To Preserve, You Must Understand

This week’s readings solidified what I see as a collector in the present day (being any librarian or archivist). You will need to understand digital objects and have the confidence necessary to handle them.

Understanding the objects

The need to understand how a digital object functions in the information is imperative for the current and future relevance of the field. As modern information professionals, we all will work with digital objects: ranging from the catalog record, to more complex digital files such as images, articles, and books. The Owens chapter clearly illustrated the minute mechanics of a digital object. (It reminded me of how large internet companies track your internet browsing and searching. It also made me think that this practice may not be as scary as the news has made it out to be.) He also explained the importance of understanding these details and using them to become better digital curators and managers of digital content. Basically, if we know what makes up a digital object, and how we can optimally organize those objects, we can better preserve our collections and provide access to the general public.

When considering physical collections, space is such a clear consideration. Physical items take up physical space. Digital items take up space in a similar, more abstract way. They take up virtual space. We, as digital information professionals would need to work to ensure that our digital objects take up as little space as possible without losing some of the quality necessary to consider the object to be the same.

Practice of preparing, preserving, and using digital objects

In the Chan article, prestigious design museums have begun cataloging and digitally preserving symbols that have become popularized as a digital form (such as the “@” symbol) as claim-able objects. The authors explain the need for a thought process and concept where something like the “@” symbol can be digitally claimed and preserved: “The larger issue facing design museums is that more and more of the products “made” by design practitioners now lack any form at all.” In traditional media, design objects would be fully physical, or at least more easily claim-able by an institution. Now, however, design objects are created and continue to live in a virtual space. Design creators have become unwilling or unable to fully contribute to the longlasting preservation of their work.

Alternately, this can also come in handy when digital forensics are needed. Kirschenbaum and team explain this process and the necessity for awareness of how digital objects could be used for forensics and larger problem solving. In the information professionals’ world, this is often accessing records on outdated and no-longer-used systems. They lay out three reasonable options for ensuring continued access to materials: migrate the files and save both the original and the manipulated files, retain or obtain the original systems required for the media, and create or use an emulation to show the material on modern systems as if it were on the original system.

Questions for the class

How do you think having an understanding of digital objects will help you when you go to consult with your small institution?

How might we (future information professionals) go about preserving these kinds of digital objects now that we understand their makeup and how they can be saved?


Hi! I’m Leigh Plummer, a second semester MLIS student focusing on academic libraries and digital curation. I currently work in the Preservation department at UMD and as a graduate student assistant with the Humanities and Social Science Librarians. This past summer, I interned at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration working to inventory their 16mm film collection for eventual, potential digitization. All of these experiences have helped develop my interest in digital preservation. About 50% of my Preservation job is spent preparing collections for digitization. I work with digital collections as a graduate student assistant. I have been curious about how decisions about what and when collections are digitized or made available to the general public are decided.

The initial readings were not what I expected for this course. I was surprised to see someone from Google saying that there would come a period where everything digitally saved will be lost. This surprised me because when I think of Google and digital preservation, I think more of Google Drive, and specifically Google Photos. Yet here we see a representative of a commercial company essentially telling people to no longer rely on the company. Compare that to the two “Issues and Advocacy” posts, where archivists were pointing out that this has been a known problem for years. More, there are skilled and knowledgeable professionals working to combat and mitigate this problem. I found Tansey’s claim that digital preservation tools are employed to help the powerful and are therefore counter to the cause of social justice to be misguided. Items chosen for digital preservation are chosen by people with biases, but that does not mean that these decisions are made to support a denigration of minorities. Rather, I think that digital preservation projects can highlight both the forgotten voices and the voices of various resistances.