Leslie Johnston & Elizabeth England

Leslie Johnston & Elizabeth England

Last updated on 7 June 2021

Leslie Johnston is the Director of Digital Preservation and Elizabeth England is a Digital Preservation Specialist at the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration.

NARA supports digital preservation in a comprehensive manner, including guidance for record creators and record transfers, tools for processing archivists, services for copying records from legacy media, preservation strategy and file format plans, and the cloud based ERA 2.0 processing and preservation repository. Most recently, a NARA cross-agency team developed an extensible Digital Preservation Framework, which was publicly released in 2020 for adaptation and use across the digital stewardship community. The Framework is available on GitHub at https://github.com/usnationalarchives/digital-preservation, including a machine readable version of the format plans.

The Framework combines file format risk analysis, documentation of digital preservation community resources, prioritization for action, and recommended preservation actions. Formats are contextualized within NARA’s established categories of electronic record types (email, still images, GIS, etc.), providing identification of those record types’ essential characteristics. The Framework consists of a risk matrix, preservation action plans for record types, and preservation action plans for file formats. The risk matrix contains more than 40 data points characterizing format sustainability in several categories, including disclosure, adoption level/viability, self-documentation, format age and currency, format prevalence in NARA’s holdings, and current NARA capabilities in managing the format, with varied weighting for each question and category. The preservation action plans for record types identify the record types’ “Essential Characteristics,” the properties that should, if possible, be retained in any format migration. The preservation action plans for file formats is a spreadsheet of more than 500 file format variants across all the records types. The spreadsheet contains links to format specifications, other resources, the formats identifying information and descriptions, preservation actions that NARA currently takes, and recommended tools for processing and/or migrating the format.


The NARA Record Type Preservation Action Plan for Digital Still Images, Digital Preservation Risk Matrix, and File Format Preservation Action Plans.

There is an enduring need to document formats used in digital preservation planning at every cultural heritage organization. Whatever their digital preservation practices or infrastructure, all organizations can use the Framework’s varied approaches to format identification, analysis, and proposed preservation actions. The Framework has benefited a variety of NARA stakeholders, including appraisal archivists, processing archivists, resource allocators, IT, and senior leadership. The benefits include providing a resource for the development of file format and preservation guidance to U.S. federal government agencies so they can better manage the records that they steward; providing critical context for records creators and records managers; documenting metrics which can be integrated into records selection and appraisal; aiding in the selection of tools for processing and preservation actions; supporting the selection of format used when providing public access; and informing the prioritization of future investment and development in our digital repository and processing environment. It is key to making appraisal and processing more efficient to be able to make records available to researchers more quickly, and to ensure that they are preserved for the public long into the future.

The international digital preservation community has benefited by learning about NARA’s activities and current thinking. A number of organizations have informed NARA of plans to integrate the structure and/or content of the format action plans into their workflows. At least one private and one public archive has already successfully applied NARA’s risk assessment model to their collections. The rapid acceptance of the Framework in the community speaks to what we hope is the accessibility and universal applicability of this work. By making the Framework publicly available and incorporating feedback, NARA demonstrates a commitment to digital preservation community values of transparency and collaboration.

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