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Digital Preservation: Where to Begin

Posted by Alexander Nietzold on 10/31/15 1:52 PM

Keeping something around is a lot of work and often times a lot of luck as well. Why do we do it and how can we do it better?


You may be familiar with “reduce, reuse, recycle” in relation to waste management, but it is also relevant to the responsibilities of a library. As librarians and archivists, we are stewards of human knowledge.  Our goal is to reduce the loss of information, reuse it by providing access to patrons, and ultimately recycle it as our communities build off what came before to create new information. Every step in that process is important but for this blog post, we’re interested specifically in the first step, reducing the loss of information. In libraries and archives, we call this preservation.

The objective of preservation is to ensure the survival of an object into the future so that it may be accessed by future generations. It is not enough to follow the techniques established by our predecessors or accept previous limitations. We must be mindful of the objects we are preserving and the technological ecosystems they inhabit. With consistent vigilance and innovation, we can be confident that we’re doing the best job possible. Instead of being concerned exclusively with physical objects, we must also manage information which is increasingly in a digital form. Data management plans are becoming common requirements for grants and no plan is complete without addressing data preservation.


Digital Preservation Challenges

There are two large categories of threat when addressing preservation in a digital environment. A failure is most likely to occur at either the hardware or the software level.

Digital media relies on a chain of technology that is much longer than most traditional physical media. The individual components of that chain in their finished form also tend to be more dependent on each other than the constituent parts of physical media. Finally, the metal and silicon components of a computer may seem stronger than paper and glue but the vulnerable parts of a computer are much more delicate.

The creation of a book starts with four materials: paper, thread, glue, and board. These components are low cost, easy to find, and well understood. A computer hard drive is less affordable, harder to find, and more difficult to understand than a book and it is only one component of a functioning computer. A hard drive is also made of many subcomponents that are likewise expensive, and difficult to find/understand. In addition to a hard drive, most computers need a motherboard, central processing unit, random access memory, power supply, and user input/output such as a mouse, keyboard, and monitor. Since each component of a computer has one or more layers of subcomponents, there are many opportunities for failure.


If part of a page gets folded or torn or the glue begins to crack, even if the book gets torn in half, it is usually stick usable. The convenience of using the book may decrease as it gets beat up, but it is still possible to get at least partial information from it. The pages are held together by the thread and the thread is held in place by the pages. Damage to one or the other will not necessarily mean all the thread is worthless or all the pages are unreadable. It also won’t affect the cover. In a computer, each component interacts with the others so if one part isn’t functioning, the others are unable to compensate and the whole system stops.

Computers at their most basic level seem strong. Metal, plastic, and silicon resist most kinds of damage much better than paper, string, and glue. Actions that would damage a book might have no impact on a computer however actions that would be barely noticeable on a book can ruin a computer. Moving some hard drives while they are spinning can damage them decreasing their lifespan or making them unusable immediately. A drop of water might leave a small mark on a book but that same drop is enough to short a circuit in a computer and damage the electronics.

Learn more about digital preservation in our white paper

Read about potential software failures and how they’re addressed in our preservation white paper. Our white paper reviews threats, solutions, and TIND’s approach to digital preservation. You can also follow our blog for updates.

Download White Paper

Topics: TIND IR - Institutional Repository, TIND RDM - Research Data Management

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