Digital Preservation

Because of the tremendous possibilities available for digitization and born digital archives, digital preservation is a necessary concern for historians to consider. Huge quantities of important data can be lost if historians, archivists, librarians, and institutions do not prioritize preservation as part of their digital work. The primary advantage of digital history is the possibility to engage with documents, data, and objects of the past in new ways. These sites and programs allow users to experience, explore, and study history through searchability, storage, annotation, linking, and zooming. However, even when records are preserved, they often lose these features.

For example, perhaps the easiest way to back up much historical data, especially written sources and text files, is through physically printing the objects. This allows for materials to be stored away from computer systems and to be circulated and referenced if the digital copies disappear. This option is most attractive to historians who are wary of digital history. However, once the texts, images, and information are converted to this digital format they lose much of their value, as they are no longer able to be resized, reformatted, or searched. Specifically, a possibility that endangers the many oral history collections that have come about in the last several decades is the loss of audio files or access to them. While transcriptions of oral histories can be easily printed in physical form, these printed transcriptions cannot capture the valuable tones, voices, and expressions of emotion provided by audio files.

Another major way in which digital preservation can accomplished incompletely is through the processes of data migration and technology emulation. Unlike the preservation method described previously, these approaches allow historical data to be saved, moved, and shared within their digital form. However, beyond this, the formats and specific characteristics of these files and information are subject to change throughout the processes, particularly endangering their usability features. Additionally, while the files can be moved and the technological environment largely recreated, this does not guarantee that the data will remain compatible and accessible to all previous and potential users of the records.

Thinking about how digital preservation efforts risk the loss of convenience and usefulness of historical objects and information should be a major priority for historians in the future. Of course, preservation of any kind is preferable to not taking any action in this regard, as Roy Rosenzweig warns in “Scarcity or Abundance?”. However, when choosing how we will preserve digital history it ought to also be considered what the value of each record is within its digital form.

Coincidentally, while preparing to post this reflection, I witnessed firsthand the dangers that technology poses for historical text and objects. By simply deleting a few characters off of an Omeka URL setting by mistake (making it identical to the WordPress URL, the whole collection of information posted on WordPress became hidden behind Omeka. This, of course, is a very specific problem that will not relate to all digitally stored and created records, but it demonstrates the fragile nature of digital data and the need to pay attention to the technological environment as well as the continued accessibility to files as one works to preserve digital history.