Jenny Mitcham

Jenny Mitcham

Last updated on 19 July 2023

Our second DPC Reading Club was held last month and focused on an article by Monique Lassere and Jess M. Whyte called “Balancing Care and Authenticity in Digital Collections: A Radical Empathy Approach to Working with Disk Images” (available at

This paper was a great follow on from our reading from Thorsten Ries last time as it looked at the topic of digital forensics from a different angle, suggesting a ‘radical empathy’ approach to tackling disk images.

We had another great session, with lots of interesting discussion arising from the article.

We discussed the extent to which we carry out disk imaging as a matter of course when receiving new digital content on portable media. The article certainly suggested that creating a disk image is both default practice and also considered ‘best practice’ when receiving personal papers, but we had some debate within the group as to whether we actually believed this to be case (aside from my usual thoughts about use of the term best practice). In my regular interactions with digital preservation practitioners, I do not hear disk imaging talked about a huge amount. It was also noted that disk imaging is not mentioned explicitly in models and frameworks such as our Rapid Assessment Model (DPC RAM) or the NDSA Levels of Digital Preservation or even in digital preservation certification standards.

Several attendees at the Reading Club mentioned that they don’t create disk images (though it was also noted that they may not have received the types of materials for which it would have been appropriate). The US-focus of the article was noted, and one participant noted that at academic institutions in the US, disk imaging is gold standard, and is what everyone aspires to. It was interesting to note that there may be a divergence in practices in different parts of the world. I’d love to know if there is any data on this anywhere…?

One participant mentioned that there is some work that is ongoing to look at the minimum set of processing activities for accessioning digital content and to come up with an estimate of the likely cost of this. It is not clear yet whether disk imaging will be included in this list. Another participant agreed with the premise in the article that disk imaging is sometimes carried out as a means to defer decision making about a collection. Having a disk image provides a fall-back option, giving the opportunity to go back and investigate the content in different ways in the future.

On a slight tangent, there was some discussion with the group, and a range of views on whether disk images could or should be used to solve crime. Whilst a couple of convincing case studies were raised, there was also concern that that records could be used to enable discrimination in law enforcement. It was also recognised that we should also be aware of the imbalance of power that may already exist between collecting institutions and those who are represented within the archives.

One really useful section of the article listed tools that can help us with disk imaging activities. It was interesting to read that though there are freely available tools out there, they don’t necessarily do all the things we need them to. A participant mentioned that if appraising a paper archive they may find personal material mixed in with professional and would offer this back to the donor or depositor. It appears this is much harder when faced with the challenge of extracting and removing this material from a disk image using the tools that are available.

The discussion was so good, we didn't get time to talk about the premise within the article that disk images are necessary for proving the authenticity of a record - I wanted to unpick that assertion a bit more. We came away with several questions and also a sense that there are clearly ethical discussions around this topic that we could have in much more depth. Another thought provoking article and great community discussion.

What should we read next? Let us know in the comments below!

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