Caution: Digital Contents Fragile!

Reading through the articles and reports this week on collecting history online, I am left overwhelmed and with a sense of foreboding. Most of the readings at one point or another said directly or paraphrased these two words: “Digital fragility.”

In “Re-imagining Academic Archives,” Christopher Prom states that many different people control materials and documents in digital form and that important relationships exist between these forms and people. How do we preserve them? In the “Preserving Our Digital Heritage,” the authors claim, on average, a website dies in 44 days. This statement implies that digital documents, like websites, have a life and die. They are fragile, like us human beings. I used to think that once you published some content on the internet it was there to stay…not anymore. On top of this morbid fact, people create new forms of technology and tools every day- it is constantly changing. One digital format may be replaced by another. Additionally, Kirschenbaum, Ovenden, and Redwine state in “Digital Forensics and Born Digital Content in Cultural Heritage Collections,” that approximately 90% of records generated today are digital!

Digital records are ephemeral, rapidly changing, increasing, and essentially organic. Too many different formats, codes, catalogs, and preservers exist to standardize and keep up with these ever-changing and ever-dying digital materials. How can we, as historians, archivists, or simply preservers of the past, ensure or standardize digital preservation methods? Is standardization even possible? If not, how can we be sure not to lose some source of cultural and historical value? What are the real advantages and disadvantages of the massive plethora of digital formats and technologies?

The “Preserving Our Digital Heritage Plan” report by the Library of Congress instilled some hope within me. It presents a detailed strategic plan to create library and archive networks, business models, and research bases to preserve the most important digital cultural and historical heritage of America. In perusing their website, a page called “Personal Archiving” encourages individuals to preserve their own important digital records and provides tools to do so.