Digital Preservation Matters As Our Records, And History, Are Vanishing

[Originally published on the TeraThink blog]

Some 3.5 inch floppy disks from the 80s and 90s. Recognize any?I’ve been seeing an uptick in interest in digital preservation recently. We are a few decades into the digital age and even without the push to digitally transform everything, people are realizing that they have a lot of digital information. I am surrounded by people who are using a digital records system I put in place over a decade ago. This puts that system into the realm of digital preservation. As per AIIM in their 2017 Digital Preservation Market Research:

The capabilities to ensure the readability and usability of digital information that must be retained for longer than 10 years.

I used to think ten years was a long time. It isn’t. People are also realizing that while storing large volumes of electronic documents is easier than paper, you have to take greater care. I have books that are older than 100 years in my house. The only accessible, viable, digital content I have over 25 years old are some music compact discs.

As we create more and more digital information, we need to start thinking more about long-term preservation.

The World of Coca-Cola

The Coca-Cola Bear at the World of Coca-Cola saying hello to a girlThere are two people in the world. Those who prefer Coca-Cola and those who are wrong. Being from a southern family, that is a given fact. Growing up I would see ads for Pepsi but I didn’t really know anyone who drank the stuff. That type of brand devotion has been built from years of cool, innovative advertising. One day, Coca-Cola realized that their memorabilia and history merited a museum of their own.

In 1990, the World of Coca-Cola was born. Now in its second location in Atlanta, it contains a large collection of knick-knacks and promotional items from over the decades. And yes, it is a large advertisement for Coke, it is also a step into memory lane. Many of those older items I would see in old gas stations in the middle of nowhere. Some were items that I saw growing up.

It is all history that would have been lost if someone hadn’t preserved it. The original formula, the old toys, every bit of history would have been gone. Of course, now they create most of their history digitally. What is being done to continue preserving the story for millions of devoted fans?

Our History

So, what does this have to do with everyone else? It is a matter of perspective. We spend so much time trying to get the job done, we don’t always think about a year from now, much less a decade. Think about banks and governments. They have legal requirements to keep records for over ten years. Governments must keep many of those records permanently. If you immigrate to the U.S., your record is forever.

This poses a challenge. As we digitize these processes, what steps are we taking to make sure that the records can be found, accessed, and read by future staff and historians? When a records policy expires, do we consider the historical potential before deleting that history forever? As my friend Jed Cawthorne has pointed outThere is often a tension between operational records management and long-term preservation and archiving.

Are we storing things in the correct formats? Sure, we have PDF/A, a nice little archiving standard, but what about pictures? Audio and video files are even more complex. Pictures can at least be printed if we get desperate but what about that video interview?

And none of this takes into account that the storage devices decay over time. Some of them faster than others.

What Do We Do?

Well, the first thing is to make sure you capture and classify your information. To adjust an old saying of mine, you cannot preserve what you don’t capture. Think about file formats. Keep that Word copy of your report, but save a PDF/A version for the day when Word goes the way of WordPerfect and WordStar. Consider placing things in the cloud to offset the storage medium risks. Just be sure to make an informed, long-term, decision on how you select a vendor.

Oh, and automate the process. The last thing you want to do is create more work for people.

Our hard work, and history, is vanishing through neglect and too much focus on today. We all need to take a step back and consider not only how we might need to interact with our information in the future, but how the future will need to interact with our information.

In the meantime, Have a Coke and a smile.

3 thoughts on “Digital Preservation Matters As Our Records, And History, Are Vanishing

  1. Curious Mayhem says:

    Dark Age indeed. We should have an “endgame” protocol for digital documents.

    Cloud, content, and archive services should have a layered approach to deleting or archiving documents that can be largely, but not completely, automated. Or perhaps some kind of metadata tagging, like “delete permanently after 30 days,” or “delete after 7 years,” or “archive indefinitely,” or “archive indefinitely with periodic notices.”


  2. Laurence Hart says:

    The rules will vary but one person’s trash is another person’s treasure.

    Redundant storage to prevent storage media, and mother nature, from destroying the stored bits. Automatic renditioning to multiple baseline formats, with new renditions created when a new baseline rendition is generated.

    Not an easy challenge but one that will take greater awareness before we can successfully tackle it.


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