Critically Endangered small

All manner of digital materials held in museums to support the access, interpretation and management of physical collections, including material supporting collections management, conservation data, interpretative materials, oral history, and generated by interaction with the public and in the course of research. It excludes digital material formally accessioned into museum collections.

Group: Museum Data

Trend in 2021:

Consensus Decision

Added to List: 2019

Trend towards greater risk

Previous classification: Endangered

Imminence of Action

Action is recommended within three years, detailed assessment within one year.

Significance of Loss

The loss of tools, data or services within this group would impact on many people and sectors.

Effort to Preserve

It would require a small effort to address losses in this group, requiring the application of proven preservation tools or techniques.

Examples: Digital photography, video, sound, oral histories, collections management documentation, collections management systems, conservation records or data, records of exhibitions, interpretive materials, records, archives, operational or business records, scientific research outputs, correspondence, social media, 3d digitization.

‘Practically Extinct’ in the Presence of Aggravating Conditions

Lack of repository infrastructure; external dependencies; dependency on cloud provider; poor storage; churn of staff; significant volumes or diversity of data; poorly developed digitization specifications; ill-informed records management policy; conflation of access with preservation; poorly developed migration or normalization; longstanding protocols or procedures that apply unsuitable paper processes to digital materials; inability to assume responsibility; encryption

‘Endangered’ in the Presence of Good Practice

Repository and preservation infrastructure; strategic leadership; well-developed digitization and migration pathways; participation in the global digital preservation community; Business continuity records i.e. accession records, catalogues loss should be avoidable with good practice

2021 Review

This entry was added in 2019 under ‘Digital Materials in Museums and Galleries’ to bring together submissions from the open nomination process. The 2019 Jury took the view that museums make creative use of digital technology but have weak incentives to preserve the outputs when compared to libraries or archives.  Museums take responsibility for the care of physical collections in the long term which brings a derived requirement to preserve digital materials relating to those collections. The museum sector is lacking preservation capability.

The 2020 Jury noted that the entry was very broadly defined, and whilst it is useful to draw attention to the challenges, it might usefully be disaggregated in the future. They 2021 Jury agreed, commenting on potential misunderstanding with the entry based on what examples first come to readers’ mind when reading the description; some interpreted the material as databases and catalogues, others interpreted it more as business continuity records and interpretive outputs through websites, and readers of the BitList may also have other interpretations with the broad ‘Digital Materials in Museums and Galleries’ title. While these all may fit under the purposively broad entry, the Jury voted to rename and rescope the entry with emphasis on supporting material for collections management, conservation data, interpretative materials, and oral history.

The 2020 Jury also noted a trend towards greater risk based on many museums and galleries, which often rely on visitors for income, closed for extended periods. In those circumstances of economic dislocation digital materials in museums and galleries records are likely to be at a greater risk than in 2019. This trend continues for 2021 with the major funding crisis in museums after Covid 19.

Additional Jury Comments

Much of these records already exist in hybrid and unorganized forms. Most museums do not have a grasp on the scale of their problems (especially big ones that have been doing digital forms of collections management for years and have lots of floppy discs, CDs and legacy systems that have not been properly migrated). Not convinced that museums always have a handle on their data management and apply the appropriate conservation methods and practices to this material to ensure its perennity. Moreover, this sector is incredibly diverse and different needs are likely to exist in different kinds of museums or galleries.

It may be useful to disaggregate this entry again in the next review, pulling out born digital material and content that is potentially at greater risk to create new subsets as well as separating those with less risk. For example:

Databases and catalogues may have lower risk as they are more likely to be preserved because they are periodically updated. Museums have significant incentives to maintain collection catalogues for audit purposes and to share these with the public. Such databases are likely to face less severe preservation challenges than data generated about the collection through museum operations, conservation or research. But there can still be a lack of preserving the content in databases and a long way to go in smaller institutions (yes, tech and vendors improving, but the issue is with institutions).

Interpretive outputs through websites may have reduced risk as web outputs if captured as part of national web archiving initiatives. Exhibition catalogues and interpretation of collections are often published online in research papers, etc.

Related data sets present different challenges too. For example, 3D digitization is a particular challenge for museums as preservation standards are deficient and easily overlooked in the enthusiasm for fashionable or eye-catching trends which purport to extend access.


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