Preserving digital files for long-term access is a difficult issue for many organizations; the files can quickly become inaccessible due to media and hardware obsolescence and they are subject to degradation. With the sheer volume of digital information produced on a regular basis, this task might seem overwhelming, but digital preservation does not always have to involve detailed workflows and inflated budgets. Not all digital information will need to be preserved for long-term access, so an initial appraisal of what needs to be saved will help to clarify the scope of the project. Once this has been defined, there are some relatively easy, proactive steps you can take to begin preserving your digital materials.
One critical first step is to remove files from external storage media and place them on a more stable and reliable storage system. Common examples of external storage media include CDs, USB flash drives, and 3.5” floppy disks. Such external storage media are typically not recommended for the long-term storage of digital files because of their short life expectancy and accessibility issues due to media and hardware obsolescence. Depending on their age and usage, finding a means of accessing files on these media can be challenging. CD/DVD disk drives are still found in most contemporary computers. However, it may be more difficult to locate disk drives for older storage media such as ZIP disks. Being aware of your organization’s capability to access certain media will help prioritize which types to transfer first and which can be addressed as budget or necessity permit.
The next step is to decide what storage system to use. A variety of options exists, which can be evaluated based on the size of the organization’s data, budget, and need for quick accessibility. Options include hard disk drives, solid disk drives, cloud storage, and magnetic tape. Regardless of which option you choose, it is best practice to maintain two complete copies of the files on different media, ideally in two different geographic locations.
Nothing in the digital preservation world offers a permanent solution, but anticipating potential issues goes a long way to ensuring digital file preservation as technology evolves. Removing files from external storage media to a more stable storage system will put you in a better position to address more complex preservation issues as needed. If you are responsible for the long-term maintenance of electronic data and need help getting started, consulting services are available to help you survey and assess your digital collections, getting you on track to deal with these complex preservation issues before they lead to data loss. At History Associates, our trained digital archivists can help you map out an appropriate plan of action for your organization.
Archivist Nate Scheible also contributed to writing this article. Nate Scheible conducted archival processing, arrangement, and description services for clients. He also worked on various projects involving digital preservation initiatives.
Originally published in our HAIpoints newsletter. View newsletter page.