Are We Doing Enough to Manage and Preserve Born Digital Content?

The many challenges of managing and preserving digital content are well-known to cultural memory institutions. Institutions have become adept at digitizing and reformatting important content and ensuring its long-term access. At the same time, the nature, scale and policy complexities of content that is born digital are presenting an even more radical shift in demands and expectations. An overwhelming amount of the knowledge, documentary evidence, and creative expression produced today originates in digital formats—from news reports to media to personal papers. While important initiatives have emerged to keep selected born-digital content accessible, in comparison to collecting policies of the analog age, we are preserving only a small portion of what exists. Is it enough?

CLIR Presidential Fellow Carol Mandel is investigating this question in a study of the societal and institutional framework that collects and preserves born-digital documentary evidence. She finds that while we continue to make impressive progress in addressing the daunting technical demands of preserving digital materials, our ability—and impetus—to collect born-digital content lags far behind likely future needs for the documentation of today’s world.  The decision to collect is an essential pre-requisite to preservation and enduring access.

Mandel has complete an initial framing chapter of her research, outlining the significant disparities between the traditional roles and expectations of memory institutions and the disruption presented by new forms of born-digital content. “Society largely takes for granted that its heritage is being preserved by this reliable network of institutions,” she writes, but they now face formidable obstacles. “The challenge of preserving digital-only content needs, somehow, to be met within a feasible economic and institutional context.”  As Mandel illustrates, that context does not now exist, and we are facing a complex societal problem.

Subsequent work to be released over the coming months will expand the framing work to consider legal, policy and priority issues, and then delve more deeply into approaches for collecting selected areas, such as news, social media, web content, publishing output, and personal and community archives.

CLIR hopes that Mandel’s work will spark discussions that, at a minimum, lead to shared understandings of priorities and expectations about what can and should be captured and preserved. Ideally, we hope it will stimulate ongoing community engagement and creative problem solving.  Collecting and preserving born-digital content requires new strategies, partnerships, and initiatives that only broad and diverse community perspectives can address.

CLIR is soliciting comments on chapter one at comments@clir.org. A series of questions is included at the end of the chapter to frame discussion. Mandel will also lead a panel at the DLF Fall Forum, “The Story Disrupted: Memory Institutions and Born Digital Collecting.” She and Clifford Lynch will also do a breakout session on this work at the December CNI Member Meeting.