Preserving Our Future: The Importance of Digital Preservation

Joshua Fitterman
Class of 2019

How will a 22nd century historian understand our society? We will have provided this researcher with stacks of tweets, blog posts, email, and assorted digital media giving them access to our thoughts, fears, and artfully-filtered brunch dishes. But despite the robustness of our modern-day digital footprint, many would be surprised to find our intellectual heritage is in a more perilous place than ever before.

Throughout human history, civilization has suffered massive losses of knowledge. The library at Alexandria, constructed by Ptolemy in the 5th century BCE, had the greatest accumulation of knowledge in the ancient world. It was destroyed three times, each time taking with it untold intellectual riches of the ancient world. In the 14th century the great Library of Baghdad, the jewel of the medieval world and custodian of much of the classical and Islamic knowledge fundamental to modern science, philosophy, and politics, was destroyed by the Mongols. So many manuscripts were destroyed survivors claimed it made the Tigris run black with ink.

 While modern data might be safe and secure from the pillaging hoards, it faces threats intrinsic to its existence on digital media. Current archives face environmental challenges ranging from improper storage, which leads to the gradual breakdown of storage media, to natural disasters destroying storage facilities in just a few hours. They also must ensure the readability of digital documents by combatting bit rot, or the natural breakdown of the language dictating the function of a given computer program. However, the greatest obstacle to the preservation of digital objects is the fact that as technology progresses, the technologies needed to read older digital storage media become replaced and those objects become functionally unreadable.

Think about that symbol of knowledge accessibility in most of our pockets right now. Our smartphones provide access to a world of information and store some of the most meaningful parts of our lives. Will we retain access to those life-changing conversations and meaningful photos in 5 years? What about 20 years? Likely not, which is why digital preservation can be so complicated. While many might feel their information is safe in “the Cloud,” these systems too require high degrees of maintenance and data migration to updated storage formats to remain accessible.

This summer, I researched policy strategies to promote digital preservation as part of a fellowship with Georgetown Law’s Institute for Technology Law & Policy. During the course of my research I have had the chance to take a close look at the Federal Government’s preservation efforts. This research ranged from scouring regulations promoting digital preservation to discussions with library science professionals. I have also had the chance to speak with archivists working to preserve Congressional materials, and National Archives professionals, trying to understand exactly how the Federal Government preserves its digital material.

One clear takeaway is the essential role the National Archives and Records Agency (NARA) plays in the preservation of the Government’s digital objects. NARA has policies in place governing the upkeep and transfer of digital objects from federal agencies to NARA’s care, and specialized technology (utilizing the “PREMIS” formatting standards) that is designed to keep records accessible even if the popular commercial programs used to access files change over time.

Nevertheless, important challenges remain. One great concern is the lack of systematic, enforceable policies governing the format by which digital documents from Congress and federal agencies must be transferred to the National Archives. While NARA mandates a minimum standard for formats used, in practice many agencies send documents without the qualities required for files to be well maintained and secure.

Government material is vitally important to preserve for several reasons. In a system built on precedent, the preservation of previous government actions provides, in many cases, a justification for both those inside and outside of government to choose how to proceed. For example, lawyers advising clients on regulatory compliance can look at past actions, guidances, and even public discussions of a given topic to gauge how administrators understand various issues. While many of these documents are supposed to be preserved, the way in which they are preserved tends to be inconsistent across agencies, leading to fears that some of the file formats used might not retain necessary information. Adding to this challenge, a newly released White House recommendation sets a 2022 date for the transition of all Federal documents to digital formats. This will compound the burden on technical professionals administering the National Archives’ systems. Many individuals from NARA believe it does not have the staff required to keep up with the growing libraries of digital objects they must maintain.

In Congress, the records of actions leading to the passage of a bill are of vital importance for legal professionals and the courts to ascertain the intent of a bill’s language. Moreover, the story of how congressional offices interact is important to historians for understanding a particular moment in the government's history, or gaining a unique perspective on a period in history generally. While in previous generations this might have been made simpler by the existence of paper documents, there is a growing use of digital formatted correspondence and communication by these offices. However, due to the administrative structure of Congress, currently no formal digital preservation requirements exist outside of maintaining correspondence records. Thus many of these records might not be properly preserved.

Like most things taken for granted, digital preservation rarely receives the attention it deserves. The life of our digitally-created and stored heritage only becomes more important with each passing day. Maybe we cannot save all of the documents preserving the history created at this moment, but trying to save as much as possible is of the utmost importance. We do not know what study, datum, tweet, or email may come to represent a historical turning point or important lesson. A comprehensive approach towards the preservation of our digital documents, and the funding necessary to maintain those archives, can only serve the best interests of our civilization.

Sometimes, the security of our current moment tends to obscure the lessons of history. One of the most important lessons of history is that societies without a well-maintained history do not progress. We need to think seriously now about preserving the advancements of the past century for the future, much of which is contained on digital media. Lack of access to this knowledge, whether by destruction or obsolescence, has the same inevitable result--a darker future for our children.