18 Jul 2016

Getting Started with Digital Preservation

Guest post by Simon Perry, Systems Librarian at Institute of Technology Carlow

The Getting Started with Digital Preservation event took place at the National Archives in Dublin on the 18th May and provided an extremely informative briefing on the topic. As someone who has had the idea of digital preservation in my mind for a long time, it offered a very timely introduction to the basic concepts of how to manage what can be a complex area which we are all increasingly having to face.

My own awareness of the need to actively manage the preservation of digital media goes back many years – as a postgraduate student at Aberystwyth University in the late 1980s, I recall attending a seminar presented by the BBC which showcased a new project for electronic storage of community information. Known as the BBC Digital Domesday project, this comprised a set of optical discs, (effectively the forerunner of the DVD in 12” LP record format), on which data about localities in the UK had been encoded. Unfortunately by 2002, as this article from the Observer newspaper illustrates, the discs were already unreadable and the stored data was effectively lost. A classic example of how a digital format can become rapidly obsolete.

In the current information environment where the proliferation of digital material in a bewilderingly wide range of formats has become a matter of fact, the need to manage this stream of information and to try to identify and preserve has become paramount.

This event, presented by Sharon McMeekin and Sara Day Thomson of the Digital Preservation Coalition, gave a comprehensive introduction to how to develop a preservation policy.

The presentation began with some fundamental but essential concepts which govern the need for preservation:
•    Traditional media is far more robust than digital.
•    Digital material is dependent on the accessibility of its format and the media on which it is stored.
•    Rights issues may impact on the need to preserve material

The event then focused on both the managerial and technical considerations. Drawing up a digital preservation strategy may seem at first to be a both daunting and expensive prospect, but the presenters continually emphasised the wide range of documentation which is available to assist in this process, (such as the Digital Preservation Handbook, produced by the DPC themselves), and highlighted the use of standards, (ISO 31000 Risk Management), and technical specifications, (OAIS Functional Model for Digital Preservation), which can be used to underpin a preservation policy.

Subsequent sessions raised several significant issues which need to be addressed in the formulation of a preservation plan; these can be broken down into management issues:
•    The need to assess an organisation’s ability to develop and undertake a preservation policy.
•    Creation of a clear statement to champion the need for digital preservation within an organisation.
•    Creation of a digital asset register.
•    Risk assessment.
•    Development of a rolling cycle of monitoring digital assets and continued updating of awareness
     of technological developments which may impact on preservation.

And technical ones:
•    Ensuring that several copies of important digital assets are held – preferably in different formats.
•    Monitoring of digital media to ensure that file degradation does not occur, or is remedied if it
     does:  alarmingly, bits within a digital file can degrade over time causing corruption but several
     tools are available to monitor file integrity.
•    Ensuring that hardware for storage, playing, viewing etc. of digital media does not become

Ultimately it is essential that I.T. Departments take ownership of the technical aspects of digital file monitoring and provision of appropriate hardware to store and retrieve digital media, moreover, close and continued collaboration between those responsible for formulation of a preservation strategy and technical experts is crucial to the success of digital preservation.

The day offered a thorough and thought-provoking overview of the challenges associated with digital preservation, and despite the potential complexity of the task, the presenters stressed that with the wide range of available support resources and documentation, creation of a successful preservation policy is an achievable goal.


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