Digitization vs. Preservation

Almost everyone has encountered an issue with technological obsolescence at some point in their adult lives.  Perhaps they can no longer read data off of old floppy disks or perhaps they still have vinyl records, however no record player.  Formats also change, i.e. perhaps you edited files in WordPerfect in the past but no longer have the proprietary software program available for your computer and can therefore not access any files saved in that format.  Regardless, if you intend to save digital objects long-term, accessing an obsolete file may be necessary or perhaps you will need to migrate that obsolete object to a new format or hardware before it is no longer accessible.

The World Wide Web has opened many possibilities for access, especially for the library and archives communities, as they can move many previously physical collections online, reaching new user communities.  While it is clear that the Internet and the process of digitization are fundamentally helpful for enabling access, digitizing sources does not in and of itself ensure that the digital objects are preserved long-term.  In 2001, the average life expectancy of a website was only 3-4 months (Mannerheim, 2001).   One can only imagine how this statistic has multiplied since 2001, due to the sheer volume of content available online ten years later.  While digitization certainly can make the item available immediately for access, digitization may only be a form of “benign neglect,” rather than a solution for long-term preservation and access (McCargar, 2007).

Smith and Nelson (2008, pg. 2) also reference this disconnect between websites for the purposes of access and preservation.  Furthermore they assert that digital preservation is still in the “niche of librarians and archivists,” cannot be sustainable on an as needed basis, needs to follow general practices in wider web communities, and may have to be practiced on content without knowing its true value.

According to the Digital Preservation Coalition’s handbook on preservation management of digital materials (Jones and Beagrie, 2001), technical obsolescence represents the threat that would have the most impact on digital preservation, as technology changes within 2-5 years.  They too reference the idea that digitization is not a preservation strategy and that a number of possibilities exist for strategies for digital preservation including: preserving the original software and possibly hardware, creating emulation services, or migrating the content to new formats.  Any of these approaches include a number of challenges and questions to consider.


Jones, Maggie, and Beagrie, Neil. (2001).  Preservation Management of Digital Materials: A Handbook. London: The British Library. Retrieved on January 22, 2011, from http://www.dpconline.org/component/docman/doc_download/299-digital-preservation-handbook

Mannerheim, Johan.  (2001, December 26).  The new preservation tasks of the library community. International Preservation News, 5-9.

McCargar, V. (2007). Kiss Your Assets Goodbye: Best Practices and Digital Archiving in the Publishing Industry. Seybold Report: Analyzing Publishing Technologies, 7(16), 5-7.

Smith, J. A., & Nelson, M. L. (2008). Creating Preservation-Ready Web Resources. D-Lib Magazine, 14(1/2), 46.

Further reading:

Conway, Paul.  (2010).  Preservation in the Age of Google: Digitization, Digital Preservation and the Dilemmas.  The Library Quarterly 80(1), 61-79. doi: 10.1086/648463

Cornell University Library. (2003-2007).  Digital Preservation Management:  Implementing Short-term Strategies for Long-term Problems. Retrieved on January 20, 2011, from http://www.icpsr.umich.edu/dpm/index.html

James-Gilboe, L. (2005). The Challenge of Digitization: Libraries Are Finding That Newspaper Projects Are Not for the Faint of Heart. The Serials Librarian 49(1/2), 155-63. doi: 10.1300/J123v49n01_06

Lavoie, Brian and Dempsey, Lorcan (2004, July/August). Thirteen Ways of Looking at … Digital Preservation. D-Lib Magazine 10(7/8). Retrieved on February 16, 2011, from http://www.dlib.org/dlib/july04/lavoie/07lavoie.html

Library of Congress. (2011).  Digital Preservation. Retrieved on August 2, 2011, from http://www.digitalpreservation.gov/

Sinclair, Pauline. (2010) The Digital Divide: Assessing Organisations’ Preparations for Digital Preservation. A Planets White Paper.  Retrieved on January 26, 2011, from http://www.planets-project.eu/docs/reports/planets-market-survey-white-paper.pdf

Waters, Donald and Garrett, John, Eds.  (1996, May). Digital Information, Report of the Task Force on Archiving of Digital Information. The Commission on Preservation & Acccess and the Research Libraries Group. Retrieved on January 16, 2011, from http://www.oclc.org/programs/ourwork/past/digpresstudy/final-report.pdf.

Thibodeau, Kenneth (2002, July).  Overview of Technological Approaches to Digital Preservation and Challenges in Coming Years.  The State of Digital Preservation: An International Perspective Conference Proceedings, Washington, DC, April 24-25.

Werts, C. (2010). Conserving for the Future by Archiving our Past; A Story about Technology and Digitization Informed by a Vintage Paperback Book Collection. Education Libraries 33(2): 47-62.

Whaley, John H. Jr.  (1994).  Digitizing History.  The American Archivist 57(4): 660-672.

Williams, et al. (2008).  Digital lives: Report of interviews with the creators of personal digital collections.  Ariadne 55. Retrieved on June 6, 2011, from http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue55/williams-et-al/

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