Digital Preservation on a Shoestring: Impossible?

Anthea Seles

Anthea Seles

Digital preservation should be a standard service supported and offered by archives, but many archivists feel daunted by the prospect, often not knowing where to begin, especially when there may be little resource (e.g. personnel, infrastructure and finance) at their disposal. So is digital preservation possible on a shoestring? If so, how? If not, then what happens to valuable digital records?

Digital preservation standards and maturity models

There are two international standards that guide and inform digital preservation: The Open Archival Information System (OAIS) (ISO 14721) and Repository Audit and Certification (RAC) (ISO16363). For clarification, OAIS is a conceptual model NOT a certification model, what that means is that it was developed to define a common terminology for different professions to speak about digital objects, their capture, preservation, and dissemination. However, I would add that there is no such thing as an OAIS compliant repository, if you are looking to measure the compliance of a digital repository then you need to look to a certification standard like RAC. RAC describes different elements that need to be present for a digital repository to be certified as at ‘Trusted’ digital repository.

During my doctoral studies at University College London, I studied and researched the applicability of these two standards for use in a low resource context and I realised that they made a lot of presumptions- yes even the conceptual model- about infrastructure, access to trained personnel, amongst others. I think RAC and its certification criteria are unreachable even for well resourced institutions, however I would argue that many digital repository certification standards make certification unattainable unless an organisation has significant resources at its disposal. That said, certification needs to be demanding to ensure that digital materials are properly captured, preserved and made accessible, but if the certification standards are unattainable by even the most well resourced organisations, then what is the value of certification?

A maturity model might be a good way to help organisations work their way up to certification and the Digital Preservation Coalition Rapid Assessment Model is a good way for organisations to determining their starting point and how to progress. But the question still remains what does digital preservation look like on a shoestring?

The end is not nigh

I may have painted a bleak picture regarding the applicability of digital preservation standards but the end is not nigh! When I went to archival school we did not have hands on digital preservation training, the situation is changing, which is great! But there are still archives or information studies schools around the world where digital preservation training is not available or accessible. Moreover, professional development courses on the topic are scarce, although that is improving too. A few examples of entry level courses include DPC’s ‘Novice to ninja’ and ICA’s upcoming course ‘Managing Digital Archives’ (Fall 2020). There are also great webinars available that discuss and explore what institutions need to consider when embarking on digital preservation, have a look at one prepared by the University of Westminster. I am sure there are many more resources out there and I’d be happy to receive information about them!

So, I’ve been dancing around the topic, but what does digital preservation on a shoestring look like? If an organisation has no resource and is looking for where to start, I would say there are three (3) things that are critical:

  1. Identify your file formats– You need to understand what you have to understand how to start preserving it.
  2. Integrity checks– Also known as checksums. They are an alphanumeric sequence that allow you to ensure that digital records have not corrupted or altered overtime.
  3. Backups– Make copies! The mantra of the digital archivist. Preserving digital records means you must have built in redundancies, so that if records corrupt you have a back up as such having at least 2 to 3 copies of your digital records/holdings is important.

There are lots of free tools to help you do file format identification and integrity checks, one I like and am familiar with is DROID, maintained by The National Archives UK, but there are more out there. Again if you have a good, free, easy to use tool then let me know!

It is difficult to describe in a short blog post all the different aspects of doing digital preservation on a shoestring and all the things to think about. One thing I will say is that doing digital preservation on a shoestring is incredibly manual, time consuming and detail oriented! Digital does NOT equal automated. Also .csv and Excel skills are your friends, so do take some Excel courses or check out YouTube Excel tutorials. There are great resources out there and I am hoping people will share their experiences about digital preservation when you have nothing.

My plea to the community is: Do not be afraid to try! I know it is daunting but there are lots of resources available to help. Everyone has to start somewhere.