D-Lib Magazine
March 1999

Volume 5 Number 3

ISSN 1082-9873

From the Editor

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Finders and Keepers

As this month's issue began to take form, it became apparent that it had all the earmarks of an issue with a theme -- or rather two themes: digital archives and digital archiving.

When I mentioned the archival theme to a colleague, he remarked, "You know, the problems that face digital archives encompass all the challenges of digital libraries, and then some." Intrigued, I began to do a little Web research to see what I could find on the subject.

Most of the research involving digital preservation has been done in the last ten years, and "...at this point it is just not humanly possible to predict the long-term preservation properties of the digital medium. The technology is too new, too volatile, too changeable" [Eric T. Davis]. However, whether the best digital preservation methods are predictable or not, increasingly, government, legal, medical, scholarly, scientific, cultural, financial, and virtually every other vital type of information is being created in digital form and needs to be preserved. I keep thinking of the line from Field of Dreams, "If you build it, they will come." Well, "they" -- the information seekers -- are coming, and we had better figure out how to build it.

Three strategies for digital preservation often mentioned are migration, emulation, and preserving obsolete hardware and software [Michael Day and Neil Beagrie]. Yet at present, "Probably the most commonly used preservation strategy is to transfer digital information from less stable magnetic and optical media by printing page images on paper or microfilm. It seems ironic that... much information that begins its life in electronic form is printed on paper or microfilm for safe, secure long-term storage" [Margaret Hedstrom].

The crux of the problem with digital preservation may be found in the following from Preserving Digital Information: Report of the Task Force on Archiving of Digital Information: "Reading and understanding information in digital form requires equipment and software, which is changing constantly and may not be available within a decade of its introduction." [Donald Waters]. And in the Society of American Archivists Statement on the Preservation of Digitized Reproductions, we find: "The viability of digitized files is much more dependent on the life expectancy of the access system -- a chain is only as strong as its weakest component."

Because of the technological problems voiced above, Jeff Rothenberg believes that emulation is the best strategy for long term preservation of digital information, though much more research needs to be done in that area. On the other hand, Beagrie and Greenstein state, "Data migration is the preferred preservation strategy for data resources which are created with platform-independent data standards or which can be migrated into such data standards with minimal content loss." At the moment, there is no clearly right choice for all who want to preserve digital collections. In fact, in Why Digitize, Abby Smith cautions, "Much is gained by digitizing, but permanence and authenticity, at this juncture of technological development, are not among those gains."

Much research is being done to solve the problems that confront digital preservation efforts. You can read about some of it in this and previous issues of D-Lib Magazine. The work will require the cooperation of all stakeholders, and it will involve working in new ways [Margaret Phillips]. Still, the stakes are high; we need to solve digital preservation problems or much of the vital information of our culture that exists only in digital form will disappear.

Bonita Wilson
Managing Editor

Copyright (c) 1999 Corporation for National Research Initiatives

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DOI: 10.1045/march99-editorial