The Challenges of Digital Preservation

To kick off American Archives Month, university archivist Erin Mahaney has written three blog posts discussing archives, preservation, and the challenges of preserving our past. See post one here.

by Erin Mahaney

The challenges of preserving digital archives are increasingly visible and widely discussed (for example, Bina Venkataraman’s article in the Boston Globe from May 17, 2015: The race to preserve disappearing data). Though good standards exist for the storage and management of digital data, archivists still face an uncertain future for the long-term digital preservation of archival records. Some digital media of the 1990s and early 2000s has not even had the opportunity to stand the test of time the way older formats have, simply because newer media is evolving at a much more rapid rate. Faced with storage devices such as floppy disks, archivists must continually find ways to access content on media that is becoming obsolete faster than we can design ways to preserve it. Reading older storage media alone may require archives to maintain old hardware or create Frankencomputers.* While some mediums or particular file formats do have advantages over others, digital preservation requires an increasingly complex and multifaceted approach. Such an approach includes but is not limited to: multiple copies in geographically dispersed locations, regular fixity checks, good metadata management, and usually migration, normalization, and/or emulation as needed to preserve the content, authenticity, and functionality of digital records.

*As the name implies, a “Frankencomputer” is basically a computer made up of numerous parts from other defunct computers, helpful for employing multiple access points for different kinds of removable media.

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