This section of the guide answers some of the key questions around documentation:

What should be documented?

There is no definitive list of the types of documentation that an organization needs in order to carry out its digital preservation activities, though if you are considering certification there may be a list of documentation that is required as evidence (see for example the CoreTrustSeal Trustworthy Digital Repositories Requirements 2023-2025 which includes details of suggested supporting evidence that could be submitted). 

The list below is not exhaustive, but provides a range of examples mentioned by participants of our focus groups. Some of these have been grouped under different parts of the digital preservation workflow.

  • Acquisition transfer and ingest - for example, acquisition, transfer or deposit procedures, pre-ingest and ingest procedures, procedures to handle specific sorts of media carriers, normalization procedures, guidance on appraisal and selection of content.

  • Bitstream preservation - for example, integrity checking procedures, procedures for copying or moving files, details of storage locations used.

  • Content preservation - for example, technology/preservation watch review process, and detailed instructions on tools and processes for preservation actions.

  • Metadata management - for example, guidance on metadata creation, documentation of metadata standards and controlled vocabularies in use.

  • Discovery and access - for example, procedures for managing and providing access to digital content.

Documentation may additionally include staff roles and responsibilities around digital preservation, technical details on system integrations, systems architecture, asset registers for servers and storage, access procedures for digital preservation/computer forensics facilities, lists of hardware and software available in-house, exit strategy and service level agreements with third parties.


Why should we document? 

Some of the benefits (and risks) related to documentation are summarized below. Note also that in our interviews with selected focus group participants you can find about why documentation is important for them and their organizations (read their answers here). 



Good documentation is important for ensuring that digital preservation processes are carried out consistently no matter who is doing it and at what point in time. It ensures that the workflows are repeatable and reproducible and that processes are standardized within an organization.

Risk of not having documentation - If documentation does not exist, it is easier for individual working practices to diverge and become inconsistent. Even if only one member of staff is carrying out a process, it is easy to forget steps if they are not written down (particularly for those tasks that are less frequently carried out).


Training and knowledge management

Good documentation is important for supporting staff to carry out digital preservation procedures. Whether you have new staff who need to access documentation as part of their training, or whether you want to increase levels of confidence in digital preservation procedures for existing staff members, documentation is key to sharing this knowledge. 

Risk of not having documentation - Documentation is important for succession planning and knowledge will be lost without it. Information on how to manage digital preservation activities should not only be held in one person’s head! 


To communicate with others

Good documentation is an important tool for a range of advocacy and knowledge sharing activities, both internal and external. There may be situations (beyond training staff) where it is helpful to share information about processes with others, for example: 

  • to demonstrate to donors and depositors that good practice is being followed.

  • to show users of the digital content how authenticity is maintained over time.

  • to share knowledge and compare processes with other organizations (the OSSArcFlow project is a good example of this).

  • to discuss digital preservation activities with internal stakeholders from different departments and help them understand their responsibilities in the overall process. 

Having thorough documentation of operations makes it easier to share and communicate workflows and processes.

Risk of not having documentation - Without documentation, there is a lack of accountability. It becomes harder to demonstrate to others that digital preservation good practice is being followed and this brings reputational risk.


To support continuous improvement

Good quality documentation enables the evaluation and analysis of processes and procedures, both by those working within the organization, and by third parties if appropriate. Documentation allows for the identification of gaps or operational bottlenecks and could lead to further improvements. Documentation opens up opportunities for processes to be more easily analyzed. Note that the OSSArcFlow project provides an excellent example of how this has worked in practice. It was noted that the process of creating the documentation itself was important in helping the project partners to recognize and articulate their pain points, and to then take steps toward addressing those issues.

Risk of not having documentation - Without documentation it is harder to evaluate processes, to understand why something has gone wrong, and to learn from mistakes. It can be challenging to debug and improve workflows if they are not well documented (particularly if being assessed by a third party).


To support certification or accreditation

Good documentation is an essential requirement for an organization applying for certification or accreditation. Depending on the scheme or standard that is being applied for, documentation will be required as evidence to demonstrate that digital preservation is being carried out to an appropriate standard.

