Recently, the IGI caught up with Mike Quinn, Commercial Director at Preservica, one of our newest Supporters, to find out more about what organizations can do to better protect their valuable digital assets to ensure that it is both preserved and accessible in the future.
We asked Mike to tell us a bit about Preservica and what the company offers. “Preservica is a digital preservation specialist that has been at the forefront of software technology, research, and consulting in this emerging field since the late 1990s. Our active preservation solutions are used by leading businesses, archives, libraries, museums, and government organizations, globally, to safeguard and share valuable digital content, collections, and electronic records for decades to come,” he said. He went on to explain that the software is available in both on-premise or cloud format, is standards-based (OAIS ISO 14721), and is able to be integrated with leading Enterprise Content and Records Management Systems.
Long-Term May Be Shorter Than You Think
You may be wondering whether your organization even has digital assets that are at risk. We asked Mike to explain what constitutes “long-term” in the digital world and why it matters.
“Some portion of your digital records and information is likely to have enduring value to your organization, either for business value, or legal, regulatory, or compliance reasons. Some of it may even be considered of permanent value to your organization. This could include things such as annual reports,policy documents, intellectual property, and even the digitized history of the organization (e.g. videos, photos, emails, audio, and websites),” he said.
Clearly, the latter type of records and information—ones we need or want to keep permanently—are “long-term.” But hardware and software obsolescence may be putting other records and information at risk even if you aren’t keeping it forever.
Mike went on to explain, “Long-term can be thought of as 10 plus years. Many institutions undergo IT system refresh cycles at this frequency, and technology obsolescence can happen surprisingly quickly. Think of floppy disks, for example. Now, think of all of the other types of technology—software and hardware—that your company is no longer using or no longer supports.”
Obsolescence can happen even sooner depending on the technology involved. So, if your organization is keeping digital records and information longer than 10 years, it is time to think about putting in place a process to properly preserve them.
Archiving Versus Preservation: What’s the Difference?
So your organization is saving certain types of information. There are archiving features in some applications, for example. Or you may be saving in a back-up, ECM, EDRM, EIA, or other system. We asked Mike to explain the difference between archiving and preservation.
“Archiving is concerned with storing the ‘bits’ (ones and zeros) of digital records. Many archiving solutions will even include some form of durability, such as robust storage in case the bits get damaged over time. However, as technology refresh cycles accelerate, most of these archiving solutions are missing one critical focal point. You might be able to get all the ‘ones and zeros’ back in the future, but because file formats and software are moving at such an unprecedented pace, you probably won't be able to read the information using the software and devices of the future,” he said.
He went on to explain how preservation is different.
“Digital preservation goes beyond ‘bit level’ durability. For some digital records, it’s important that they are findable, readable, usable, and trustworthy long into the future. Digital preservation is an active process of ensuring that digital records are ‘future-proofed.’ Metadata is used to make sure that it is easily findable; fixity values ensure its authenticity; and active migration to new formats ensures that a digital record can be usable way into the future – even though the originating technology (file format, software,hardware, etc.) may now be obsolete,” Mike explained.
Is Converting to a Common Format Like PDF, TXT, CSV or Analog Option Like Paper or Film Enough?
Some organizations are attempting to address long-term preservation by converting to common file formats like PDF, TXT, or CSV or analog options like paper or film. When we asked Mike about these approaches he said they may be acceptable—at least for now—in some instances. However, he explained these strategies are often problematic, too.
“If you think about high quality digital images or complex, interactive digital content such as spreadsheets, email, and websites, conversion to a common format may not be feasible. Such conversions can lead to degradation of fidelity to the original, or significant loss in terms of functionality. A PDF of a photo isn’t the same quality, for example. A PDF rendering of a spreadsheet isn’t able to be manipulated like the spreadsheet could be. The same applies to conversion to analog options like paper or film. As digital content becomes more complex, multi-media and interactive, converting to a simpler, common format is not always an option. Further, in addition to these concerns, questions of provenance and authenticity remain. How do I know that the conversion process did not lose some important information?”
