Designing the Digital Archive: the challenge is real, and we must face it now

Ask any of our members about their archive, and they’d likely tell you about the digital collections they manage. The clue is in the name really… at the Digital Preservation Coalition, our vision of an archive is one that must include the digital.

Our members are found in many different sectors, currently in ten countries and on three continents. They represent global corporations, national and local memory institutions, higher education and research institutions, broadcasters, strategic investors and funding bodies and professional bodies. This means their collections could include anything from business records, oral histories, outputs from corporate social media accounts, research data, artworks, software, to websites.

The DPC community represents a range of sectors and organisation types and they work together, with Coalition staff, on matters of digital preservation advocacy, development, training, scholarships, publications, research and standards development.

This also means that the challenges they face are often complex. They are constantly and actively monitoring, planning, administering and managing digital materials, systems and workflows to ensure their longevity beyond the limits of technology obsolescence and degradation. And guess what, they are doing all this in the knowledge that the amount of digital materials which need preserving will steadily (and dramatically) increase over time.

But this is a given. DPC members and the digital preservation community are OK with this. They know that digital archives will ultimately become the norm, that all archives will have a digital element in the future.

If we asked them about their vision for the ‘perfect’ digital archive (another question altogether we know), we think they would say: that collaboration is necessary (no one has all the skills needed); undertaking advocacy and being able to explain the value of what you have and what you’re doing is essential; that the earlier you intervene in the lifecycle of a digital object, the more likely you will be able to successfully preserve it; and that digital preservation is about more than just storage (an oft repeated mantra!) Technology is important but having robust policies and procedures, sustainable resources, and well-skilled staff are equally so.

They would also tell you that building a community of practice in a developing field is important and that is one of the key benefits they draw from DPC membership. To help do this, we support our members through a range of activities including advocacy, community development, training, scholarships, publications, research, contributing to standards development, and direct support.

But, ultimately the most important thing about digital preservation is that just getting out there and doing something, no matter how small it seems, is much better than doing nothing. For all the while no action is taken, the challenge is getting greater and the risk of losing important records increases exponentially. For help figuring out what that something might be, you can start with some of the free resources available via our Knowledge Base, including the Digital Preservation Handbook, Topical Notes (for non-specialists), Technology Watch Reports and the Executive Guide.

A digital archive is a reality in all of our futures, and the greatest risk to digital information is inaction, so let’s get started!

By Sarah Middleton, Head of Communications and Advocacy and Sharon McMeekin, Head of Workforce Development, Digital Preservation Coalition