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Digital Preservation

Learn about various types, methods and best practices of digital preservation.

Introduction to Digital Preservation

The modern documentary record is predominantly digital; from the mundane to the foundational, most of these records will never exist in print or analog form. The preservation of these records is required for compliance with SUNY and statutory regulations for records management, as well as for best practices in documenting the functions, people and history of Upstate Medical University. 

There are two classes of digital materials that often come with separate considerations. Digitized materials, which have an analog original that was used to create the electronic form, are less problematic because the original can generally be used to recreate the digital surrogate. Born digital materials are created in an electronic format and have no corresponding analog version.

The heart of the digital dilemma has its root in the nature of digital materials. Since digital objects are partially composed of the characteristics of the methods used in their creation; this means that digital records are often more of a process, which is potentially evolving, than they are a fixed entity. At a very basic level, it is difficult to determine when the “record” even appears. At what point in this developing process has the entity worthy of preservation come into existence? Consider how easy it is to alter an image. Which iteration of the image is the archival copy? The version that was first removed from the camera? The edited version the photographer selected for exhibition? The version the publisher of a compilation of photographs decided to reproduce? Because it is so easy to alter a born digital object, it is very hard to ascertain the moment of completion. 

In addition to issues surrounding their creation, electronic documents are inherently unstable, making them very prone to data loss, corruption, and access issues over time. The life-span of any stored electronic information is only as long as the life-span of the shortest-lived of its three constituent components: software, hardware and storage medium. The work-flows and best practices for mitigating the problems caused by obsolescence of all three of these components is the work of digital preservation.These files will cease to exist at some unknown point, unless active intervention is undertaken. If a digital record preservation program is not put in place, then these irreplaceable records will be lost much faster than their analog predecessors. Considerations for long-term preservation and the special skill set needed to care for these digital documents requires an archivist specially trained in these 21st century issues.

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