Illustration by Jørgen Stamp CC BY 2.5 Denmark



This section together with Preservation issues is designed as a briefing for those new to digital preservation. It is structured into four inter-linked sub-sections. In addition it has a close relationship to the Getting started section, which is also particularly designed with those new to digital preservation in mind.


Digital preservation: the challenge of a generation


Any digital object can be considered in scope for digital preservation: born digital or digitised, corporate or personal, innovative or routine. Digital preservation can encompass texts and images, databases and spreadsheets, vectors or rasters, programs and applications, desktop files and enterprise systems, email and social media, games, movies, music and sound, entire web domains and individual tweets. Digital collections can derive from laptops or desktops or smart phones; from tablets, souped-up servers or hulking great mainframes. They can be snapped at the end of a selfie stick or beamed from sensors deep in space; they can be generated by tills and cash machines, by satellites and scanners, by tiny sensitive chips and massive arrays. They can be stored in repositories or data centres or USB sticks. There is no digital object or system that is not provisionally within scope for digital preservation.

Pervasive, changing and ubiquitous, digital technologies are a defining feature of our age. Digital materials are a core commodity for industry, commerce and government. They are fundamental for research, the law and medicine. The creative industries, cultural heritage and the media depend on reliable access to digital materials while families and friends extend and sustain their relationships through digital interactions.

But digital materials - and the opportunities they create - are fragile even if they also have the capacity to be durable through replication. Digital platforms change and the long chains of interdependence on which they depend are complicated and fluid. Their longevity and utility is threatened where contents or contexts are lost: engagement and exploitation are enabled when digital materials endure. The greater the importance of digital materials, the greater the need for their preservation: digital preservation protects investment, captures potential and transmits opportunities to future generations and our own.

Already we have made great strides in averting a "digital dark age". There are a growing number of repositories all over the world that can claim a long track record of keeping digital materials well over many decades (for example the UK Data Archive founded in 1967). This gives us a broad foundation of experience and collaborative professional networks to draw on.

It is a shared, generational challenge.


The always emerging digital preservation challenge


The unifying characteristic of digital materials is their machine-dependency. Information can only be accessed and functions can only be executed through a computer. As technology becomes more sophisticated this dependence becomes an ever more elaborate chain of inter-dependencies that are hard to track and tricky to maintain.

So long as the IT sector remains innovative in its provision of new tools and technologies, digital preservation managers will respond by devising effective strategies for ensuring the durability and usability of new digital materials, so digital preservation will remain an always-emerging challenge.

To ensure the value of digital materials in the long run we need to ensure access, which in turn means we need to understand and mitigate rapid changes in technology and organisations (see Preservation issues).

Digital material can often only be archived well in digital form: there is no non-digital equivalent such as paper that retains all the essential information and functionality it provides. Too often it has been necessary to print out digital material for archiving and then even re-digitizing the printed copy later because there has been no local capacity for managing born digital material.

Today we have a growing and effective body of approaches, experience, and collaboration to address the challenges. Digital preservation is an important, necessary and doable endeavour with simple first steps all can undertake (see Getting started).


What is in scope?


Simply because everything could be in scope for a digital preservation strategy does not mean that everything should be preserved.

The question is less what can be preserved so much as what should not be lost. Selection, appraisal and disposal are significant components in any digital management activity. In the context of an expanding digital universe, a determined effort to identify, process and retain digital material of enduring value means on one hand that the right material is available to the right people at the right time in the right format; and on the other hand material is identified that can be actively removed or benignly neglected.

Digital material provides profound new opportunities for access and use of repositories. If digital collections exist in a fast changing environment, then we should expect that our users do too. Users of digital materials are likely to be using technology that is not yet fully developed in ways that we cannot fully anticipate, in places we may never visit and for purposes that we may struggle to predict. So any meaningful answer to the question of 'how can we preserve digital materials' will rapidly resolve to 'what can we do to ensure that these digital materials can be used'? Preservation planning will only succeed when user needs are fulfilled.

All of this indicates a requirement that wherever possible the long term viability of digital materials should be defined early not late. Preservation action is needed at the start of the life of a digital object, not always at its end. Creation, management and archiving of digital materials are no longer at opposite ends of a process but are integrated all the way through. By extension, preservation is no longer simply a concern for memory institutions in the long term but for everyone interested in using and accessing digital materials.


Who needs to be involved?


The ability to preserve digital materials depends upon a wide range of stakeholders. Principal among these are the creators of digital content, whose involvement in their preservation might involve, for example, consideration of standards in terms of format and media, and ensuring enough contextual information is available to enable their management by others. Creators may often be unaware of their pivotal role. This could be for all kinds of reasons, but a vital part of any digital preservation effort is the effective dialogue with creators of digital materials to inform and advocate the value of their engagement (to them and others).

If the creators of digital materials have a responsibility to enable long term access, then this responsibility is borne even more fully by those who provide the infrastructure and environments in which they are created. In some cases this may be a corporate function, with the provision of corporate tools and services which are preservation ready. In other cases responsibility will be borne by external service providers who host digital infrastructure for clients.

The nature of digital technology dictates that it is not feasible simply to hand over stewardship of the resource at some point in the future, without having managed it sufficiently to facilitate sustainability.

In some cases, institutions will manage their own digital legacy: large institutions that create digital materials may most sensibly be the ones to manage them in the long term, thus maximising return on their initial investment. But in other contexts co-operative models for long-term preservation have emerged involving a number of organisations. Both subject specialist and expert centres have emerged offering specific preservation solutions for specific types of digital material.

For some organisations, it may prove more cost-effective to contract all or part of their digital preservation activities to a third party. Whilst it may be advantageous to outsource, it is important to remember responsibility remains with the organisation. Staff will need to be sufficiently aware of digital preservation issues, particularly as they relate to legal, organisational and contractual problems, to manage these third party contracts effectively.

Any institution which places value on digital resources in general needs to ensure the long-term preservation of digital materials. A significant number of institutions have not only taken that role on for themselves but have offered wider leadership in addressing the practical implications of digital preservation.

Ultimately however, digital preservation cannot be perceived as solely a concern for archives, libraries, museums and other memory institutions: it is a challenge for all who have an interest in creating, using, acquiring and making accessible, digital materials.



Why Digital Preservation is Important for Everyone

Short Library of Congress video produced in 2010 for the non-specialist audience explaining how traditional information sources such as books, photos and sculptures can easily survive for years, decades or even centuries but digital items are fragile and require special care to keep them useable. Rapid technological changes also affect digital preservation. As new technologies appear, older ones become obsolete, making it difficult to access older content. (2 mins 51 secs)