Digital preservation is a hot topic these days. The ever-increasing reality that we produce a lot of stuff in digital form has concerned information professionals for decades, but has been slow to result in concrete practices that all cultural institutions follow. Finding the balance between theory and practice is a tricky task when there is no “one size fits all” approach to digital preservation concerns.
Part of the difficulty lies in the fact that each institution has its own unique set of problems to address when it comes to ensuring access to collections over the long-term. It would be impossible to draft a master set of step-by-step instructions for how to approach digital preservation and expect all institutions to be able to follow them. Vastly different collection sizes, budgets, and manpower are just a few of the variables that each institution must factor into planning for preservation. As much as we’d like it to be, preservation is not a one-time, one-step task, but an ongoing process that requires planning, supervision, and revision. Leaving room for mistakes and accepting that they will happen is a healthy way to remember that dealing with long-term digital preservation is new territory for everyone – keeping up to date on current practices and sharing successes and failures will only help smooth our path forward.
Rather than focus on specific technical steps, then, information professionals have largely rallied around a few widely agreed upon frameworks and models for digital preservation. Of these, the Open Archival Information System (OAIS) is one of the most established frameworks. Drafted in 1999, the OAIS model revolves around two main purposes: to preserve information and make it accessible. Separate entities – Managers, Producers, and Consumers – work together to ensure that items are properly transferred, stored, and delivered in a way that is easily understandable by those who wish to access it. Institutions who subscribe to the OAIS model all demonstrate a commitment to long-term preservation of data, though the ways they do so in practice may vary greatly. It may seem counterintuitive that a set of standards that can be loosely interpreted would be more helpful than a straightforward set of instructions – but having the OAIS as a global standard has made it much easier for institutions around the world to share information and create more concrete standards along the way.
Of course, there comes a point when vague frameworks and models don’t translate into doable steps that people can follow, and can even be discriminatory or exclusionary for those who lack a background in or knowledge of archival practices (see Owens’ 12th axiom: “Highly technical definitions of digital preservation are complicit in silencing the past.”) In answer to that valid concern, recommendations like those found in the National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA)’s Levels of Digital Preservation (LoDP) have emerged to give institutions a set of technical guidelines to follow, as well as track progress over time. The LoDP focuses squarely on the technical aspects of digital preservation, things like where items are stored, who has access to them, and the reliability of their format as technology changes over time. By keeping the guidelines straightforward, but untethered to specific technologies or formats, the NDSA’s levels provide institutions with a helpful jumping-off point for measuring where they stand –and where they need to improve – on digital preservation.
The most important thing that these guidelines and models have fostered is an ongoing dialogue between cultural institutions on the issues, challenges, and successes of digital preservation. As Owens writes, “Digital preservation is not about universal solutions” but about “crafting the right approach for a given preservation context.” If you think too hard about the sheer amount of digital material that we are creating on a daily basis (and how much of it is at risk of being lost), it’s easy to convince yourself that digital preservation is out of reach. The fancy technical aspects that we tend to get hung up on – like convincing ourselves that we need certain kinds of expensive software or don’t have the manpower to handle preservation tasks (Chudnov) – are the reason that so many institutions have yet to face the problem of long-term digital preservation. Doing something is better than doing nothing, but an even better plan is to collaborate with those who are facing the same challenges and learn from those who have faced them before.
Debates over the acceptable standards and purposes of digital preservation haven’t always translated into easy-to-follow steps, but efforts by information professionals everywhere from international conferences to university classrooms have helped clarify and make accessible the most fundamental aspects of digital preservation. It can be easy to forget that debates over theory do lead to concrete advances. The key is to continue to work towards translating models like the OAIS and recommendations like the LoDP into concrete actions that encourage institutions to take a hard look at how they are approaching digital preservation, not just today, but in the long-term.