Let’s begin: Digital Preservation and the Pet Peeve

Digital Preservation is scary and hard and no one knows what they’re doing and what if we don’t do it perfectly and the lions, tigers and bears of posterity will come and eat us because we missed things!

90% of digital preservation talks, articles, and discussions I have with Librarians, faculty, students, and archivists can be boiled down to that point. And they are wrong.

Now my pet peeve is not that they are intimidated.  There’s nothing wrong with looking at a problem and going, “Holy crap, I may have under-estimated the size of the issue.”  There’s nothing wrong with saying “I don’t know how to deal with this.”

My pet peeve is that this attitude feeds fear and distrust and perfectionism. My pet peeve is this waving our hands about saying “We can’t do this.” The corollary of this pet peeve is “We’re doing this, but we refuse to share what we’re doing in detail.”

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The thing is, we can do digital preservation, and we must.  Digital preservation is part doing things (standardizing file formats, harvesting or soliciting content, adding relevant metadata) and part checking to make sure things haven’t gone terribly wrong.

Despite the impression the OAIS model may have given, Digital Preservation isn’t rocket science.  It’s computer and information sciences.  Things that, historically, librarians and archives have somewhat figured out.

Here are the basics:

  • Digital Preservation Managers come up with standards based on a common set of goals and current understanding for file formats and needed metadata and says “I can preserve your things for you” to the community.
  • Community Member has a thing that needs preserving.
  • Digital preservation managers get content.
  • They add metadata and preservation information.
  • They make it available.
  • Users get content forever (or as long as possible)

Now, there are nuances here.  Does bit level preservation matter to you?  If so, how much does it matter?  Do you just need the things to be available for as long as possible?  How big is your thing? These are factors like in any acquisition or project.

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That should be your attitude.  Because look, you made a basic plan.  Your plan is a very good plan, your agreements about format aren’t set in stone, but you got this.   This isn’t rocket science, it requires planning, and work and communication. On the bright side, you’re probably not going to light things on fire or crash a multi-billion dollar piece of equipment into Mars.

If you can’t do something now, do what you can.  This means adding metadata, a checksum, making lots of copies to keep things safe.  Keep the basic code, checksum that stuff too.  Keep a few copies.  Keep researching for information on that file type.  Look in unconventional places, look at gamer sites, emulation communities, user groups, people who are just spitballing.  Every bit of information you can gather helps.

And then, once you figured it out, PUBLISH IT SOMEWHERE.  Someone is probably having the same problem as you, (or a similar problem at the very least) and any information you can collect will help everyone. Digital Preservation shouldn’t be a black box system.

Now, resources:

  • National Archives of Australia:  Lots of cool stuff, but I’ve never been able to get the Digital Preservation Recorder to work, but I suspect the error lies between the keyboard and the chair, rather than the software.  That being said, Xena and Manifest Maker are amazing and essential.
  • Library of Congress Sustainability of Digital Formats:  Useful as hell, updated regularly, basically all you ever want to know about file formats in a digestible form.
  • Library of Congress Tools Showcase: All the tools you may ever want to test.  I can’t say I’ve tried most of these except for Archivematica (which seems like it would work well if the documentation made any sense) and Archivist’s Toolkit (Good documentation, no longer updated).
  • OAIS:  You, of course, can read the full OAIS reference model, it is interesting and good and complex as hell.  Use the workflow as more of a table of contents to the report, rather than looking at it and immediately running away. To dip your toes into the water, read OCLC’s summary instead.  It is your basic acquisition, processing, access model once you strip it down to its bare parts.

Last words: The sky is not falling.  It is merely raining.  So get out the umbrellas and put on some boots, because it is raining digital content, and we can be prepared.