Blog / 24 Jun, 2019

Why digital preservation isn’t just a backup

What is digital preservation?

In order to explore why digital preservation is not just a backup, we first must explore what digital preservation is.

To seasoned professionals, the answer to this question may seem obvious, however in our recent digital preservation futures webinars we asked attendees “Where are you on your digital preservation journey?” Of 100 respondents, just under 10% answered: “what is digital preservation?”

Simply put, it’s the process of managing digital assets and their associated metadata in such a way that they are guaranteed to be accessible, usable and searchable in the future, whenever that is, read our digital preservation 101 blog to find out more.

Why digital preservation isn’t a backup

One of the most common misconceptions that we come across is that backup is good enough to preserve your data for the long-term and that it is the same as digital preservation. Whilst in many cases backup may be a cheaper option, you pay in the long-term when you haven’t properly preserved your valuable files.

When we look at what digital preservation actually is, it becomes obvious why preservation isn’t just a backup and why backup is not enough to preserve your data for the long-term. Taking into consideration the three key components of a digital preservation strategy we can explore the differences.

Usability of data: You cannot guarantee the usability of your files once file formats evolve.

How about that digitised antique saved in Kodak RAW? Can you attribute the original photographer? Where was it taken?

As well as physical usability, the ability to view context is limited within a backup.

Searchability of data: You cannot guarantee that your backup has all of the associated metadata properly recorded, you could potentially go in and edit each individual file, but this is not sustainable long-term.

How can you search for all photos taken by a specific photographer, or all trials conducted for a specific sponsor without this?

Accessibility of data: Backup shows itself in the best light when discussing accessibility, as long as you are using accredited providers. A backup on a hard drive stored in the supply closet does not, especially when you consider the possibility of bit rot and data degradation, as well as the long-term accessibility of the hard drive that the files are stored on.


When looking at accessibility we also need to consider file format obsolescence. For example, can you still access the Word Perfect file that you created in the 80s without specialist software? What about if Adobe were to end support for Adobe Illustrator years down the line and you were unable to access your original artwork? Backup does not provide file format normalisation as standard, while you could use open source tools to provide normalisation you cannot guarantee access to the original metadata

In conclusion, when we look at backup in this light, we can compare backup to the digital preservation version of doing nothing. Paula Keogh our VP of Higher Education, Archives, Libraries & Heritage sums this up nicely in her blog “How much is doing nothing really costing your organisation? Why digital preservation shouldn’t be ignored.” In which she compares not doing digital preservation as a version of Moore’s Law, in that if left without management it is liable to degradation and inaccessibility.

It is important to view digital preservation as a wider strategy rather than a one-off activity.

Why is this important to me?

For memory organisations, digital preservation is part of the service they are providing to their customers, and to human memory as a whole.

There is an argument to be made for digital preservation in place of backup for regulated markets as well. When we consider the requirements on the life sciences sector in terms of data integrity and adherence to ALCOA+ principles digital preservation becomes very important.

Even if you don’t feel that you fit into these markets, it is important to consider what would happen if future generations were unable to access the digital materials that you are creating today?

Contact us to find out how you can ensure your valuable files are accessible into the long-term.

Emma Davenport

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