Born Digital Preservation: Part I

Billions of Bytes in Danger of Dying Alone
One Mind, by Setzuo (detail) — Found on deviantART

Conceived in the mind — yet ‘born digital’ — so much artwork and world history are now being nurtured and raised to maturity on computers everywhere. In this series, we will examine what is being done to ‘separate the wheat from the chaff,’ and highlight strategies currently in use to preserve the billions of valuable pixels distributed world-wide throughout the past two decades.

Now I’m no librarian, but from what I’ve read to date — the librarians of the world are facing enormous challenges attempting to catalog and preserve a growing number of digital-only titles that are constantly being added to their collections. At this moment, there seems to be more questions than answers, but a few new ideas are beginning to emerge.

Over at the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), Jackie Dooley and Ricky Erway have teamed up to help raise awareness and begin the attempt to answer the first basic question. What do we mean when we say ‘Born Digital’?

“Over the last 20 years a new generation of art and literature born as electronic, or ‘borne within’ distributive digital channels, has developed in tandem with new ways of defining, measuring and decoding such digital artifacts, and alongside new content delivery mechanisms. . .”
—Educational Insights, University of British Columbia

Some things will be always be taken care of, such as: hard data gathered from census documents, surveys and records (Governments); manuscripts, papers and academic publications (Universities), but concerns remain in collecting, sorting, conserving, and providing access to digital art, and digital records of world events, such as the tsunami in Japan, or the revolution in Egypt.

This is strictly a personal opinion, but I believe that most of the ‘Bleats and Tweets’ emanating from Facebook or Twitter should be allowed to die — actually, deliberately swept away on a regular basis to make room for all of the thoughtfully organized, truly valuable digital content that will eventually be accessible to future generations.

This week I can definitely recommend a place to begin, by reading Ricky Erway’s excellent essay titled Defining ‘Born Digital’ published by OCLC in November 2010. It’s only four pages, but describes nine different types of born-digital materials, and summarizes key issues. A ‘must read’ for anyone contemplating a preservation plan for permanently archiving any collection of born-digital artistic or cultural artifacts.