Sarah Middleton

Sarah Middleton

Last updated on 1 July 2020

Firstly, a huge thank you to the International Council on Archives for inviting us to co-host the ‘What I Wish I Knew... Webinar’ to celebrate digital preservation day on International Archives Week! It was so popular and so well attended that we ran out of time before we even made a dent in the number of questions submitted to our panellists, so as promised we’ve put our thinking caps back on and answered some more in this blog post.

Watch the webinar again

If you pre-submitted a question or added it to the chat box on zoom or Facebook, you might not find your question exactly as you posed it. That’s because there were often a large number of the same or similar questions, so in those cases we’ve amalgamated them to ask just one question which we hope covers all of – or as many of - the angles as possible.

Of the 100+ questions we received the most popular was simply ‘how do you do digital preservation?’ or ‘how do we manage digital data in the face of technical obsolescence?’ And that is the million-dollar question! How indeed? And the answer I’m afraid is ‘it depends.’ The approach you take to digital preservation depends a lot on your organisational environment, politics, resources, geography…. And a range of other factors. Although there are some well tried and tested procedures and practices to manage much of what the digital preservation challenge throws at us.

I hope you got some ideas about how to get started from the webinar itself. If you'd like more, a great place to begin is the Digital Preservation Handbook which contains lots of advice and tips about the process itself, as well as approaches, standards and strategies. Indeed, the International Archives Week post on the ICA blog by Sharon McMeekin summarises many of these first steps.

As for standards, a the DPC's Rapid Assessment Model (RAM) is a practical easy-to-use digital preservation maturity modelling tool that has been designed to enable rapid benchmarking of an organization’s digital preservation capability. An alternative are the NDSA Levels of Preservation.

The second most popular question was about how to make the case for digital preservation within your organisation. We touched on this in the webinar, but if you are looking for good ways to frame the digital preservation conversation in an organisational context – look no further than the Executive Guide on Digital Preservation. You might also find it handy to consult the Digital Preservation Business Case Toolkit, the Curation Costs Exchange or read this excellent guide on How to talk to IT about digital preservation.

Others asked what we thought the best digital preservation or digitisation system might be. One of the core values of the Digital Preservation Coalition has always been that we are vendor neutral. So while we can’t make recommendations like that – we have a super bunch of DPC Supporters who offer a range of digital preservation products and services, and for tools the COPTR registry is definitely the place to look.

And for the rest of the questions, I shall hand back to the experts: Adrian Brown, UK Parliamentary Archives; Anna McNally, University of Westminster; Dorothy Waugh, University of York and Margaret Crockett, ICA with huge thanks to them all and also to Angeline Takawira, UN IRMCT for taking part in the webinar.



Does digital preservation only preserve the medium, or does it also include providing access to the data preserved?

Adrian Brown (AB): Preserving access to authentic information is at the heart of digital preservation - digital storage media are ephemeral. 


COVID-19 data

Is your institution working to collect COVID-19 data? How are you acquiring and assessing the digital record that will be preserved?

AB: As an institutional archive, the Parliamentary Archives is collecting information about how Parliament as an organization has responded to the pandemic, as well as Parliament’s scrutiny of the UK government response - these records are being collected as part of our normal disposal and appraisal processes.

Dorothy Waugh (DW): The Borthwick is collecting records of York’s response to the crisis. Like the Parliamentary Archives, our workflows for digital records received as part of these efforts is the same as they would be for any other digital record. That said, we are being as flexible as possible with donors regarding things like file formats and transfer methods--we recognise that many of our donors are coming to us with records that are very personal during a very challenging time and don’t want to make this process difficult or laborious for them.



Has digital preservation replaced the physical preservation of documents?

Margaret Crockett (MC): No, even if we digitize archives/records for access or to provide surrogates for fragile physical records we will always need to preserve originals created in traditional physical media and formats.

Is it possible to preserve a format which requires an obsolete reader to access the data?

AB: Emulation-based approaches to preservation enable continued access to information in formats which are reliant on obsolete technology platforms, by emulating those platforms in current technology environments.

What preparation do you need to do before preservation? 

DW: I’m not sure I can address the full breadth of this question, but would stress the need to work closely with donors and record creators in order to understand the context in which the record/s were created and used. Decisions about how to preserve records will be driven by that information.

What would be one priority action you would recommend in order to achieve digital preservation?

MC: Identify the material you need to preserve - we don’t need to keep everything so know what and why you want to keep and develop criteria to select it.

What is the digital preservation achievement you are most proud of?

AB: Leading the original development of PRONOM and DROID and establishing them as practical tools for the wider community, and writing two books to support practitioners (sorry, that’s two!)



What are your policies for preserving emails? And do you have any practical tips or first steps for getting started with the preservation of emails?

Anna McNally (AM): We use the capstone email appraisal approach to preserve the emails of our senior management team. This has been written into University policy and relevant staff are informed that their email will be preserved when they either join the University or are promoted into senior management.



Which have you found is more common: archivists turning to digital preservation, or IT/information specialists?

AM: I’ve personally come across more archivists turning to digital preservation, but I think the sector is strengthened by bringing in people with a wide range of expertise. This is why we’re taking part in the UK National Archives Bridging the Digital Gap Programme and I would like to see more opportunities for IT professionals to learn about archives, and vice versa.



Is cloud storage safe for storing Archival documents. If not, what are the best practices?

AB: There isn’t a yes/no answer to this - all storage strategies need to be designed to mitigate risks and deliver benefits which meet the requirements of the organization in question. Cloud storage can work as part of a preservation storage strategy but, as with any technology, the risks and benefits need to be understood and managed accordingly. It is good practice not to be reliant on a single storage approach, and all storage methods should be regarded as transitory, so the goal should be to establish an acceptable overall level of data durability and integrity, and a clear exit/succession strategy is essential.



What criteria would you use when selecting documents for digitization? 

AB: There may be a number of drivers for digitising documents, including protecting vulnerable originals, increasing access (especially online), generating revenue, and supporting digital outreach.

Do you have any advice on how to convert documents in microfilms to digital format?

AB: Microfilm scanners are available which can digitize microfilm and microfiche. Unless you have very large volumes to digitize, it may be more cost effective to use a third-party digitization service to do so.



What are the most common errors made when embarking on digital preservation? 

AM: Thinking you can create a perfect system and waiting until you have that in place before you start! There’s a saying that the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago, the second-best time is now. The same is very much true with digital preservation.



After digitization of any archival material what format of picture would you use to preserve JPEG or RAW? 

AM: Where we have RAW files, we have preserved them but there is no standard RAW format - they are often undocumented and proprietary. We would therefore usually convert RAW to TIF as our preservation format, and to JPEG for our dissemination format.



What key lessons did you learn at the procurement stage?

AM: Always asking about exit strategies!


Records Management

Can digital preservation be applied to an electronic document management system which is already implemented?

AB: Preservation of records from an EDRMS should in principle be possible provided the objects and their metadata can be exported in a form which allows subsequent ingest to a digital repository. The extent to which this can be linked to disposal functionality will depend on the capabilities of the EDRMS. Another interesting possibility would be to apply preservation services in situ, although this remains a largely theoretical approach at present. 

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