Why Build a Digital Archive Anyway?


Why build a digital archive? That is a very good question, particularly since building a digital archive involves a lot of effort and considerable expense.
For memory institutions (archives, museums and libraries) the need to build a digital archive is compelling. As the European Union funded DigiCULT Report (p.90) stated, in the new information economy memory institutions are inextricably in a process of evolving:

  • Archives: From “storing objects” to the management of the life cycle of digital / digitised products
  • Libraries: From “reading room” to digital information service centre
  • Museums: From collections to narrative connections and new experiences

There is no way of turning back the clock on this. As the general population adopts digital technologies in every day life, the very pervasiveness of digital media means that for your institution to be visible to your audience, you must embrace digital technologies, and not just for marketing and reaching out. You must embrace them at the heart of your institution – which is your collection, your content, your narrative. That means a digital archive of some kind must become a fundamental part of who you are and what you do as an institution.

An LTO tape backup system. Such tape systems that allow for offsite storage of backups are best practice for the backup of digital content stored on servers. They are a fundamental part of an archival digital repository system.
An LTO tape backup system. Such tape systems that allow for offsite storage of backups are best practice for the backup of digital content stored on servers. They are a fundamental part of an archival digital repository system.

But it is not just memory institutions that are impacted by this. All institutions will be, for the simple fact that much that is produced these days no longer has a physical instance – it is born digital and remains digital throughout its life.
Last year I wrote to the Bursar of a boys school who was quite rightly querying the need to build a digital archive. I made an attempt to communicate to him that the need for a digital archive cannot be seen as a peripheral undertaking simply to preserve some “old stuff”, but it is an essential foundation for the proper operation of the organisation. This is what I wrote:

I find that most organisations tend to think of the future of archives as being much the same as archives have been in the past i.e. the continual gathering of physical material and their safe and secure storage. While there will always be some physical materials to gather, actually the primary growth of archives in the present and the future is, and is going to be, digital. This is because much of the archival content that is being produced at present, either is produced digitally and then printed out, or only exists in digital form (photographs, documents, video, music etc.). This means that for any organisation, building a digital archive becomes not just something you do to store the digitised material of the past (an exercise that can be seen to be peripheral to the operation of the organisation, a nice-to-have), but rather is something you do for the present and future functioning of the school. In this sense it is more fundamentally at the heart of the functioning of an organisation than is commonly thought, in a similar way that a computer network is a fundamental part of a modern organisation. This is because so much is being produced in digital form only, and until one prioritizes the building of a digital archive at the heart of the organisation, that digital content has no ultimate home. Without this home it is often distributed in many places having been produced at a range of quality and differing levels of backup. The digital archive is the home where all critical media files produced at the right standard should flow to, where they are backed up and preserved, and from where they can be made accessible to whoever needs to call on the files – in an efficient and effective manner that saves time and money.

Write-once media such as CDs and DVDs have been a useful short-term storage solution for digital files. But they don't last. Over time they become unreadable. With the size of digital files growing, they are also becoming less useful in coping with the mass of digital output. Access to the files is also very slow and unless a separate database is maintained, there is no way of searching across DVDs. They still remain a useful offsite backup solution for smaller collections, however.
Write-once media such as CDs and DVDs have been a useful short-term storage solution for digital files. But they don’t last. Over time they become unreadable. With the size of digital files growing, they are also becoming less useful in coping with the mass of digital output. Access to the files is also very slow and unless a separate database is maintained, there is no way of searching across DVDs. They still remain a useful offsite backup solution for smaller collections, however.

I went on to describe who the audience for the digital archive will be and how they would benefit.
This motivation is applicable to all organisations and institutions that are likely to have any longevity, or need the memory of their activities recorded in any way – which is the vast majority of, if not all, organisations. It is my conviction that every institution is going to need to build a digital archive to provide the digital home for digital media recording the life of the organisation. With the proliferation of born-digital media, few of which get transferred into analogue form, it is time to stop debating and time to start building a digital archive!
Other blog posts on the topic of Building a Digital Archive:
2. Steps to Building a Digital Archive: Scoping
3. Steps to Building a Digital Archive: Screening