Digital preservation scenario

Digital preservation in a small museum

Developing and implementing a digital preservation strategy for a multi-format exhibition can be a complex undertaking.  This report is not intended to be a comprehensive guide to digital preservation in this scenario. Rather, the aim is to provide a starting point from which the non-preservation specialist can move forward to explore in more detail the specific preservation needs of the material. Five high-level recommendations are provided to guide the museum toward best practice in this area.  Then, turning attention to the specificities of digital preservation, a brief discussion on the unique characteristics of digital information attempts to identify some things the museum must address in order to preserve this material.

Recommendation 1: Make a business case and develop a policy

The first step for this museum is to develop a business case for digital preservation strategy within the organisation.  A digital preservation strategy requires an investment in resources such as staff time, technical skills, finances and IT infrastructure so it is important to begin by developing a very clear understanding of the reasons why digital preservation is needed and how it can be rationalised within the context of wider organisational goals.   To do this, the museum should develop a digital preservation policy, which states the purpose, context, scope, roles and responsibilities, standards and other relevant information relating to the particular collection or organisation. Documentation such as this will enable the museum to integrate digital preservation into operational and financial planning and develop a clear path of action that outlines the objectives, deliverables and strategic goals of digital preservation within the organisation. Learning from best-practice examples, a good starting point might be to look at the Digital Preservation Business Case Toolkit, the Preservation of Digital Materials: Handbook or the Minnesota Historical Society guidelines for Developing a Business Case for Digital Preservation, all of which are useful for helping practitioners to build business cases to fund digital preservation activities.

Recommendation 2: Audit the collection

An audit of the digital collection should take place alongside the development of a strategic statement or digital preservation policy.  For the scenario at the museum, this means listing the digital assets that make up the interactive touch-screen tool and the accompanying online virtual tour and exhibition.  It should include basic information about the object (e.g. what it is, where it is, who is responsible for it), a note on the associated preservation risk-level and an estimate of the financial (or other) value (Brown 37).   This inventory should help to outline the specific needs and risks associated with each digital object.  It will also serve to further strengthen the case for digital preservation by providing a detailed analysis of the importance of certain content to the organisation, and highlighting the risk associated with loss.  Not all digital assets need to be preserved so decisions need to be made about selection and preservation (Whitehouse). The audit, like the business case and policy documentation, is essential for prioritising items in the collection and deciding on preservation methodologies and techniques.

Recommendation 3: Outline the requirements and learn from others

Building on the business case and the audit, the next step is to clearly outline the requirements of the project. To do this most effectively, the museum should actively seek to engage professional staff, IT specialists, user groups, senior management and other contributory parties (Butterworth). While the requirements of a digital preservation project such as this one will be quite unique, there is definite value in engaging with a range of outside professionals and interested groups.    Organisations who have been through similar processes can offer guidance or documentation. Professional bodies or groups such as the Digital Preservation Coalition (DPC)  or the Digital Curation Centre (DCC), and institutions such as the Library of Congress and the National Archives UK give guidance on digital preservation in general and these types of scenarios in particular.  The result of this engagement and research should be a set of requirements that are outcome-based (focussed on the desired results) and range from the broader high-level requirements (such as the administration of digital preservation) down to the more specific details (such as the metadata standard to be adopted) (Brown 55).

Recommendation 4: Choose a certified model or methodology

Based on the requirements identified through engagement with a range of stakeholders, the museum should then consider a model or methodology for implementing and operating a digital preservation strategy.  The choice of model or system will take into consideration the institutional structure of the museum, its links to other institutions, the finances available for digital preservation and the specific technical requirements of the particular collection. Brown outlines a number of options and discusses the pros and cons of each one (64-71).  These include a minimal repository, open-source systems, hosted platforms, proprietary systems, bespoke in-house and out-sourced solutions. In many cases, a hybrid approach might be best.  The primary consideration here should be that the chosen model meets (or is at least working toward) “trusted” digital repository standards and certification such as OAISISO 16363 or the European Framework for Audit and Certification of Digital Repositories. In this scenario, the museum might decide to maintain a computer museum, invest in migration and transformation or develop emulation tools (or, if a hybrid approach is adopted, implement a combination of all three approaches). It might decide to maintain the original touch-screen computers, migrate the data objects to new formats and emulate the virtual tour on a different platform. Brown recommends that, at the very least, bit-stream preservation should be prioritised to ensure the survival of the data until such a time as it is possible to address all the threats associated with digital decay and obsolescence (218). Keeping an appropriate number of copies, in a suitably secure location and in suitable formats will go far to reduce the threat of loss.

