Genealogy: How do I start in understanding digital preservation?

10-14-2014 9-42-02 PMDigital preservation can be viewed as a set of concurrent processes. If you are just starting out, however, it helps to adopt a sequence of broad actions to get into this loop.

  • Evaluate the digital records you have, or are likely to receive to identify formats and potential volumes.
  • Identify records held on removable storage media (such as memory sticks or floppy disks) with a view to transferring them to a more secure storage environment, such as a server.
  • Ensure there are at least two copies of a digital record. This will allow you to work on a copy and allow you to revert to an earlier version if required.
  • Develop a system of governance by creating a digital preservation strategy.

The ‘Golden Rules’ of Digital Preservation
In most cases the processes for digital preservation will be dependent on the capabilities and resources of the organization. There are however, some basic principles which should always be employed:

  • Always hold at least two copies of a record. Technical obsolescence of standard formats (such as Windows) is not likely to be an immediate threat so it may be possible to retain the original format on a separate secure server
  • Only ever work on a copy of a record to ensure long-term preservation of the content when it was originally entered into the digital preservation process
  • Always document what actions and processes have taken place to allow others to learn how digital preservation has been done and either repeat the processes or develop them as required
  • Ensure that the digital records received into the digital preservation process are unaltered. This may be achieved through the use of Checksum algorithm software

Planning for digitization
Digitizing your family projects is more about methods and procedures (i.e., fundamentally sound operating principles in the creation and storage of digital images), and less about hardware and software (e.g., today’s technologies, file formats and media). It’s about project planning and identifying the artifacts or material that will be digitized, and then deciding which would be the best method for digitizing the material based on resources (e.g., budget, and time). You will be asking questions such as the following:

  • Can the goal be achieved by book, video, or presentation?
  • • Who is going to have access to the material (e.g., you, immediate family, extended family, World Wide Web)?
    • What materials (e.g., photos, journals, cards, letters, documentation, maps, artifacts) are you going to digitize and why?
  • What is the scope of your project?  For example, will it include all photos and artifacts of six family lines descending from a common progenitor—as well as your high school years, last summer’s vacation, and the life story of a parent?
  • Who has the originals and will you get access to them?
  • Of the originals that you have, which ones do you plan to digitize?
  • How are you going to preserve the originals?

What Parts of My Family History Should I Preserve?
Think about those pieces of family history you wish you had that either were not captured or were lost due to any number of reasons.  I remember after my mother’s passing, finding an envelope that contained over 200 Polaroid photos that were taken in the 1970s and 80s, less than 10 percent were salvageable.

What’s worth preserving?  What parts of your family history would you consider to be important enough to classify as “permanent” for expending resources (i.e., time, money, and equipment) to preserve them?  Set up a system using these core questions with an associated rating system:

  1. Is the information the picture, document, or artifact holds unique?
  2. How significant is the source and context of the record?
  3. How significant are the records for research (current and projected in the future)?
  4. Do these documents help in finding other more permanent records?
  5. Are these records related to other permanent records? Some records by themselves have limited value but when added to other records become very important to help tell a larger story.
  6. How useable are the records? (Are they deteriorated to such a degree that they will be unreadable in the near future?)
  7. What are the cost considerations for the long-term maintenance of the record? (Are they on paper that may decay and thus require expensive preservation work?)
  8. What is the volume of the records? The more records there are, the more it will cost to store them.

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