Some thoughts about our preservation policy

We are updating the Borthwick Institute's preservation policy. Originally written in 2007, it is due for review by our preservation archivist and conservation team but my interest in this task is to ensure that digital archives are represented within the policy. In the current policy there is no mention of the preservation of digital archives. There was no need for us to mention them six years ago but times are changing - this has now become a priority for us.

It was interesting having the opportunity to sit down and read our existing preservation policy. The only other preservation policies I had ever read up to this point (not that many of them I might add) related purely to digital material so had quite a different emphasis. As I am still quite new to the world of traditional archives, reading about everything that is in place to protect and preserve the documents in our care is an education for me.

The first question in my head is whether to crack on with this now or wait until such a time that the structure of the digital archive is more firmly in place. By getting the policy for the preservation of digital material written now we are jumping the gun a bit as procedures are not yet established. However by writing a policy at this point we are at least setting out our intentions and providing an overview of how we will approach the preservation of digital material. There are certain things I am confident we will be doing. The finer detail of how this will occur will follow in time and may be incorporated into a more detailed preservation strategy document in the future.

The second decision to make regarding the revised preservation policy was whether we integrate the digital within the current policy or create a separate document. Both approaches are legitimate and widely used. For the Borthwick we have decided that an integrated policy is the way forward. Ultimately, we want our systems for receiving, managing and providing access to archives to be seamless and media blind. It shouldn't matter to our depositors or users whether the media is digital or not, they should be confident in our ability to preserve and provide access to them regardless. Digital preservation should not be a specialist outpost, it should be fully integrated in the psyche of both our staff and our users.

There are differences to the way we preserve physical and digital archives:

  • With physical archives (paper and parchment) it is most important for the material to be appropriately packaged and stored in the correct environmental conditions. Once the conditions are right, they can be largely left alone. Intervention should only be required where specific issues occur.
  • With digital archives it is all about continuous active management. The digital environment is fast moving and the threat of obsolescence is never far away. Leaving the data alone in a static environment is a very risky approach.
Despite these differences, the basic premis of preservation is the same. What is highlighted in our current preservation policy is the idea of "preservation for access". This is why we are all here after all. Whether the material is physical or digital, we need to ensure that we preserve them so that others may access them in the future.

Jenny Mitcham, Digital Archivist


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