Christopher Zaste

Christopher Zaste

Last updated on 4 November 2020

Christopher Zaste is a Digital Archivist at the University of Manitoba.

As we gather around the virtual campfire this World Digital Preservation Day, I have a story to share.  I knew a guy, keeping him anonymous, who loved to back up his data to CDs and later DVDs.  Many of these discs, of course, had “archival media” proudly printed on the manufacturer’s label.  His backup collection contained family movies, photographs, documents, software, and much more.  Many of which are some of his most prized possessions.  One day, his computer crashed.  Not a simple crash to desktop, but a fatal error causing the loss of all locally stored files.  Thankfully, he had a vast backup store of discs, so he thought it was not the biggest loss. 

The next day, he went to the store and bought a new laptop.  This machine had a fast processer, lots of RAM, and even a nice 4k display.  No expense was spared.  He brought his machine home and began adding his backup files.  Running his finger along the laptop’s right side, he found no eject button.  He tried the left side and found nothing.  He looked all over the machine, pressing button after button, but to no avail.  His new laptop, the one he just spent a considerable amount of money on, had no disc drive to read his obsolete media.  Frustrated, he had to go to Amazon and buy a disc drive that can connect via a USB cable.

Such digital preservation stories are quite common.  We have all experienced such issues, and not just in our professional careers.  Family photos stored on old CDs, a home video on a VHS tape, I can go on with examples.  In our primarily digital society, the digital copy is often the only copy.  A record can easily be lost if is not stored in an accessible backup format.  These scenarios of loss are what we, as digital preservation professionals, try to prevent.

The impact of the loss of our digital memory can be devastating for all levels of society.  A family can lose precious photos of their children, while a large organization can have corrupted data and backups that are no longer readable or understandable.  Such failures in digital preservation can have far ranging consequences from workflow inefficiencies to even legal difficulties.  After all, if your organization is legally required to keep these files, a failure to preserve may have severe consequences.

Even more damaging are the societal consequences of digital preservation failures.  Such losses affect not only how we view our history, but also what society even remembers.  We have a responsibility to not only ourselves and employers, but also to future generations who will learn from the records we save.  This is doubly true for those who work with records containing the stories of marginalized groups.  In some cases, these digital records are the only evidence of an event.  During its mandate, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) recorded the statements of former residential school students in addition to scanning documents pertaining to residential schools and their impact on Indigenous communities.  Most of these statements and copies are born digital files.  It would be a great loss if we lose these files to the sands of time since, as we all know, we only remember what is kept.  This is especially true for dark and traumatic events such as the Residential School System.  Without documentary evidence, such memories will fade away.

Fortunately, several institutions have been working towards maintaining the memory of these events.  In the case of the TRC records, the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation (NCTR) has been striving to ensure such events are not forgotten by future generations.  This includes not only the testimonies gathered by the TRC, but also residential school documents gathered from government and religious archives.  All these records are digital and require constant work by staff to ensure nothing is lost.  This work is not only important for Indigenous communities, which have been impacted by this system, but also for Canadian society as we can all learn about this period.  Other institutions are also working at preserving records ranging from those documenting the history of a community, to even critical government documents.   Digital preservation is important for all levels of society.

During this World Digital Preservation Day, I think it is worthwhile to remind ourselves of the important work we do as a profession.  2020 has been a troubling year for many people around the world.  We should be asking ourselves not only who will be documenting these events, but who will be responsible for ensuring that future generations can both access and understand these records?  The answer, of course, is us.  We preserve the records society uses to remember the past.  A monumental task, to be sure, but a worthwhile one.  A task I feel we are up for as a profession.

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