected to do all these things. In these cases, automation in digital preservation can help lower the burden on these small teams and help them focus on other value add activities.
The value of digital preservation
The value of effective digital preservation for organisations really depends on the organisation itself.
For example, higher education institutes are archiving both special collection data and scholarly output while Life Sciences has a range of use cases including the storage of clinical trial data for regulatory reasons. For other types of memory organisations, digital preservation is part of the service they are providing to their customers, and to human memory as a whole.
The greatest challenge to defining the value of digital preservation is that the true value is often not realised until something goes wrong when proper investment has not been made, and information is lost. This was recently highlighted in the Forrester Report into Digital Fragility with two examples where organisations lost critical data because file formats had evolved to the point that they could no longer open the old files.
But perhaps we need to look at the process of digital preservation from a different perspective. Instead of viewing it solely as a defensive mechanism to maintain old records, it is something to deliver strategic value.
Even if you don’t feel that you fit into the sectors mentioned as examples above, I would wager that almost any organisation would gain significant value from ensuring easy long-term access to its historic data. It’s important to shift the conversation with the wider organisation from talking not only about the damage that could be done if data is lost (due to a lack of proper digital preservation), but to the additional value that can be gained.
One example that could add value is the maintaining and leveraging of corporate memory, through the effective preservation of previous processes, activities or campaigns. As people stay in jobs for shorter periods than ever before, there is a growing risk of duplication of work or missed opportunities for the business. Organisations could potentially leverage this knowledge for competitive advantage by ensuring lessons are learnt, valuable knowledge is passed on and value assets can be reused or repurposed.
Regardless of the sector you work in, I believe it is important to communicate the value of digital preservation both in terms of what is at risk without it and what can be gained with it.
Where do I start?
Digital preservation is not a new concept, but it is one of increasing importance as we generate 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.
As we’ve discussed, digital preservation is not just backing up your files in multiple locations. A good digital backup plan is important, but it isn’t the only part of preservation. Backups alone are not enough to preserve your data for the long-term and they do not usually include file format normalisation.
Here are some useful things to consider when planning to preserve your digital assets:
- What are you looking to achieve with digital preservation?
- Are you documenting culturally important artefacts for future generations to understand more about this period?
- Are you preserving the data for a set period in line with regulatory requirements so the ability to implement a robust retention schedule workflow is important?
- What are the different file formats and data sources you need to include in your digital preservation strategy?
- Who needs access from across your organisation and community?
- How many digital assets do you need to preserve?
- What is the number of files involved?
- How much data do you need to manage?
Digital preservation is an ongoing set of processes. Information professionals will need to continually refine, add to and change over time. It is about keeping information accessible for long periods of time, which can result in the long-term as keeping it alive “forever.” The policy that is suitable for day one is not the policy that can be used for year five, so an evolving strategy is essential. Human decision making and purpose-built technology combined are the key to successful digital preservation. Perpetua by Arkivum offers professional services and software to help manage and automate preservation, backup plans, compliance, usability and the integration of digital assets.