Monday, January 22, 2007

What is being preserved?

Already in the graduate class I'm teaching, questions have been raised about digital preservation and this is only week #2! People are concerned about "what" they are preserving when they digitize. Are they preserving the content? Or are they preserving the original item?

For some (likely not librarians), digitization is akin to microfilming. The content of an item is preserved in a new format. Now that it is in this new format, the old format (original) can be destroyed. In this case, the idea that you are preserving the content is clear.

You might wonder when anyone in his right mind would digitize and destroy the original. Consider the checks/cheques you write. Many checks are digitized when deposited, leaving only the digital version as proof of the transaction.

For archivists and curators, the original item has value outside of the content it contains. They -- and many researchers -- are interested in the physical material, its composition, how it has aged, as well as any wear-n-tear. All those things mean something and are deemed important. So archivists and curators will be adamant about keeping the original item, conserving it, and preserving it.

Librarians will understand that digitization will have preserved the content, but may be unsure what digitization means for the original. Has digitized helped to preserve the original? (The correct answer is "no.") Has digitization made the original less valuable? (No.) And the ultimate question for some may be: What do I do with the original now -- keep it in circulation, put it in storage or what? A question that I suspect is answered differently for even items within one digitization program.

I have told the class that digital preservation will be discussed more -- much more -- during the semester, but that there are many other things to learn first -- project management, material selection, copyright....! We cannot think seriously about digital preservation until we have thought through the steps that come before it.

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