Risk of not having documentation - Without documentation it is unlikely that an organization will be able to demonstrate their maturity or meet certification requirements.


For transparency and authenticity

Being able to prove the authenticity of preserved content is essential in digital preservation. Being open and transparent about what has happened to that preserved content is important. Good documentation supports this by ensuring the chain of custody and provenance is captured and a historic understanding of processes and working practices is available in the future. It will allow future custodians and users to understand the workflows, actions and decisions that were taken at different points in time, thus enabling them to assess the trustworthiness of the preserved information.

Risk of not having documentation - Without documentation there is a lack of transparency and it becomes harder for an organization to demonstrate their own working practices (both current and past). This may lead to a loss of trust in the digital content being preserved. It is hard for someone to establish whether content is authentic if there is no record of how it has been managed. 


To support internal planning and management

Good documentation supports the effective management of digital preservation activities in many ways. It can be used to support requests for resourcing, to manage evolving needs and aid forward planning, to assign clear roles and responsibilities to staff, to better understand risks and mitigate them and to better understand the impact of organizational changes.

Risk of not having documentation - Where no documentation is present, digital preservation may be less visible within an organization. There will be a lack of oversight and it will be harder to support resourcing requests.


Finding the right balance…

Remember that it is important to find the right balance around documentation. Whilst noting the benefits of documentation, there are also potential risks around creating too much documentation or having inaccurate or out-of-date documentation. Documentation takes time and effort to create and maintain and that of course means less time spent on other activities. It is important to understand the commitment and ensure there is time set aside to keep documentation up to date and relevant. 

Ensure also that the presence of documentation doesn’t lead to a stagnation of processes and procedures. Though stability is a good thing, in a discipline like digital preservation it is important there is also space for new ideas and innovation. Don’t stick to doing the same out-dated process simply because that is what the documentation says you should do. There should be a process for reviewing and evolving practices where appropriate and of course to ensure that documentation is also updated accordingly.


Who is it for?

When creating any form of documentation it is important to consider who you are creating it for and why they might need to access it. There will be some variation depending on your organizational context. The table below defines some of the key audiences to consider. 



Internal audiences

Digital preservation staff 

For most organizations, this will be the primary audience - internal documentation at practitioner level.

Other archives or records management staff

Other staff working with archives and records within your organization may need to be able to access documentation about digital preservation processes and procedures.

IT staff

IT staff may need access to digital preservation documentation in order to effectively support digital preservation activities.

Senior management/administrators

Senior managers may need access to digital preservation documentation in order to understand workload, gain clarity on roles and responsibilities and ensure adequate resourcing is available for digital preservation.

Compliance officer

A compliance officer may need to access digital preservation documentation to check that rules and procedures are being followed as appropriate, for example around privacy, data protection and safeguarding.

External audiences

Certification bodies and reviewers

Where digital preservation certification or accreditation is being sought, it is likely that assessors or reviewers will need to see evidence of digital preservation activities in the form of documentation.

Digital preservation practitioners within other organizations

Sharing of digital preservation processes and procedures is helpful to the wider digital preservation community. It can be incredibly valuable to see how others manage and preserve digital content and also how this has been documented, whether through informal ad-hoc sharing on request, or more formal publication or presentations online.

Donors and depositors or record creators

Documentation for this audience is likely to include guidance on preparing digital content for transfer. They may also require access to information about how their digital content is being preserved going forward.


There may be information that users of your digital content will need access to in order to assess the authenticity of the content that is being served to them.


Points to note:

  • Do not assume that you need to write your documentation to meet the needs of all of these audiences, but do carefully consider which you are serving, as this will impact decisions about the level of detail, format, language and platform you use when creating and providing access to the documentation.

  • Remember to consider future audiences as well as those who will need to access the documentation now.

  • Note that the level of digital preservation knowledge of your readers is likely to vary depending on the specific audiences you have in mind for the documentation. Ensure you adjust the content as appropriate. 

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