If you have ever tried to migrate Microsoft Excel 97 data from a 3.5-inch floppy diskette, you probably are familiar with the challenges of long-term digital preservation. The rapid growth of technology, software and hardware development cycles, and product obsolescence create multiple hurdles to preserving digitized information.
Because users can only access digital objects through computers, organizations must have a preservation plan to assure the durability, accessibility and integrity of digital information created and stored in older systems. This includes emails, tweets, databases, video files and entire web domains.
Why Retention Matters
Digital materials are essential for commerce, industry and government. They are indispensable in research, especially in the areas of law, history, marketing, cultural heritage, media, health and medicine. In business, strategic plans require an understanding of prior decision-making and its consequences. When personnel in an organization cannot access key digital materials, future opportunities can be limited. Access problems across industries can create a “digital dark age” in which organizations lack the foundation of experience and knowledge to make sound decisions.
The Challenges of Digital Preservation
Over the past few decades, the exponential growth of technology has made digital preservation one of our greatest generational challenges.
The Data Deluge: David Rosenthal’s research noted that the rate of data creation is expanding by about
60% per annum (or year); developments in data storage are growing at about 25% per annum; and data center budgets are trending up at about 2% per annum. It would be a challenge enough if this expansion were linear, but it is exponential!
Stewardship: Because technology evolves in unpredictable directions, it can be nearly impossible to predict or assure long-term digital access to files created today. Stewardship of digital materials is the duty of those who create the infrastructure and environments in which files are created. Specially trained experts in digital sustainability who can find preservation solutions that endure software and hardware evolution are crucial.
Digital Preservation Experts: Specialists who migrate digital objects into the formats best suited for long-term preservation must be able to collaborate with professionals who create and use these materials. This is so digital preservation experts can understand what elements are important to preserve and how many versions of the same file must be saved. With every software and hardware change, both parties must collaborate in moving stored data along the same path, which means experts must know which software can best render, view and access stored digital information.
Storage and Accessibility: Operating systems evolve, such that how people search for and access information on today’s systems differs vastly from previous technological cycles. Digital records must be saved with consistent file names, metadata and other labeling to ensure they are flexible enough to adapt to new access methods. As data and digital information proliferate, the amount of storage this requires continues to multiply. Plus, while storage space gets cheaper, storage management and energy costs do not.
Also, storage media such as hard drives, USB devices and now-antiquated zip drives and floppy diskettes decay over time, leading to corrupted files. They may also be unsupported by new hardware and software. With every change in media storage, companies must implement plans to assure every file’s successful migration, bit by bit.
Redundancy and Backup: Since all data is ultimately subject to corruption or destruction — whether by a malicious act, natural disaster or cybercrime — data backup is an essential component of long-term digital preservation planning. There must be diversity in dependent technologies, and professionals must generate and recalculate checksums to identify losses before they are permanent.
Viewer and Conversion Software: Specialists who plan for the long-term digital preservation of their organizations’ materials must also be involved in the development or selection of viewer and conversion software that evolves in step with the technologies of the moment.
Maintaining high-quality preservation processes is critical to organizations in every industry, and investments in this area will continue to keep pace with technology spending overall. That means an investment in an advanced degree in management information systems will pay off as the demands of digital preservation and technology evolve.