Tuesday, 29 July 2008

"Digital Preservation" term considered harmful?

Over the past few weeks I have become acutely aware that the term “digital preservation” may be becoming a problem. This issue was first brought out (as far as I’m aware) by James Currall in the espida project:
“The digital preservation community has become very good at talking to itself and convincing ‘paid-up’ members of the value of preserving digital information, but the language used and the way that the discourse is constructed is unlikely to make much impact on either decision-makers or the creators of the digital information (academics, administrators, etc.).”
(espida update report, march 2006, internal communication.)

The espida project drove this reasoning forward towards the creation of persuasive business cases built on a variant of the balanced score card approach. This is very valuable, but my little epiphany was slightly different. It’s not just the language that makes digital preservation unconvincing to the decision maker. Part of the problem is that digital preservation describes a process, and not an outcome.

There are many arcane, backroom processes involved in the familiar concept of “the library”, including accessions, cataloguing, circulation and conservation. In general, neither the library user nor the institutional decision maker need be concerned about these processes. The large set of outcomes (including for example a place for study, or a resource for future scholarship) is what we value.

Similarly, in the digital domain, we should be selling the outcomes. While we have to use "digital preservation" in appropriate contexts, including technical and other in-house discussions, and digital curation is appropriate in other contexts, terms that reflect the outcomes are more persuasive. The outcome of successful digital preservation is that digital resources remain accessible and usable over the long term. This outcome-related notion is immediately understandable to users and decision makers, and most will find something in their past with which it resonates. Even members of the general public "get" the need to ensure their digital photos and other documents remain accessible over time, even if they don't act on this awareness. In contrast, digital preservation has been over-sold as difficult, complex and expensive over the long term, while the term itself contains no notion of its own value.

So I would argue that outcome-related phrases like "long term accessibility" or "usability over time" are better than the process-oriented phrase "digital preservation".


  1. These are very helpful comments. At the National Library of Scotland, we have focused firmly on the access benefits of 'doing digital preservation', and always communicate it to our stakeholders in this context. We are about providing long-term access to published materials for the benefit of the people of Scotland, and for people with an interest in Scotland. This means we need to apply preservation standards, irrespective of whether they're for books or TIFF files. What our users want to know is that when they request an item, we can provide it. They don't need to know the preservation workflows that ensure that's the case (although print conservation methods can be pretty interesting to see!)

  2. Chris - you are only realising this now ;-)

    I quite like 'continuity'.


Please note that this blog has a Creative Commons Attribution licence, and that by posting a comment you agree to your comment being published under this licence. You must be registered to comment, but I'm turning off moderation as an experiment.