Digital Preservation

How do archivists and historians ensure that digital archival records are not lost to history?  As this article talks about the consequences for losing records can have a huge effects on people’s lives.  On the other hand one cannot get too pessimistic about the challenges of preserving digital records.  I, for one, could not think of any high profile case involving a major lose of digital records.  I just may not be informed but a Google search of “lost digital records” also did not turn up too many cases.  The cases that I could find, like this one, seemed like it was a result of a bad company instead of anything inherently wrong with digital records.

I do think that Kirchenbaum makes a good point when he says that digital records have a physical and symbolic property.  The physical property is stored inside the computer and it takes a computer’s hardware and software to transfer this into a symbolic image or text that actually has meaning for historians.  This is a big change from written records where the physical and symbolic property was the same. 

Like so many other readings, this week’s readings stressed that the preservation concerns for digital records are very similar to preserving physical records, including knowing the provenances of the record, determining its authenticity, and accuracy of the object.

Kirshenbaum also raised other interesting questions about how digital records should be preserved.  Should you keep them in the same format even if there is a risk that the old hardware needed to run the digital material will not be available in the future?  Should you preserve a file on a computer or the entire computer?  These are important concerns that also concern physical records.  For example, should you keep a tattered letter from the 16th century in its original form even though it could deteriorate quickly or make a digital copy of that letter? Should you preserve just this letter or preserve the quill it was written with, the room it was created in, and records of the town where the author was born? All of these records would place this letter in greater historical context.  Archivists have to make decisions on what to save and what not to save whether they are physical or digital records.

The Brennan and Kelly article showed that the preservation of records for history is not the top concern of the people who lived through an historical event.   This article did a good job of showing the work historians need to do to go out and search and ask for records when people do not donate them on their own.

This topic should make all historians think of how they can help preserve important records from the time they are created and realize that digital records have preservation challenges just like physical records. 

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1 Comment

Filed under US History

One response to “Digital Preservation

  1. I enjoyed your musings on the question regarding how much surrounding material one should preserve – just the letter, or the pen, the room, etc. I had just been reading about a related issue. Dostoevsky’s last apartment has been turned into a museum, and since many writers did their work in actual apartment buildings, questions remain about how to create a public museum in an apartment building which is still in use by other residents. In some ways, digital records are definitely simpler.

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