Serena Coates

Serena Coates

Last updated on 6 November 2019

Serena Coates is Digital Preservation Coordinator at State Library of Queensland in Australia

At State Library of Queensland (like at many other institutions around the world) when we started acquiring digital content on floppy discs, CDs, and DVDs, we didn’t know what to do with them.  So, what was the wisdom of the day?  “Put it in a box, and store it in the repository until there is a time when we work out what to do with it.”  For State Library, that time is now!

With an increasing maturity of skills and knowledge in the area of digital preservation, and the imminent implementation of a digital preservation system (Rosetta), in 2016 we felt we were ready to tackle the issue of obsolete carriers that had been squirrelled away in our repositories for anywhere up to 30 years.  And so, we embarked on an audit of physical carriers in our repositories.

Our scope was wide – we didn’t want to look just for digital content on carriers (floppy discs, CDs, DVDs, USBs, hard drives), but also for any objects that required a device or equipment to be able to view or use them as they were intended to be viewed or used.  That included visual media such as slides, negatives, videos, and film reels, as well as audio in the form of cassettes, vinyl records, and open reels.  The audit was limited though to our original materials/archival collections, choosing to leave published CDs, DVDs, CD-ROMs, etc out of scope.

The task was mammoth.  Over the course of one year, 12 volunteers spent approx. 33 hours each week, opening up 17,142 archival boxes to check their contents.  In that period of time, 280,747 objects fitting our criteria, were identified and documented in a spreadsheet.  That is correct – nearly three hundred thousand items requiring some sort of action to make them accessible, and useful to our clients. 

Approximately 99% of this total was identified as: projectable material (negatives, slides, film, and microform) – 273,925 items; video – 1779 items; and audio – 3317 items.  The remaining 0.62% (1726 items) was digital content on physical carriers – CDs, DVDs, floppy discs, data tapes, memory cards, USB flash drives, and portable hard drives.

The aim of this first phase of the project was to obtain a complete picture of the number of legacy items in the collection, and to identify the different formats that would need reformatting, migrating or digitising for preservation purposes.

We have spent the intervening time since the completion of the audit, coming up with an approach for phase 2, which is to prioritise this migration and digitisation work.  We aim to begin phase 2 in the new year, beginning with digital content on physical media - identifying the formats that are at greatest risk of data loss. Migration from physical media to storage and preservation in Rosetta will be prioritised based on cultural and historical significance of the content. 

We will work with colleagues at neighbouring cultural institutions, and call on our sister libraries around the country, to source software and hardware necessary for viewing or reading unusual formats, if we do not have the technology in-house. And then comes the real fun of virus checking, checksumming, and capturing and ingesting the content for long-term preservation – that is, if we are even able to open the files!

Below is the scope of items discovered during the audit

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In honour of this project, this year’s digital preservation music video parody is “Smells Like Digital Preservation”, which asks the question – how long, how long, how long, how long… will the files last, in containers?

Having trouble viewing the embedded video - watch on YouTube:

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