110  ·  Representative Documents:  Policies, Procedures, Guidelines
University of Michigan
What is Digital Preservation?
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What is Digital Preservation?
Introduction to the Problem
Today, we have access to information and data that 15 years ago would have scarcely seemed possible. It
seems that almost everything is being created and used in the digital realm. Documents such as your
history report, the spreadsheet that shows last year’s travel budget and more were likely all generated on
your computer. However, though we use computers for so many things, we often don’t give much thought
about preserving what we do generate until it is too late. Most people can remember at least one horror
story of lost data, whether it happened to them or to a friend; the research paper that was lost when the
computer crashed or the scattered and disorganized family photos that were only saved to one hard drive
that eventually crashed! This list of lost digital data illustrates the potential fragility of digital information.
There are several reasons why digital objects are so fragile.
Fragility of Digital Objects
One reason that digital information is fragile is that software programs and other technologies can be very
quickly superseded by newer ones and fall out of use. This phenomenon is called technological
obsolescence. Once newer technologies become accepted as the norm, it can be difficult to use any digital
object that exists in an older format. Although there is currently some backwards capability available for
popular programs for example, Open Office is able to open a Microsoft Office 2003 doc this is not
necessarily the case for less widely used programs and proprietary formats from small companies.
Obsolescence can also occur with the media that digital information is stored on. It is quite difficult now to
find a computer with a 3 ½” floppy drive, much less one for 5 ¼” floppies. These obsolete media or
formats may contain unique information that may be very difficult or impossible to recover.
Another problem associated with digital preservation is media degradation. The very media that digital
information is stored on was not always made to last, and can quickly degrade. This media can include
magnetic tapes, floppy discs, optical discs and more. Take, for example, a movie on DVD. More likely than
not, you have experienced a crucial scene in a movie being ruined because of scratches on a DVD you
were watching. This is a case of media degradation the information that was on the DVD no longer
exists because the media that it was on has itself degraded. Now imagine this has happened with not
simply a commercially available CD or DVD, but a unique item that contained thousands of digitized
images. Clearly there are many risks associated with media degradation, especially when you consider
how much information that has been burned onto CDs and DVDs to serve as a backup.
What is Digital Preservation?
So how do we deal with the problems mentioned above? One way we can do this is through active Digital
Preservation. Digital Preservation is the management and maintenance of digital objects (the files, or
groups of files, that contain information in digital form) so they can be accessed and used by future users.
It is important to start thinking about digital preservation early in the life cycle of a digital object because
while traditional print objects may last relatively unharmed for decades untouched, this is not the case with
digital objects, which have significantly shorter life spans. Therefore, by thinking about preserving the digital
object early on, even when it is created, we save a great deal of time and stress later on when trying to
retrieve the information an object holds before it is too late. In this sense, digital preservation, and
especially early digital preservation, is important not only for personal data management but also large
repositories that manage many objects. Though personal horror stories of lost data seem to be scattered
and only happen from time to time, for larger repositories that contain many hundreds and thousands of
digital objects, lost data can be a much bigger problem. Digital Preservation, after all, is frequently focused
on long term use, which can be quite difficult to achieve considering how fragile digital objects can be.
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