Digital Preservation Decision Tree Model to Establish Whether a Digital Resource Should be Preserved

See also: Digital Preservation Toolkit

This digital preservation decision tree helps cultural heritage institutions decide which of their existing digital resources should be preserved for the long-term. The tree may be used to help develop the institution’s Digital Preservation Policy (a key document that supports and helps determine the institution’s Digital Preservation Action Plan) or to support an existing policy for resources not already covered by it.

The 2017 version of this tree differs from previous versions in two ways. Firstly, multiple trees for born-digital assets and digital copies have now been condensed into a single tree which applies to all digital assets. Secondly, where previous versions of the tree could result in a decision to not preserve if limitations were too great, the current version of the tree recommends preservation of any digital artefact if there is sufficient reason to preserve. The principle behind this change is while limitations may prevent a digital asset from being preserved to the best standard possible, any effort to preserve an object that should be preserved, is better than none.

Table of contents

Download the PDF version of the Digital Preservation Decision Tree here

Link to PDF version (PDF, 259 KB)

Should an existing digital resource be preserved? A Decision Tree for cultural heritage institutions

Diagram of the Digital Preservation Decision Tree, is described in detail below.

In using this decision tree, users must first consider reasons that the object should be preserved. These include:

  1. Existing Policy: There may already be an existing digital preservation policy in place which states that digital assets of this nature are to be preserved. Likewise, a related guiding document (such as the institution’s mandate) may suggest preservation of the resource;
  2. Legal Obligations: There may be a term within a donation agreement or similar document that legally obliges the institution to preserve the resource;
  3. Access to the Original: It may be the case that an original (physical) object is difficult to access due to preservation measures, loans to other institutions, or deaccessioning; and
  4. Long-term Value: The long-term value of the resource to the institution may be sufficient justification to preserve it.

If the answer is “no” to all four of these questions, there is no need to proceed, as there are no justifiable grounds to preserve the resource.

Conversely, if “yes” is the answer to any of the above four questions, the object(s) should be preserved. The remaining part of the tree identifies limiting factors, and while none of these should prevent preservation activity, it may determine to what degree a resource can be preserved:

  1. Finances: This includes cash expenditures on any resource or activity necessary for preservation activities. When a preservation plan and technology is already in place, “finances” will refer to variable costs (additional hours of labour, disk space, etc…) of preserving an object or object group. Alternatively, if the tree is being used to develop a preservation policy (and subsequent plan), then “finances” will refer to both variable and fixed costs (technology chosen, staff assigned, training, etc..), and will be a determining factor in the plan and technology that is chosen. See How To use the Preservation Toolkit Workflow Diagram for more information on the order of operations in creating preservation policies and plans.
  2. Preservation Metadata: refers to all information about the digital resource being preserved. It may be detailed and complex (and involve a schema such as PREMIS), or it may be barebones (and include little more than the creation date, modification date, and authorship information typically included by operating systems and the applications used to create a file). The level of information available will help determine the degree to which long-term access can be guaranteed.
  3. Copyright: If the digital object is commercially produced and has a technological protection measure to prevent copying, the Canadian Copyright Modernisation Act makes it illegal to copy the object (even for preservation purposes) without a court injunction. In such cases, it may make sense to acquire a second preservation copy, or simply limit access to the current copy. Either way, the ability to guarantee long-term access to the object will be limited.
  4. Technical Feasibility: If the resource to be preserved is in a proprietary or obsolete format (be it a digital format, or a physical carrier) it may not be technically feasible to migrate to newer or more common preservation formats. In such cases, the best solution may be to preserve the resource as best as possible as-is (without guarantee of long term access) until migration is possible.

After all limitations are considered, the only question remaining is to determine to what degree the object(s) can be preserved. If limitations are surmountable, preserve the object(s) with the expectation of long-term access. Failing this, preserve the object(s) as best as possible, or prioritize the work relative to other objects needing preservation.


Legal Obligations
Content to be preserved for legal purposes may include financial data (Point of Sales data, other revenues, expenditures, etc…), email relating to agreements, understandings, and notices and other administrative material. It may also include metadata about collections, particularly where there is a legal obligation to preserve the collection and no other record of the metadata exists. Finally, it may include born digital content (i.e. content that exists in no other form), if this content was provided to your museum on the understanding that it be preserved.
Digital Preservation Policy
Your museum should have a Policy on Digital Preservation, which addresses issues such as: what your museums digital preservation activities are meant to accomplish, who will be involved and how, what sort of material will be preserved, etc… A Digital Preservation Policy Framework (used to produce such policies can be found on the Professional Exchange Website.
Long Term Value
This issue is often addressed within an organisation’s digital preservation policy. However, digital resources which might be deemed out of scope by a policy, may, on occasion, be worth preserving solely as a result of their long-term value (either to the museum or its stakeholders).
Copyright Clearance
This includes obtaining the right to make digital copies of an item (if applicable, and if this has not already been obtained), to make copies in various formats and on various physical media for the purpose of digital preservation, and the right to provide access to this material (according to the museums’ digital preservation policy).
In general, the costs associated with preserving a single digital resource are already considered as part of your museum’s digitization project. However, there may be specific resources which have inordinate preservation costs associated with them (items not yet digitized, proprietary software that may require a programmer’s skills, etc…). Physical media maintenance and file format migration costs during the preservation process should also be considered, as these require long-term financial planning.
Digital Preservation Metadata
This metadata identifies the resource being preserved, and generally includes files such as: Date preserved, who produced the material, who preserved it, what was used to digitize it, a history of changes made to it during the data management stage, etc… Without knowing this basic information, the content may have little or no meaning, and may not be worth preserving.
Clearance of rights to digitize a resource (or make a copy of an existing digital resource) for the purpose of preservation does not necessarily entail the right to provide access to this material. Expectations about how preserved content will be used must be cleared with the copyright holder.
Technical Specifications
Some content may be on physical media formats that are either dated or vulnerable to becoming dated. File formats (less common proprietary formats in particular) also present a problem, as these are vulnerable to being dated and unreadable to future software applications. Technical specifications (i.e. what file formats and media are acceptable) must be in place to ensure such content is transferrable to formats suitable for long-term preservation, and that this can be done in a way that prevents (or limits) loss of information.
Digital Preservation Plan

The Digital Preservation Plan is a core document that considers all relevant aspects of a museum’s circumstances and digital preservation objectives, to produces a recommended strategy (or Digital Preservation Action Plan). The preservation Plan considers museum policy objectives, legal obligations, finances, organizational and technical infrastructure, and user needs. From this, it considers and evaluates a number of strategies, then recommends a specific Action Plan which consists of:

  1. A series of actions to ensure digital content is preserved;
  2. Identification of who will carry out these actions and with what resources; and
  3. In what manner and conditions the actions will be carried out.

Digital Preservation Decision Tree references

The Digital Preservation Coalition, Interactive Assessment: Selection of Digital Materials for Long-term Retention, Accessed January 2013.

Jones, Maggie, and Neil Beagrie, Preservation Management of Digital Materials : A Handbook, London, The British Library, 2001, p 85. Print.

Digital Preservation Decision Tree, Digital Preservation Assessment, Parliamentary Archives, (PDF, 46 KB). Accessed January 3013.

Canadian Council of Archives Preservation Committee, Decision Tree for Digitization Projects,, 2002. Accessed January 2013.

Planning Digital Preservation, Accessed January 2013.

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