Preservation of Digital Material

by Alvin Hutchinson

Many of us are not fully aware of the enormous quantity of
text, images, audio and video that are being produced today in digital format.
But we can begin to imagine the sheer volume when we consider the following
situation familiar to most of us: prior to digital cameras (which most of us
own today) a person taking photographs had to concern him or herself with the
number of exposures on a roll of film, the cost of developing each roll of film
and to a lesser degree, the ultimate storage of paper-based pictures whether in
boxes or photo albums. With the elimination of these concerns, today there is
little barrier to snapping as many photographs as a camera-owner desires,
especially if s/he has spare memory cards to insert when one becomes full. 

Similar analogies can be made with digital text, audio and video but
one area with which very few of us are familiar is the explosion in the
deployment of data-gathering equipment for science in recent decades. Ocean
buoys, cameras, satellites and sensors of all kinds which measure a variety of natural and
environmental phenomena are becoming inexpensive and easy to deploy perhaps
faster than it took for the widespread market penetration of consumer digital
cameras. Today these scientific
instruments cover the globe (and outer space), sending measurements and
observations to computers 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

And while individuals with their photograph collections and
media companies with their audio and video are searching for solutions to
storing and preserving their contents, it is in the sciences where this work
becomes critical. Data which is (increasingly) produced and stored
electronically is much more easily shared and this presents a host of
opportunities for the re-use of data and the possibility of “new discoveries
from old data.”

Recently I attended two workshops which addressed access to
digital scientific data and its preservation. One, a workshop on U.S. Digital Preservation
Interoperability Framework
was held at the National Institute of Standards
and Technology in Gaithersburg, Maryland and the other, Research Data
Access and Preservation
was held in Phoenix, Arizona. Both meetings
attracted scientists, data managers, librarians, archivists and administrators
from government, research organizations and the private sector.

 Several themes emerged and were repeated throughout the two

  1. We have thus far only
    scratched the surface as far as understanding the problem and creating
    potential solutions.
  2. The growth in size and
    complexity of digital material created today appears to be out-pacing the
    systems required to manage it.
  3. Initial success in the
    area of digital preservation almost always involves a cooperative effort
    where content is duplicated (or triplicated) between geographically and
    organizationally separate sites.
  4. Barriers to effective
    access and preservation of digital material is not as much a matter of
    technological obsolescence or media destruction (as once was commonly
    assumed) but rather more contingent on workplace practices, institutional
    support and computer security.

It may be that there is a supply-and-demand rule to be
applied to digital material. That is, the enormous amount of computer-readable
content we create today necessarily means that its value is negligible. That
may be true for many of the personal documents, emails and multiple versions of
the same photograph we make or reproduce. But undoubtedly there are
digitally-created artifacts that should be preserved for posterity—scientific data
sets is one example—and it is reassuring to know that there is a professional
community at work to ensure the longevity of this material.—Alvin Hutchinson

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