Anne Kenney and Nancy McGovern on Ten Good Reasons to Pursue Digital Preservation

Listen to Anne Kenney and Nancy McGovern from Cornell University Library.

Ten good reasons to pursue digital preservation

(10:09 min)

Transcript of Anne Kenney and Nancy McGovern on Ten Good Reasons to Pursue Digital Preservation

Ten good reasons to do digital preservation

Interviewer: As we understand it, you have developed ten digital preservation steps so we wanted to go through them and see if you can expand on that.

Anne Kenney: Well, as we were working on developing the digital preservation curriculum, we began by thinking about ten reasons why you wouldn't do digital preservation, and then the flip side of that, of course, is ten reasons why you would do digital preservation and for cultural heritage institutions, including libraries, archives, and museums, I think these all apply. And so, what we'll do is just go through each of them and give a little bit of an explanation from a perspective of museums as well as libraries and archives.

1. Increasing percentage of important cultural materials are only being created in digital form.

Anne Kenney: The first reason why you need to deal with digital preservation is that an increasing percentage of the important cultural heritage materials that are being created today are only being created in digital form. There was a study several years ago that talked about all of the new content being created and well over ninety percent of all content is coming in digital form. This is important for museums, particularly, as you begin to think about new forms of expression. Digital art is making inroads and there's no analog equivalent to that so whether museums at this point are dealing with digital content coming in or not they soon will be.

2. It's necessary to protect institutional assets and investments.

Anne Kenney: A second reason that we deal with digital preservation is that it's necessary to protect institutional assets and investments. We've had well over a decade looking at digitizing material beginning with text and then moving into photographic material, and now three-dimensional objects and audio-visual materials, motion pictures and sound recordings and things like that. What has resulted is the development of digital surrogates for museum items or forms of expression, and while we have thought of them as surrogates for the original, they are themselves becoming assets in their own right; and as more and more people rely on them for use and access, they become in many ways as critical to an understanding of a museum's mission as the original sources were. It's a very good way to get the message out beyond the physical construct of museums themselves.

3. Things can be done now, even if the complete answer isn't available.

Nancy McGovern: A third reason, things can be done now even if the complete answer isn't available. For a long time, organizations focused on the technology piece and were frightened or just unprepared for it, and what we're seeing is that organizations need to focus on their wherewithal to do digital preservation, including developing policies and procedures. Institutions shouldn't start with the technology but integrate it into what is already in place.

4. Cultural heritage institutions are the only ones with a preservation mandate.

Anne Kenney: The fourth reason is that cultural heritage institutions are the only ones with the preservation mandate based on the value of the content for scholars and for society. It isn't based on an economic or legal requirement associated with maintaining it. The value isn't based on how much it's used currently in this environment. In fact, if cultural heritage institutions that currently exist do not deal with digital preservation of important materials, we're gonna have to invent new institutions that will do that job because that's a very precise mission that societies deem as important beyond simply economics.

5. No evidence that others will do this.

Nancy McGovern: Five. There's no evidence that other organizations beyond cultural heritage institutions will do digital preservation. What we see is that when digital content is new, there are a lot of people ready to keep, take care of it. But in the case of museums, donors often come well into the age of the content and give it to the museums (and that happens in every environment). So what's important is to engage early in the life of digital content and ensure that it not only has supporters, caretakers at its beginning, but also as it ages.

6. It's necessary to ensure ongoing access.

Anne Kenney: The sixth reason is that it is necessary to do digital preservation to ensure access and I think this is a really key one. Digital preservation is a little like applehood - apple pie and motherhood; and it's something that you might support in general terms, but when it comes to commanding resources, it's a very difficult thing to justify based on having to stop doing other things. So if you can argue that digital preservation is simply the flip side of ensuring ongoing access / consistent access to information, you've a better chance of seeing it as worthy of long-term resource allocation because it has to be mainstreamed as part of the organization's responsibilities.

7. Legal and financial requirements mandate it.

Nancy McGovern: Seven. Legal and financial requirements mandate it. It may be that in museums it has been less of a requirement in digital to address the legal and financial aspects, but increasingly as it's necessary to do institutional records or as donors assign rights that need to be managed over time - these are kinds of areas that need to be addressed. So digital preservation may be mandated by various kinds of legal and financial requirements.

8. It's cost effective to prevent rather that recover from digital disaster.

Nancy McGovern: And eight, it's cost effective to prevent, rather than recover from digital disaster. We've seen examples like the Domesday book in the U.K. where it's not only saved once but more than once, and it's very expensive to have to go and do digital archeology to try to find people who might still know the technology that was used to create the digital content. So digital preservation maintenance from the beginning of the life, is much more cost-effective than trying to do rescue missions.

9. Covenant with users and donors based on our ability to preserve materials.

Anne Kenney: The ninth reason is and I think this is a very key one for us, is that our covenant with the users and the donors is based on our ability to preserve materials. That has been our traditional responsibility in the analog world and it will become increasingly important in the digital world. If we cannot convince users and donors that we are able to do preservation over longer time frames than two to three or four years, what is the incentive for them to: one, give material to cultural repositories and, two, for users to come back and rely on those resources for their own research, cultural satisfaction and general well-being.

10. Digital preservation shouldn't be driven solely by technology.

Nancy McGovern: And ten - Digital preservation shouldn't solely be driven by technology. We've seen that there isn't, that vendors aren't really addressing backwards compatibility and we can't rely solely on technology to take care of the future for digital content. In the workshop, we address three areas: organizational context, technological and the resources. So the "what", the "how" and then the "how much" and that combination is much more effective. People have tended to just think that technology can just take care of digital content over time.

Interviewer: That's great. Thank you. Just out of total curiosity, and not one of the questions, I think, my observation anyway, is, obviously, being with CHIN, is that it is – was – very daunting for the heritage community in particular and the museum community, also, do you find by your conversations and your attendance at conferences and your research, I guess, that it's becoming less daunting or is it still at a stage of really being, you know, something that is feared?

Anne Kenney: It's definitely still seen as something that is incredibly daunting but the whole theme of our workshop is to look at short-term solutions for long-term problems. There is no magic bullet. So what you do is you break it down into manageable chunks over shorter timeframes and you figure out how to manage until three years out rather than try to figure out what you're going to do fifty years from now because we have no idea what that that environment is going to be like.

Interviewer: OK. Hopefully that minimizes that feeling of anxiety.

Nancy McGovern: The whole reason we developed the workshop is that we saw that organizations weren't really doing digital preservation programs. And now, over the last… since 2003, we have had 240 people – managers – come through from 170-ish organizations and we're actually seeing the impact of people because it's managers getting comfortable with making these kinds of decisions and what we know is that the technology people say that it is very doable. The question is can you afford it? Is it appropriate for what you want to do? Making the decisions and the constructs to be able to do that and not, "Do you have the technology to do it?"

Anne Kenney: Investing in the commitment of an organization or an institution instead of the lifespan of any one individual is why cultural heritage institutions are the right place to do digital preservation.

We welcome your suggestions for interview subjects. Send an email to and put "Interview suggestions" in the subject.

Contact information for this web page

This resource was published by the Canadian Heritage Information Network (CHIN). For comments or questions regarding this content, please contact CHIN directly. To find other online resources for museum professionals, visit the CHIN homepage or the Museology and conservation topic page on

Page details

Date modified: