Key Issues

A librarian or library and information sciences student is likely to have heard the terms “curation” and “preservation.” Furthermore, he or she may also have formulated an understanding of what digital preservation might entail.  But many institutions with items that require curation or preservation might not have librarians or archivists managing those collections.  This section defines a few key issues that anyone managing a digital archive might want to consider.

Understanding the terminology

The terms “curation” and “preservation” can at times be used for very similar processes and ideas.  However, for the purposes of this webpage, “curation” is defined as considering all aspects of value within a collection and is not limited to one specific function, such as preservation might be.  For instance, when applying the idea of “preservation” to a digital object, the object has already been selected to be maintained, however “curation” would further include the selection of that object and thereby the selection of objects that are worthy of being preserved.  In this sense, preservation is a function of curation, which is the larger more expansive term.  Perhaps it helps to think of a museum setting, where a preservationist works on preserving items while the curator oversees multiple processes, one of which is preservation.  Given these definitions an important question must be considered: are you just seeking preservation or do you need a more comprehensive curation process?

Digital preservation, as defined by Cornell University Library (2003-2007), includes many activities, which are intended to “extend the useable life of machine-readable computer files and protect them from media failure, physical loss and obsolescence.”  Lavoie and Dempsey (2004, pg. 12) define digital preservation first as a technical process to ensure that digital information remains available long-term.  Furthermore, they define digital preservation also as a “social and cultural process,” as economic in terms of matching resources with objectives, as a legal process to determine what rights are needed to support the actual preservation activities, as a process of creating new “curatorial practice” and lastly as a long-term commitment for many stakeholders. Stanescu (2004, pg. 2) asserts that digital preservation has an objective to “preserve access to journals, articles, research papers, photographs, maps, public records and other published works only accessible digitally.”

Digital curation often refers to the process of making data available for research long-term (What is Digital Curation, 2010) and in this sense “digital curation” and “data curation” are mostly used in the context of scientific research.  Shreeves and Cragin (2008, pg. 93) define data curation as the “active and ongoing management of data through its lifecycle of interest and usefulness to scholarship, science and education, which includes appraisal and selection, representation and organization of data for access and use over time.”

Current Best Practice

Making machine-readable content accessible long-term requires implementation of technical processes, however to date no clear leading strategy or best practice exists for these processes. Cornell University Library (2003-2007) lists a number of options for digital preservation including:

  • Bitstream copying or backing up data
  • Refreshing or copying from one storage medium to another
  • Durable or persistent media such as Gold CDs
  • Technology preservation
  • Digital archeology for rescuing content
  • Analog back-up content
  • Migration or copying from one technology to a newer one
  • Replication in the form of bitstream copying, migration, etc.
  • Reliance on standards through normalization, canonicalization, emulation, encapsulation and “universal virtual computer” (Cornell University Library, 2003-2007)

Thibodeau (2002) also acknowledges a number of key issues for digital preservation including determining policy direction, establishing roles for the institution, clarifying any legal issues including intellectual property rights, and metadata. Furthermore, Thibodeau defines two main techniques used for digital preservation as emulation and migration, stating that emulation is not viable long-term and that migration requires more format standardization.

Involving Content Creators in the Preservation Process

Understanding the purpose of preserving a digital object is important for justifying the investment and resources (Thibodeau, 2002).  However it is not always easy to understand the purpose of the digital object if the creator of the object is unknown or no longer in possession of the digital object.  The creator may not necessarily have considered the potential methods of preserving the content or even considered that the digital objects created could eventually become inaccessible or obsolete.  Rather these objects may have been created for personal use, without thought to the broader implications or uses of these objects if they would be archived.

Some born-digital formats will have increasing amounts of descriptive metadata, which can assist an archivist or librarian in learning more about the specific object.  For example born-digital video will have automatically generated metadata from production that might include where and when it was shot, terms of use, etc. (Wactlar and Christel, n.d.).  Luckow and Turner (2008), using examples from the broadcasting industry, assert that when those charged with archiving the content are involved earlier and more actively in the production process, assets are better understood and managed over their lifecycles. Similarly Rubin (2009) finds that when archiving is first considered as the lifecycle ends additional potential key issues can occur such as problems of dissociation, interoperability, migration issues, obsolescence and quantities of material not used.

Where to archive

The decision of where to do the archiving very much depends on the approach taken for archiving. With a larger institutional approach, there may be many more opportunities for centralized processes, or more resources for technical implementation of hardware and software.  With a community or personal archives approach, funding and technical expertise may be more limited and therefore require an approach that may be more scaled down.  For more information on initial suggested approaches, please see the section on the Repository Approach, the Community Archives Approach and the Personal Archives Approach.


Cornell University Library. (2003-2007).  Digital Preservation Management:  Implementing Short-term Strategies for Long-term Problems. Retrieved on January, 20, 2011, from

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

Luckow, R., & Turner, J. M. (2008). All singing, all talking, all digital: Media windows and archiving practice in the motion picture studios. Archivaria, (65), 165-186.

Rubin, N. (2009). Preserving digital public television: Not just an archive, but a new attitude to preserve public broadcasting. Library Trends, 57(3), 393-412.

Shreeves, Sarah and Cragin, Melissa. (2008). Introduction: Institutional Repositories: Current State and Future. Library Trends 57(2), Fall 2008.

Stanescu, Andreas. (2004).  Assessing the Durability of Formats in a Digital Preservation Environment. D-Lib Magazine 10(11). Retrieved on February 22, 2011, from

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.

Wactlar, Howard D. and Christel Michael G. (n.d.) Digital Video Archives: Managing Through Metadata. Council on Library and Information Resources. Retrieved on March 11, 2011, from

What is Digital Curation? (2010).  Digital Curation Centre.  Retrieved on April 14, 2011, from

Further Reading:

Digital Preservation.  (n.d.).  In Library of Congress.  Retrieved July 29, 2011, from

Gold, Anna (2010). Data Curation and Libraries: Short-Term Developments, Long-Term Prospects. Retrieved on August 23, 2010, from

Sinclair, Pauline. (2010) The Digital Divide: Assessing Organisations’ Preparations for Digital Preservation. A Planets White Paper.  Retrieved on January 16, 2011, from

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

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