Some people eat, sleep and chew gum, I do genealogy and write...

Thursday, August 4, 2011

What is digital preservation?

If you have ever suffered a computer crash and lost files, then you know the consequences of not being aware of digital preservation. In its most simple form, digital preservation is preserving digital files from loss due to physical destruction or obsolescence. If we are going to try to preserve our genealogically important documents from physical loss, these efforts at preservation need to take into account the possibility that the digital files created from scanning or other digitizing methods, are not also lost.

Here is a list of some of the ways files can be lost:
  • Physical loss, destruction or failure of the storage media. This means that you can lose the file if the copy of the file is stored on some sort of physical media, i.e. a hard drive, flash drive, CD, DVD or whatever, and the media itself is destroyed, lost or fails. This can be a something as common as losing a flash drive to something as complicated as having a hard drive fail. 
  • Loss of the file due to inadvertence or software bugs. Your hardware may not fail, but the archived file itself may be corrupted or lost through inadvertent erasure or a bug in the software. You might do something as simple as overwriting the file with a newer file with the same name.
  • File incompatibility. Over time, software may change dramatically. The program you used to create the digital copy may no longer be recognized or the program you used to create the file may no longer be available or able to operate with current computer systems.
  • New technology may make the both the hardware and the file obsolescent. There are a number of examples of computer file storage technology that are either gone or on their way out. For example, do you have a current way to read Zip Disks? Do you even know what a Zip Disk is?
I could go on, but the point is that there are many factors to consider when you approach the issue of preserving your digitized or digital files. If you make a backup copy or two or three, these extra copies will not protect you from file incompatibility or new technology.

Digital preservation is a set of strategies, if followed, will give a high likelihood that your digital files will be preserved and available to future generations, not just next year or the year after. I shudder to think how many bank safety deposit boxes around the country contain stacks of floppy disks. By the way, making a print out of all of you files defeats the whole purpose for making a digitized copy of the record in the first place.

There is a wealth of resources available on the Internet about digital preservation. But if you do not take the time or make the effort to follow the recommended procedures, then you are wasting your time digitizing files or downloading them from the Internet.

The first important step in preserving your files is to identify the files you wish to preserve. I am sure that some of our computers would look like the proverbial hoarders' house if you could physically see inside. I have seen E-mail inboxes with thousands of files making it really hard to find and use the previously digitized file. Make sure the files you are saving for posterity will be useful to or valued by that posterity. I don't save documents and photos based on what I think my children will want someday, I make that decision based on years of genealogical research and the significance the files have to me.  I know I fall well into the category of genealogical hoarder, but if I find the record or document relevant, it is not going to be thrown away.

The next thing to consider is where the files are going to be stored and in what format? Stay tuned for the next installment.

1 comment:

  1. Great advice! I chuckled at the image of safety deposit boxes full of floppys...but I'm sure it's not funny to the originators trying to find drives to load those things!

    I look forward to your next installment!