Archival survival: how to future-proof your digital records

Digital ArchivePeople have been creating digital records since the late 1980s, and archivists have been thinking about how to manage and preserve these records ever since. While there are still technical hurdles to overcome, there are some simple steps that can be taken to keep your digital records – photographs, films, word documents, emails – protected now and into the future.

Digital preservation: the issues

The main issues facing the survival of digital records are:

Physical media obsolescence – the computers and external storage devices we use today are unlikely to be used in 10 years’ time. Think: When was the last time you used a floppy disc?!

Format obsolescence – the software and programmes we use to create digital records can change even more rapidly than the computers used to make them.

Digital decay – believe it or not, digital records can also decay over time. This is called bitrot.

Volume – the sheer number and range of digital records created is daunting.

Want to find out more about digital preservation issues and how international institutions and organisations are dealing with this? Then visit the digital preservation Wikipedia page

Digital preservation: simple solutions

The USA Library of Congress has developed some excellent resources around personal digital archiving (http://www.digitalpreservation.gov/personalarchiving/index.html), which provide simple and practical options. Here is just a brief summary of the advice:

Avoid, identify, decide, organise

Before you invest any money or effort on digital preservation technologies and tools, you should do the following:

Avoid using proprietary software. Stick to Microsoft Office programmes such as Word, Excel and Powerpoint, and for photos use .jpg and .tiff formats (Refer here for a list of common preservation formats). Because most people use these formats, efforts will continue to be made to preserve them.

Identify where your digital records are – phone, camera, laptop, memory sticks, CDs etc.

Decide which records you want to invest your efforts on preserving – blurry photos? Duplicates? Draft documents? Now is the time to cull!

Organise and centralise all of the records you want to preserve in one place.

Digital preservation tools and strategies

Once you have all of the digital records you want to preserve in one place, you can:

Make copies of all your important digital records in at least one other place. Use external hard drives, cloud-based storage (go here for reviews of cloud-based storage providers), CDs or USB sticks. However, be warned that the last two options are prone to physical media obsolescence!

Migration – make sure to continually update to a recent computer and operating software. It does not have to be the most recent, but software should be no older than 5 years, and computers not much older than 10 years. Once you have moved all of your digital files to a new computer or software, make sure that you can still read them.

Conversion – try to avoid using proprietary formats in the first place. However, if you have any records in strange formats see if you can convert these into preservation formats (open the file and then, click “save as” to see if you can save it as a more common format). Another form of conversion is turning digital records into paper records. If you choose this option, it is still worth investing efforts on your original digital files!

As always, feel free to contact us if you have any specific queries or questions regarding digital preservation – we are there to help! Send us an email: pcanzarchives@knoxcollege.ac.nz, or give us a call 03 4730777.

Eva Garbutt

Eva is the Archivist at the Presbyterian Research Centre – incorporating the Archive and Hewitson Library – which is based at Knox College, Dunedin. Eva’s role is to support the Church – from Assembly Office to presbyteries, parishes and their individual members – to create, maintain and preserve records.

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