Is digitisation the answer or is digital preservation the question?

Floppy disks

This blog by Jenny O'Neill is the winner of the CILIP Blogger Challenge. It was chosen by our judging panel out of over 70 submissions. Jenny has recently completed a Masters in Library and Information Studies and is currently working working as Data Curator at Trinity College Dublin.

“Why don’t you just digitise it?” This is a phrase I’m sure many of us working in libraries and archives have heard at some point. And to the uninitiated this seems like a perfectly reasonable solution to the problem of preservation of delicate materials, while providing wider access to these resources. Those of us familiar with digital preservation, however, know that digitisation isn’t the end of one lifecycle, but instead the beginning of another. Digitisation of our precious books, ephemera or archival materials is not the answer to the problem of preservation, but is in fact a question all in itself.

What do we mean by digitisation?

The first clarification we need to make is the difference between digitisation and imaging. Taking digital images (imaging) of manuscripts, ephemera or old photos is the first step in the digitisation process. This creates what we call a ‘digital object’. 

Once we have a high resolution image of the resource we then need to transcribe any text or create a description of the digital object. We also need to create metadata describing this new digitised object - who was the original creator, where is the original object, who owns the rights to the digital object, when was this new object created for example. This will make it easier to find and support discovery of the object. And then we need to create some kind of delivery service, for example a website to provide access to this new digital object, we need to consider the storage and preservation. All of these steps are part of digitisation.

Why is digital preservation important?

Preservation of digital objects in some ways is more complex an issue than preservation of physical objects. Consider that if we read a book the only technology we need are our eyes. In order to read a digitised copy of that book we need software that can process that file format (for example .doc, .pdf etc.) and hardware that can display the output (for example an ebook reader, a computer and screen). 

And we also need to consider what may happen in the future if proprietary software is no longer supported, for example what if Microsoft stop supporting Word documents, or even just that particular version of Word. How will we then access the digitised copy of the book? Digital objects are hardware and software dependant. Our eyes will never have this problem.

These are just some of the issues considered by digital preservation. Digital preservation also considers how to prevent corruption of the digital object. How many of us have photos or documents on our computers that we can no longer open because of what’s known as ‘bit rot’? Bit rot is where the digital file is corrupted. We can try to counteract bit rot by regularly backing up and replicating the digital object on a regular basis. This is known as bit-level preservation.

But digital preservation also considers migration of formats as they become obsolete. Federation of storage, where the digital objects are replicated in separate physical locations is an essential component of disaster recovery. In addition to these technical measures digital preservation also requires that business and policy strategies are put in place.

Digital preservation in action

When making the case for digital preservation one example that springs to mind is that of artworks by Andy Warhol stored on floppy disks that were recently rediscovered. The disks themselves were preserved at the Andy Warhol Museum as part of their collections. They came to light because artist Cory Arcangel was watching clips of Warhol on YouTube “promoting the release of the Amiga 1000 in 1985”. He then contacted the Andy Warhol Museum as custodians of the disks. 

However the contents of the disks were inaccessible because the file format was obsolete, the images created by Warhol were essentially trapped on the Amiga floppy disks. Thankfully a team of archivists and computer researchers managed to recover the files and these are now are being preserved. According to the Warhol Museum they contained “doodles and camera shots of a desktop, to experimenting with Warhol’s classic images of a banana, Marilyn Monroe, Campbell’s soup, and portraits”. What a treasure that could so easily have been lost forever.

So what is the answer to the question?

As this is an emerging field nobody yet has all the answers to the problem of digital preservation. I don’t deny that digitisation is one huge part of preservation of our fragile library collections. It has huge benefits in terms of providing wider access to these materials outside of the physical library. It also means that the original source is not being consulted as much and is therefore safer from further damage and deterioration. But in tandem with digitising our physical heritage we have to consider how we preserve what then becomes our digital heritage.

Should we digitise at every opportunity?
Are there times when digitisation (and digital preservation) are not good options?
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below

About the CILIP Blogger Challenge

The CILIP Blogger Challenge was a competition giving you the opportunity to talk about important library, knowledge and information issues.

The dealine for submissions was 7 November and we had over 70 entries.

4 "highly commended" blog posts were published in the week starting 24 November 2014 and this, the winning blog post, was published on 1 December 2014.

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