Digital Archives: Preserving the Digital Past – Part 1

Coinciding with the American Library Association’s Preservation Week and the Society of American Archivists’ MayDay disaster preparedness initiatives, we will explore digital preservation projects currently underway at the DePaul University Special Collections and Archives. In the first section of this two-part series, we will focus on an initiative to preserve content stored on physical materials.

aaBeginning in spring 2014, DePaul University Special Collections and Archives participated in a Society of American Archivists’ initiative called, “Jump In, Two/Too”, which was seen as a way to encourage archival repositories to initiate or “Jump in” to working with born-digital content. To that end, we inventoried physical media in our collection including CDs, DVDs, floppy disks, and other media containing digital files. The inventory found nearly 700 individual pieces of media in a variety of formats, mostly CDs, 3.5” floppy disks, and DVDs, but also included 1 ZIP disk and 1 MiniDisc.

This inventory became our guide to begin the activity of preserving the materials. Our preservation aim is to maintain the intellectual and contextual control of the content in a manner that will facilitate researcher access. Using the inventory, the next step of the project was to prioritize collection material based on a number of factors including researcher demand and media vulnerability. From there, we developed the workflow and established the tools and resources necessary to move forward with the project in a systematic manner.

The action of preserving digital material has numerous levels and layers of possibility that can range from basic strategies and methods that protects or stabilizes the content from further deterioration all the way up to full-scale digital preservation programs that include bit-level analysis of data and even the emulation of content in its native environment. The utmost goal of the work performed in Special Collections and Archives is the preservation and accessibility of materials. Taking this into consideration, along with the spirit of the “Jump In” initiative, Special Collections and Archives determined that the foundation of the project would be to preserve the material in anticipation of the project expanding in the near future. To that end, we simplified our workflow in order to process content at a sustainable level that projected growth and expandability.

The focus of our initial workflow centers on the creation of disk images of the physical media. The purpose of creating a disk image is to capture the media exactly as it exists in a manner that also maintains the intended use by its creator. The disk image file allows us to preserve both the data and the structural information of the media. From there we are able to make derivatives of the content without causing harm to the digital files. Additionally, this allows us to preserve the physical object while maintaining access to the digital files.

The future of this project will move in two additional directions. The next steps for the disk image files is to have the content analyzed using open-source digital forensic software to review the content for sensitive information as well as to appraise the content for access and researcher use. Furthermore, the project has moved beyond just physical media and has grown to include audiovisual material ranging from VHS, Beta, and U-Matic videotapes to reel-to-reel and cassette audiotapes. Just as physical media was inventoried, audiovisual material is currently being inventoried through the guidance of an intern to capture and preserve the medium in the digital realm.

In part two, we will look at the inclusion of audiovisual material through the work of an internship and the initial work that has been completed in the early stages of our physical media digital preservation project.

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