Digital Preservation for the Masses

Digital preservation might seem like something that’s only of interest to archives and libraries – certainly those organisations are very much focussed on preserving information (both analogue and digital) into the future – but the reality is that digital preservation should be on the mind of any person or organisation who values their digital information. 

So what is digital preservation? It’s about making sure that information that is kept in digital form can still be read in the future – changing software file formats and media storage being two of the more common issues that this area addresses, but backup file formats are a special subset of software formats that are often overlooked. It also ensures that the information maintains its provenance and evidentiary value, a key issue for much business information. 

Back in the 1990s, I worked in the helpdesk at a large university, and when Microsoft released Word version 6 for Macintosh, we suddenly had a big problem because most of the documents staff and students had created in the previous versions of Word, no longer opened in the new one. Several weeks of manual conversion of these documents were done by the helpdesk staff, and we had a fairly good success rate… however, this became my first lesson in the fragility of software formats and how information can be lost. 

In the same workplace, I also experienced the fragility of hardware for storing data, when “legacy-free PCs” started being sold that didn’t include floppy disc drives – starting with the iMac in 1999 – and suddenly again all of the staff and students needed assistance in moving their files from floppy discs to CDs or network-based storage. 

Many years later, I was fortunate to work at the State Records Office of Western Australia, and there I discovered just how big an issue these things were. One of my first experiences with Gaia Resources was bringing some floppy discs around to their office where they had a machine that had both 3 ½ and 5 ¼ inch floppy disc drives as well as a USB port to retrieve some digital information. 

Floppy discs in sizes 8”, 5 ¼”, and 3 ½”

Though still ostensibly a “collecting” organisation, the information that is held by the State Records Office of Western Australia is that which has been created across the Western Australian government since its establishment in 1828 as the Colonial Secretary’s Office. That includes information transferred from government agencies such as Landgate and the Department of Education, as well as local councils like the City of Joondalup, and of course the elected members of parliament such as former Western Australian premier, Colin Barnett – even company investigations into the Bond Corporation.  Much of this information began its life in digital form, and arguably now, most if not all information created by government, individuals, and commercial organisations is created digitally. So does that information cease to have value when CD drives to read discs are no longer easily available, or you no longer have WordPerfect installed on your latest laptop? 

The area of Digital Preservation specifically looks at these issues, to ensure that information can still be accessed into the future. We’ve worked with a number of different archive clients including Queensland State Archive, Public Records Office of Victoria, State Records Office of Western Australia, and Libraries Tasmania, and continue to work with these and others to introduce and expand their digital preservation activities. Whilst it’s primarily the collecting organisations that are taking these steps, it’s definitely something that all businesses should consider in planning their futures, and what their information is worth in their ongoing success. 

If you think your business information is worth looking after for the long term and would like to know more about how Gaia Resources can help you with digital preservation, then feel free to get in touch with me directly, or start a conversation with us on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

Meg

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