From the Archives: Digital Preservation

POST BY RSomerset

World Preservation Day Logo by the Digital Preservation Coalition

The 29 November was World Digital Preservation Day, which has as its aim raising awareness of digital preservation. To mark the occasion of World Digital Preservation Day here is a short blog highlighting issues relating to preserving digital records. 

In the Jesuits in Britain Archives we have been conscious for some years now of the need to manage the digital collections already in our care as well as to establish guidance and policies to ensure that all digital material of relevance to the Jesuits in Britain is preserved in the long term. Recently we have begun working on a more systematic approach to digital preservation. As this work progresses we will be able to provide more assistance to others about what needs to be done to preserve digital files for longevity.

Currently in our digital collection, we have born digital records, which are mostly word document files, and digitised records, largely jpegs. There are also some digital audio recordings, power points, a few spreadsheets and a variety of other formats. Mostly this has arrived either via email or on some remote storage device such as a CD and floppy disks, for which we are lucky to still have a driver. As remote media is susceptible to corruption and has a relatively short life span, we ensured that the files are transferred into our computer system. This also has the advantage of being backed up regularly . However, we are conscious that we are not yet doing much to collect and preserve emails, the website or other social media outputs of the Province and the individual members it comprises. As past blog posts will have demonstrated letters form a substantial part of our historic holding so in future there will be demand to see the email correspondence of Jesuits. Blog posts can be the equivalent of diaries and personal reflections and observations on the contemporary world. Therefore it is essential that we capture these for posterity.

Photo showing a harddrive, three coloured floppy disks, a CD case and a USB stick.

We could do more actively to preserve those digital records already in our care. The benefit of digital records in comparison to more traditional paper records is that they can be easily copied without degrading the original file. On the other hand, opening older file formats can be tricky or even impossible as changes in both software and hardware leads to technological obsolescence. This is why early active preservation of digital records is necessary. Errors to digital records, such as bit rot, can occur quickly and without warning causing either the information to be lost or requiring recovery processes to be undertaken. In contrast, damage to physical records are more easily detected at an early stage and can be repaired or stabilised preventing partial or total loss. Thus we are working on creating a digital preservation strategy to ensure that we are doing all that we can to ensure survival of these important records.

Passive preservation is not an option with digital archives, as unlike paper, digital records not selected for active preservation early have a high chance of being unusable in just a matter of years. If you have any digital records that you think should be preserved in the archives in future and would like to discuss these with us please contact us. As we develop our understanding of digital preservation and implement procedures we will share these with relevant parties.

Rebecca Somerset