Are you ready for born digital?

What are born digital records?

Born digital records are just what they sound like: records that are created as digital files. Born digital records are extremely common: we write papers for class, post on Facebook, take pictures with digital cameras and write e-mails. Increasingly, these digital records are making their way into archival or special collections. For repositories that are accustomed to dealing with primarily paper formats, the adjustment to digital records is a drastic one.

So what’s the problem?

Some of you might be wondering what the big deal here is. Computers and the internet have been around for a pretty long time now, why would archives be having a problem with the most basic of technology? The problem is that the preservation of digital material is significantly different than the preservation of paper. The preservation of born digital records is, in some ways, an entirely new field.

Paper has a fairly long life span. When an archive receives a scrapbook or box of papers the items can sit unattended for long periods of time without any harm being done. The same does not hold true for digital records, where a time span of even a couple of years can make a huge difference. Storage formats and software change, and digital files can degrade or become corrupted. This corruption is not easily visible like mold on a scrapbook is.

Current state of things

Many archives contain digital files scattered throughout their collections – a floppy disk or a cd in boxes here and there. The digital files sit there, unattended and forgotten and perhaps deteriorating. This describes the archives that I work in very well, which makes this a matter of particular interest to me. Our archival collections contain approximately 6,000 boxes, which have digital material scattered amongst them, often completely unidentified. What can we do, with our limited time and resources, to begin to tackle the problem? How long will we wait, and will that be too long?

Full-scale solutions

There are some very specific industry standards and guidelines to be followed in managing digital records, including PREMIS from the Library of Congress and the InterPARES Project. The standards lay out methods of authenticating files, adding appropriate metadata and storing files correctly. These are just some of the golden standards for managing digital records, but they are not easily achievable, especially for a small institution.

Take action solutions

Given the complexity of managing digital records, many institutions simply do nothing. The task is overwhelming, funding is usually an issue and most archives don’t have the staff to commit to yet another project. However, the worst action that an institution can take is no action. Taking some measure now, even if imperfect, is better for the long-term preservation of digital material.

There are many resources that recommend basic steps that repositories can take to begin to address born digital material. One article that I found particularly helpful was “Bridging the Gap: Taking Practical Steps Toward Managing Born-Digital Collections in Manuscript Repositories,” written by Ben Goldman. The article outlines specific and concrete actions that can implemented relatively easily, starting with a basic inventory of the digital material already in a repository.

At the end of the day…

There is a basic philosophy in the archival world that if you cannot care for material, you do not accept it. The same idea holds true for digital material: if a repository is not prepared to properly manage digital items then they have no business accepting them. Realistically, most archives will need to accept digital material in the future if they have not already, and so they will need to develop methods and policies for managing those records.



Further Reading

Practical E-Records – practical advice, helpful recommendations and resources

Born Digital Archives – blog of the AIMS project, “an inter-institutional framework for stewarding born-digital content”

Goldman, Ben (05/01/2011). “Bridging the Gap: Taking Practical Steps Toward Managing Born-Digital Collections in Manuscript Repositories.”. RBM : a journal of rare books, manuscripts, and cultural heritage (1529-6407), 12 (1), p. 11.

Hurford, A. A., & Runyon, C. F. (2011). New Workflows for Born-Digital Assets: Managing Charles E. Bracker’s Orchid Photographs Collection. Computers In Libraries, 31(1), 6-40.



Examples of Born Digital Collections

Charles E. Bracker Orchid Photographs

Salman Rushdie’s Digital Life and a NY Times article about it

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