Manual vs. automatic digital preservation

Blog / 12 Feb, 2024

Manual vs. automatic digital preservation: Are you prepared to face the challenges presented by future technology?

Last year we published an online tool to allow anyone to assess their level of digital preservation maturity in line with the ALCOA+ principles. The tool asked a series of multiple-choice questions to understand an organisations approach to retaining digital content for long periods of time. Based on the responses to those questions, participants were then provided with guidance on what they were doing well, and what might need further consideration.

If you haven’t had a chance to access the tool, I would highly recommend giving it a go. It shouldn’t take more than 5 minutes and could give you a quick insight into areas for improvement in your own long-term data retention. You can access it here.

A surprising result

One of the big surprises for me from the initial results was the number of people who said they were doing manual digital preservation.

For context, the question was as follows:

Which of the below best describes your approach to ensuring your long-term data is legible?

The ALCOA++ principle ‘Legible’ focuses on ensuring that data is maintained in a usable and readable form, for however long it is retained.

With the options as follows:

  • Automatically maintain data and records in long-term preservation formats (e.g. generate a PDF-A copy of a Word doc file).
  • Manually maintain data and records in long-term preservation formats (e.g. manually creating a PDF-A copy of a Word doc file).
  • We do not maintain our data and digital records in long-term preservation formats.
  • Unsure.

 

Out of everyone who completed the quiz, 38% stated they were doing manual preservation.

My initial reaction led me to two conclusions; the first that digital preservation is still largely misunderstood and two, that if true, organisations are investing a lot of effort and resource in a process that can be automated with the right tools.

 

(Mis)understanding digital preservation

Let’s address the first conclusion, that digital preservation is misunderstood. At Arkivum we define digital preservation as the right blend of expertise, processes and technology to ensure that digital content can be used and read for as long as it is needed.

As stated in the question, one example of this would be maintain records in long-term formats. So for example if you were retaining word docs, the standard (and current) best practice would be to maintain a copy of that word doc in a PDF-A format as well.

It’s important to note though, that digital preservation is an ongoing process of maintaining digital content in a usable state, regardless of future hardware or software. Simply creating a PDF-A copy of a word document as a one off, isolated activity, is not enough to ensure long-term use.

At Arkivum we often find digital preservation largely misunderstood, and the process and ongoing effort to achieve successful digital preservation is underestimated.

 

Automated digital preservation

Let’s now address the second conclusion, namely that organisations are investing a lot of time, effort, and resource into manually converting each retained digital record into a long-term format (like the example in the question in the quiz).

This process may be feasible if you are dealing with a relatively small number of records, in simple formats but is likely to quickly become unmanageable as data volumes grow, become more complex/diverse and time passes.

The more data that an organisation needs to retain, in a broader range of formats starts to exponentially increase the volume of work required to preserve digital content for the long-term.

In addition to this, we must consider that this process is ongoing over the entire retention period. For each conversion that is made, you must also keep a record of that conversion, and keep up to date with the recommended digital preservation good practice for those records.

So, for example in 10- or 20-years’ time, it is not impossible that the word doc to PDF-A conversion is no longer the right approach, and so you need to re-convert that original record into a new format. As mentioned, the larger and broader that data set becomes, the greater the challenge.

This is without even mentioning internal staff turnover and churn over that period of time making managing this even more challenging.

This is why at organisations like Arkivum, we automate this process, making it much easier to preserve larger and varied datasets over long periods of time. This not only significantly reduces the resource burden on the organisation, but I would argue reduces the risk of mistakes happening and ensuring long-term usability, legibility, and readability of business-critical digital content.

 

To summarise

Digital preservation is a complex and ongoing challenge to ensure that digital content can be used for as long as it is required. No one can tell the future in terms of where technology will lead us, but organisations must be prepared to face the challenges it presents for archived data.

Having a good understanding of what digital preservation is, and the tools that are available will be crucial for this.

I hope this blog post has helped to provide some clarity around the topic. If you are interested in finding out more about digital preservation and retaining digital content for +25 years, I would highly recommend watching the recording of our webinar on 8 tips to successfully retaining digital records for 25 years+. You can access the recording here.

Tom Lynam

Tom is the Marketing Director at Arkivum. He joined the business in January 2020 tasked with driving new business growth and building the brand into new sectors such as Pharmaceutical and Life Sciences. He has over 12 years’ experience in several diverse marketing leadership roles across technology and professional services organisations.

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