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Misconceptions of Digital Preservation

Digital preservation provides the opportunity to prevent the loss of archival materials and open up the doors for discovery. While it’s an exciting time, there are some misunderstandings about what it means to digitally preserve an archive.  

We’re sharing some top misconceptions we hear when talking about digital preservation. Let’s dive in and provide some clarity.

1. We can get an intern to scan things.

We often hear about organizations setting up interns or volunteers with a flatbed scanner to “digitize” their archival materials. While the intention is good, the effort functions more as a bandaid than a long term solution.

Digital preservation requires careful consideration and a team of experts. 

Before diving in, you need to first establish a strategy. You’ll need to audit your materials to determine how many items you have, the type and the condition. It’s also best practice to set up stakeholder interviews to assess audience needs, storytelling opportunities and frequently used terms.

With a strategy in place you can then begin digital preservation imaging, but be aware that the process requires training and experience. To ensure the files produced are “preservation quality” we recommend following the Federal Agencies Digital Guidelines Initiative (FADGI). You can find our quick guide here

HistoryIT’s preservation imaging team strives to exceed the FADGI guidelines. Our studio is equipped with all the tools necessary to capture high resolution images with precise lighting, levels, color and more. These are designed to withstand evolving technology and protect the intellectual value of the item should the original be lost. 

An intern with a scanner often results in low resolution files that could become obsolete in the future. JPG and PDF formats are already starting to be questioned. An intern also lacks the institutional knowledge and training to structure digital assets in a way that makes them accessible and therefore useful to the organization. 

While we understand the pressure to start digital preservation initiatives, taking time to do things properly will prevent redundant work, or worse — loss of institutional knowledge. 

To learn more, you can access our digital preservation imaging guide here

2. If we’ve imaged things, we’re set.

Organizations that want to check a digital preservation box sometimes take a “scan it and forget it” approach. While this takes a step toward protecting the original archival materials should they be lost in a disaster, it falls short of preserving them.

Digital preservation requires thoughtful creation and implementation of a metadata strategy. Metadata is the “data about data.” It serves as a structured way to describe, manage and organize digital assets. This is the special sauce that makes them more accessible and understandable now and in the future.

Ever come across an old photo without any information written on the back? Digitizing materials without metadata is exactly that. Fun to look at, but difficult to extract any useful information.

With descriptions, names, dates, locations, themes, events, etc. tagged, you have the potential to not only preserve your organization’s history, but to also make new connections. You’ll be able to find items with relations that perhaps you didn’t know existed. There’s incredible potential for new storytelling opportunities. 

Our partners at Kappa Kappa Gamma said it best, “Connections are being made and conclusions are being drawn on a daily basis.” — Maggie Sims Coons, KKG Foundation Executive Director

If you want to see us wax poetic about the magic of metadata, you can dive into those details here.

3. We can back up our files on a hard drive.

This one gives us shivers. We’ve heard tragic stories of archives “digitizing” materials, maintaining a database on a physical computer or hard drive, then losing both the physical and digital copies in a disaster.

Any digital preservation effort needs to include secure cloud storage. Preferably using a collections management software that supports proper organization, cataloging, tagging and sharing of your digital assets.

HistoryIT developed Odyssey Preservation Software to protect your digital assets. We utilize AWS, so you get all the guarantees and security that Amazon provides. Our bank level encryption ensures your assets and data are safe and sound — stored in multiple data centers.

We also designed the software to maximize accessibility internally and externally. All of your metadata becomes active links, allowing you to conduct global searches for relevant content across all collections and item types. That same searchability extends to the public-facing digital museum that all Odyssey users have the ability to build using the software.

You can see Odyssey in action on the Muhammad Ali Center’s digital museum here.

4. Digital preservation is for museums and archives.

You may hear about the push for digital preservation within the museums and archives industry. However, the value of digital preservation extends beyond these officially recognized repositories.

Each and every organization has a story to tell. Preserving that story for future generations is critical. 

Digital preservation, when done properly, is the only way to ensure your archival materials stand the test of time. By committing to digital preservation, your team is investing in the stability and growth of your institutional knowledge. 

Sharing your organization’s history transparently and using it to communicate your plans for the future has never been more powerful. Through digital preservation, you’ll gain access to the materials you need to share your value, experience and impact.

So while it’s incredibly important that museums and archives are making materials accessible and future-proof, it’s a process that’s valuable for anyone with history. (That’s everyone.) 

5. We’ll deal with digital preservation next year.

Wildfires burned the Hewlett-Packard archives destroying the records of the founders of Silicon Valley’s first technology company.

Record breaking flooding swept through Kentucky devastating the archives at Appalshop, an arts and media center dedicated to documenting Appalachian culture. Decades of history were lost.

A fire at Universal Studios destroyed 500,00 records. Original recordings from Aretha Franklin, Nirvana and Snoop Dogg were lost.

The disaster in Lahaina this summer took out four museums. The fires burned countless artifacts, including an original native Hawaiian kingdom flag. 

Outside of the growing number of disasters, there’s the threat of natural decay. Magnetic tape’s lifespan is only 30 years. Those DVDs we stored precious memories on can degrade in about 10–20 years. With heat and humidity rising, it’s becoming increasingly challenging to maintain proper archival conditions.

We say all of this not to induce panic. 

Digital preservation needs to be an organizational priority. As time passes, your risk of decay and disaster increases — your missed opportunities for connection pile up. Taking action prevents that.

What to Do

Now that you know what not to do, let’s talk about what to do.

We have the steps for building a digital archive outlined here. Take a look to better understand the process and needs to preserve your materials and share your stories.

It’s a big task to take on internally. It can be thousands of hours of work. We’re here to help. Digital preservation strategy, digitization, metadata and software — we’ve got you covered.  

Reach out, ask questions. Save history.

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