Digital Preservation Diary 1: What’s all the fuss about digital ‘stuff’!?

Abigail, WSRO Digital Preservation Archivist. And some old school floppy discs.

When we think about archives, we picture rooms filled with boxes of precious records. For anyone who’s been behind the scenes at WSRO, they’ll know this is certainly the case for us. But what would an archive look like if it only collected records created after Thursday 29 November 2018? Many of us work on paper so we’d expect to see some boxes. However, we also create a multitude of documents on computers, tablets and smart phones – records that are described as being born digital – meaning a large portion of the archive would be less tangible. Instead of being inside a box, it would be sitting somewhere on a server.

For WSRO, the significance of this change in format is revealed when we consider the opening lines of our Digital Preservation Policy:

Since 1946, WSRO has worked hard to collect and preserve the documentary heritage of West Sussex for the use of current and future generations. Our records cover the area of the modern county of West Sussex, and date from 780 AD to the present day.

The key phrase in this introductory text is present day. We’ve just established that a percentage of records created in this period are born digital, and this is also the case for records created in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s. It is this increase in digital material that prompted WSRO to take me on as their digital preservation archivist, to ensure we preserve these records on an ongoing basis. At this stage, you may be wondering what all the fuss is about. What does someone working in digital preservation actually do? Isn’t it just a case of safely storing the digital records and cataloguing them? You’re partly right: protecting and describing our digital collections is a major priority, but we also need to understand them, monitor them and repair them. This may all sound a little abstract, so let’s consider a typical story about digital ‘stuff’.

Suppose you’re back in 1986, using a word-processing application on your snazzy new Commodore 64. You’ve finally finished that draft of your first novel and you’re pretty confident it’s going to be a springboard to fame and fortune. You save your hard work on a floppy disk, file it away and sit back and relax while watching the latest episode of Dallas. Alas, much like Dallas, life takes an unexpected turn and you forget all about that floppy disk until you move house in 2018. You’re keen to revisit your work of genius but realise several things: the word-processing application you used on your Commodore 64 doesn’t exist anymore, nor does the computer itself, or its floppy disk drive. In short, you’re not sure how to open your files.

This story illustrates how a specific set of processes and procedures are necessary when caring for digital material; it’s not just a case of taking a collection in, cataloguing it and storing it as we do with our paper based archives. With this in mind, I’m sure I’ll encounter some challenges in my new role, which is why I thought it would be useful to reflect on my work in a series of diary entries on WSRO’s blog – today’s post being the first of many. I look forward to telling you more about my work over the coming months and, in the meantime, wish you all a very happy Digital Preservation Day!

By Abigail Wharne, Digital Preservation Archivist.

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