Before this week, digital preservation used to seem like this insanely complicated and overly technical process that I never thought I could truly understand. My background is in history and fine arts, I never took an advanced math or science class in highschool or college because I thought that it just wasn’t for someone like me. These readings proved to me that literally anyone can grasp the concepts behind digital preservation, provided that it is explained in accessible terms.
I feel like there were a couple different themes that repeated through these readings, namely that there is no one way to “do” digital preservation, and digital preservation isn’t an “all or nothing” process; you don’t have to go all out, it’s okay to start small and work your way up.
To start, Professor Owens’ chapter, The Craft of Digital Preservation, introduces this idea that digital preservation is a “craft, not a science”(Owens, 72.) Meaning, there is no one set way to “do” digital preservation, no single answer, but instead it is something that requires planning and thought, that must adapt to specific situations, and changes over time. Owens suggests “part of the idea of digital preservation as craft is that there isn’t a single system for doing digital preservation. It is a field that requires continued refinement of craft.” (Owens, 79.) There will always be the need for improvement and adaptation of principles to meet a specific institution’s needs, no one framework or model can “solve” digital preservation for you. Owens continues to warn against developing an uncritical reliance upon frameworks or models, stating that “these frameworks are useful as tools only to the extent they help do the work. So don’t take any of them as commandments we are required to live by, and don’t get too locked into how any of them conceptualize and frame digital preservation problems.” (Owens, 80.) Frameworks are great for guidance, but each institution needs to develop policies and practices that work best for them, their collections, and their users.
Okay, that’s great– but what do I actually need to do to start digital preservation, what should I be thinking about? Thankfully, Owens provides some guidelines and points us to the National Digital Stewardship Alliance’s Levels of Digital Preservation (NDSA LoDP) to break those processes down into digestible steps. Owens outlines four areas of digital preservation that institutions should consider when initiating preservation projects. First, preservation intent and collection development policy– as an institution, what do we want to save? What do we want to avoid? How does that reflect our mission? Second, managing copies and formats– we need systems to ensure bit preservation and the long term useability of content. Third, arranging and describing– how are we organizing our content? What terms will we use to describe it? What kind of metadata do we want to record? Finally, multimodal use and access– what formats will we make our content available in? How will we ensure that this is accessible to users? These questions can help institutions conceptualize why and how they should approach digital preservation, and with this knowledge in mind, they can utilize frameworks like LoDP more effectively, creating policies and practices tailored to their specific needs and capabilities.
Okay, so digital preservation doesn’t need to be an “all or nothing” endeavor, not everyone can or should attempt “four star” digital preservation right off the bat. All digital preservation programs have to start somewhere, and the NDSA’s LoDP was specifically written to be “of maximum utility to those institutions unsure of how to begin a digital preservation program.” (NDSA, 2). This framework explains digital preservation in non-technical terms and breaks down five different content areas (or elements) of digital preservation that institutions should focus upon: Storage and Geographic Location, File Fixity and Data Integrity, Information Security, Metadata, and File Formats. By labeling and listing out these elements of digital preservation, LoDP helps institutions begin to conceptualize what resources and policy should be developed to support a digital preservation program. Within that, there are also four progressive levels of quality for each element, which “is intended to allow for flexibility — users can achieve different levels in different content areas according to their unique needs and resources.” (NDSA, 2). The LoDP can help institutions get started, and continues to provide guidance as their digital preservation programs evolve, recognizing that each institution will develop differently. I think it’s super important to drive home the central idea behind this model and behind these other readings– digital preservation needs to be accessible, but also it must be flexible. There is no one way to do digital preservation, not every institution can, will, or needs to preserve things according to best practices or four star quality.
Chudnov’s The Emperor’s New Repository really hammers this idea into our heads that digital preservation programs don’t need to be large or fancy right out the gate to be effective. They advise us to “start with a small collection, minimal staff, and a short timetable, and see what you can learn by building something quickly.” (Chudnov, 3). Really, Chudnov is all about just getting it done and making it accessible to users ASAP– because really, that’s why we’re preserving things in the first place. Adding a fancy new layer of software to manage your digital objects can actually just make things more complicated, it’s okay to just post it on your website and allow users to interact with it that way. (Chudnov, 4). Again, digital preservation is an ongoing, iterative process, and “you’re going to learn so much along the way that the details of whether that tool’s the best long term fit or not are going to become obvious to you as you build up experience loading your content and making it available.” (Chudnov, 3). Over time, you’ll learn about what does and doesn’t work for you, you can make adjustments to policy, adopt new software, and make new decisions about how to store digital content.