Is There Such A Thing as Digital Preservation?

I am frequently asked about the difference between “traditional” preservation and digital preservation. My honest answer is that there are very few distinguishable differences.

Book Conservation Hammers, Some rights reserved by Northeast Document Conservation Center on <a href="

Book Conservation Hammers, by Northeast Document Conservation Center on Flickr.

Preservation activities are never traditional – there is constant innovation in preservation techniques. Digital preservation is in many ways still developing its tools and techniques, but physical preservation is also evolving.

All preservation activities are about actions and documentation of actions taken on collections.

Material science plays a huge role in preservation.  I was once in a meeting with representatives of a preservation initiative where I heard the following declaration:  “There is no such thing as digital preservation, only the preservation of digital media.”  My (very brief) initial response was one of great surprise, followed by immediate recognition that, of course, my surprise was wrongheaded.  Research into the qualities of physical materials, be they paper or magnetic storage media, is vital for preservation. New treatments and actions are being developed, and understanding of the archival nature of all media types is always being expanded.

People often say that born-digital collections are more at-risk than physical collections when planning for preservation needs.  It certainly can often be the case that there is only one instance of a born-digital file on a single piece of media, and the fragility of the media may mean there is only one chance to read the media and copy the file into a managed environment.  But is it certainly also the case that there are countless physical items in library, archives and museum collections where handling for research use could damage an item beyond recovery, and there is only one shot at preservation. And disasters can strike just as suddenly for any type of collection.

All collections need ongoing management and assessment. All collections require inventorying. Digital is no different.

I also hear that the skill sets are different. This is in part true. There is additional expertise in file formats, familiarity with potential risks in storage infrastructures, forensic analysis of files and auditing of storage and the use of tools to migrate files (and file formats) as appropriate that is needed.  But, at the core, the skill set is one of being able to identify risks, analyze collections for risks, make decisions about needed preservation actions and take them. There is some specialization in the handling of digital media and files, but that level of specialization in preservation is not uncommon.

I often say that there is no such thing as a “digital library”  — it’s just the library.  Now I am wondering if I should also be saying that there is no such thing as “digital preservation” — it’s all just preservation.