Recommendation 5: Long-term or future development

At a basic level, the model or system must allow the museum to select, acquire, accession, ingest, describe and preserve the digital objects.  Importantly, it must also provide access to users and be flexible enough to meet future known (and unknown) developments in the field of digital preservation.  Digital preservation must be viewed as an operational task rather than a one-off project.  It is imperative to continuously monitor the digital preservation strategy; its objectives, goals, models implemented, standards followed, processes and workflows. An ongoing technology watch and risk assessment should help to notify the museum of any developments or threats to their digital preservation strategy.  Again, best-practice examples and guidance are available.  “Monitoring” is an OAIS requirement and the NSDA Levels of Digital Preservation initiative also provides a framework or a set of guidelines that can be used to monitor, assess and develop the stages of digital preservation.

Some specifics

The act of “preservation” is just one part of the digital preservation process but it deserves particular attention here because, aside from considering the high-level recommendations outlined above, the museum must also address the specificities of digital formats in order to preserve the material outlined in this scenario. The challenges in maintaining access to digital resources over time are related to the notable differences between digital and paper-based material (Beagrie 31). The nature of digital information is such that the message and the medium can be separated.  The OAIS standard formalises this by referring to the data object (the bits) and the information object (the realisation of the bits as meaningful information). Both the data object and the information object for this scenario will have different preservation needs and the museum should take these into consideration. Related to this, and again, relevant for this scenario, is the further complication that digital information can be represented by more than one digital object. These alternative formats or ‘manifestations’ should also be considered as part of the digital preservation strategy (Arms).  The question of “originality” and “authenticity” in the digital realm is something else that the museum must consider.  Born-digital materials can be easily replicated into versions that are indistinguishable from the original so the museum must consider how to preserve the authenticity of content that exists in multiple manifestations (Bearman). Finally, the immediacy and ease of digital decay means that for digital preservation, the emphasis must be almost entirely on prevention rather than recovery (Brown 200).


Decisions on digital preservation cannot be taken without a detailed planning and scoping phase that considers the digital preservation needs of the museum in general and the material in this collection in particular. Best-practice guidelines and recommendations can only be successfully implemented if they meet the particular requirements of the museum.  The best best-practice digital preservation advice comes from Brown “Don’t invest in preservation actions unless or until you have a clear need” (241).

Works cited

Adrian Brown, author. Practical Digital Preservation: A How-to Guide for Organizations of Any Size / Adrian Brown. Chicago: Neal-Schuman, an imprint of the American Library Association, 2013. Print.

Beagrie, Neil, and Maggie Jones. Preservation Management of Digital Materials: The Handbook. Digital Preservation Coalition, 2008. Web.

Bearman, David, and Jennifer Trant. “Authenticity of Digital Resources Towards a Statement of Requirements in the Research Process.” D-Lib Magazine (1998): n. pag. Web.

Butterworth, Amy. “Digital Preservation Briefing Paper.” N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.

Arms, William. “Object models, identifiers, and structural metadata.” Digital Libraries. Boston: MIT Press, 2000. Web.

Digital Preservation Business Case Toolkit” N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.

Pennock, Maureen. “Digital Curation: A Life-Cycle Approach to Managing and Preserving Usable Digital Information.” Library & Archives 1 (2007): 34–45. Web.

Phillips, Megan et al. “The NSDA Levels of Digital Preservation: An Explanation and Uses.” 2013. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.

Trusted Digital Repositories: Attributes and Responsibilities. An RLG-OCLC Report. Mountain View, CA: Research Libraries Group, 2002. Web.

Whitehouse, Ben. “Digital Preservation and Asset Management.” N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Nov. 2014.

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