Preserving a Digital Past

We’ve come a long way since the 1920s…

The Conservative Party Archive regularly receives deliveries of material from Central Office and various other Party operations. Even ten years ago, these were almost exclusively in paper form. Today, we get film clips, audio files, digital documents and more. Sometimes they’ve been created recently and come on DVD or in up-to-date formats, but often they are dated and harder to deal with – we have Betamax tapes, Dictabelt sheets, cassette tapes, floppy disks and more.

Dealing with audio-visual and digital material is one of the biggest challenges facing archives around the world. Archival material on paper may present its own set of problems (storage space, at the very least!), but even left to its own devices in a reasonably controlled climate, it often lasts for centuries, and it’s easy to get it out and show it to someone. VHS tapes, on the other hand, may degrade after a matter of decades, their data lost forever. It often requires ‘specialist’ equipment (once standard!) to even see what’s on the tapes, much less transfer them to a computer. Organisations such as the UK’s Digital Preservation Coalition and Digital Curation Centre have been working to provide training and research to help archives deal with our digital future, but it’s not always easy work.

The Mellon Foundation-funded futureArch project has been addressing these issues at the Bodleian for a number of years; the project aims to develop a framework for preserving, storing and providing access to born digital and hybrid material. This means researching, testing, and developing strategies for everything from transferring audio from cassettes to allowing researchers access to material created in obsolete formats.

Because the Conservative Party Archive has begun to receive a fairly substantial amount of digital material (and expects that to increase as more Party work is done online only), we began to liaise with the futureArch project for advice on transferring and preserving AV files. The last thing we want is for our digital material to become totally obsolete or degrade before we can transfer it and make it available to readers. We need to make sure that our material is stored in a format that will last – or that someone responsible and knowledgeable is making sure it is transferred between formats where appropriate. We have also been involved in a pilot project at the Bodleian to archive websites, providing long-term access to online ephemera surrounding the Party.

A few weeks ago, we went to visit the futureArch project team to discuss the work they were doing with our material as well as sit in on a meeting with a JISC representative on formats for video preservation. We ran through the process for transferring optical media – CDs and DVDs, in this case – and using digital forensics tools to retrieve data. Digital forensics tools have been adopted by the archival world as the forensics community deals with many of the same problems, especially the variety of formats and quality levels of the data we address.

There is no easy solution to preserving digital data, but there is a lot of hard work going into the question. The Archive’s material is being handled by information professionals at the forefront of digital preservation research. Our hope is that we can make the Archive’s audio, visual and born digital material available in the future in a way that will eliminate barriers to readers such as obsolete formats and allow us to continue to provide access no matter how technologies shift.

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