He also noted that even today’s common file types could be obsolete tomorrow. “Then there’s the issue of the long-term viability of any particular format and version level, itself. Remember, we may be talking about decades for some digital records. Committing to a single, common format that far into the future isa risk in itself. The ‘convert-once and forget it’ approach may not be the best option for vital digital records” Mike adds.
Where Does Long-term Preservation Fit into the Information Governance Lifecycle?
At what point in the information governance lifecycle should decisions about long-term preservation be considered? Mike explained that because of rapid technology refresh times, taking steps to preserve digital information should not be thought of as an “end of life” decision because by then, it may be too late. He argues that digital preservation can be thought of as a “best practice discipline for digital records of enduring value to the institution” and should be part of the process from the beginning.
“If a digital record is created with the knowledge that it is likely to have a long-term (10 years+) or permanent retention policy, the way digital preservation fits into the information governance lifecycle is this: If it’s vital to your institution, don’t just archive it. Make sure you future-proof it with digital preservation,” he explained.
He also noted that the individual parts that make up an entire record need to be taken into account.
“A digital record may originate and reside operationally in an ECM, RM, file share, or other operational system. That entire digital record may be quite complex – for example, an email with attachments. A good information governance policy will require all those components of an entire digital record to out live the life cycle of the IT systems they were created on,” Mike asserts.
Are Organizations Aware of the Challenges of Managing Long-Term Digital Records and Information?
Some industry sectors may be more aware of the issue of digital preservation than others. Education,Mike suggests, is the key to bridging the gap.
“Preservica has worked with the cultural heritage sector for many years. These ‘Memory Institutions’ understand the challenges of managing long-term records. That’s why many National and State Archives have very active digital preservation programs. Many forward-thinking corporations also understand the value of protecting their long-term history, and an increasing number now have digital preservation programs too. However, many organizations think that archiving and storing digital content is good enough, and there is generally a sense that this is not a business problem,” he said.
“Funnily enough, if you ask these people the same questions about digital content of personal value, you’ll usually get an answer along the lines of: ‘Oh yes, I’ve got some family photos, videos, etc. sitting on a disk, USB, or an old computer running MSDOS. I have no idea what’s on there and how I can read it!’ So no, I think there’s still a lot of education to be done to help organizations understand the specific challenges of managing long-term business records,” added Mike.
To help bridge the gap, Preservica has been involved in various education programs, workshops, and webinars in association with organizations such as the Archives and Records Association (ARA), the Information Records Management Society (IRMS), and the Council of State Archivists (CoSA). In addition, Preservica is supporting research with the IGI to better understand the level of awareness of these issues in the information governance community.
The Public Sector Faces Some Unique Challenges
We asked Mike to tell us more about the unique challenges faced by public sector entities in long-term digital preservation. He noted that public sector records usually face the additional challenges of legally mandated retention periods and accessibility rules. “This means that digital records might have a very precise long-term preservation requirement (e.g. 25 years, 100 years, or permanent) and a time at which those records may be opened to researchers and/or the public,” he explained.
The sheer volume of records that some public entities receive is another issue. Public sector archivists receive information from other government entities and are tasked with the preservation of large amounts of information.
“There’s also the challenge that many public sector archives are on the ‘receiving-end’ of records, for which they must take long-term responsibility. So the ability to take content simply, at scale, and in an automated fashion from a variety of ECM, RM, and Email systems is very important. That’s why having an open standards based, integrated and comprehensive digital preservation platform is important to public sector organizations,” he explained.
Research Initiative on the Preservation of Long-Term Digital Records and Information
In conjunction with joining the IGI, Preservica is supporting research into how organizations handle their long-term digital records and information. Please take a few minutes from your day to help us benchmark this important issue by taking our short survey. This one is quick, we promise!