The term “born digital” refers to documents, photographs, audio files, video files and other items that begin life in digital format.
Archivists make a distinction between digital archiving – which is the preservation of born digital information and digital preservation, which is the preservation of print materials through digitization
If we digitize our entire collection, our born digital and born analog items will ultimately end up in the same place on our hard drives and in our backup storage drives. Our future forbears might have a hard time distinguishing between born digital and digitized documents. A digitized handwritten document will be obviously digitized, but photographs and other materials might be harder to tell apart. Ultimately, our challenge is to organize, store and making available digital documents for periods longer than a human lifetime. When thinking of long-term digital preservation we need consider the different components that comprise digital access.
The first item we must consider is Preservation of the Medium – What are the life spans of different mediums? How long will a CD, DVD, hard drive, thumb drive, or computer last? CDs are determined to not last reliably more than 15-20 years. If air gets through the plastic coating the metal reflective layer corrodes. Gold CDs could possibly last up to 100 years. As of today, this hasn’t been tested because they were developed less than 100 years ago. Magnetic tapes have a lifespan of thirty years at best. Flash drives no more than ten years or up to 100,000 erase-re-write cycles. Hard Drives are determined to last no longer than 3-5 years while in active use and possibly up to thirty years in an archival setting. It’s difficult to know how long most mediums will last because the technology is new and hasn’t been tested yet.
Our second consideration is Technology Preservation – this refers primarily to the software programs that allow digital information to be read. As software is upgraded and changed, our digital documents must be refreshed, migrated, copied, upgraded, or imported into the new technology, otherwise they won’t work. This can be the most challenging aspect of digital preservation. However, certain file formats provide better options for long-term storage. Programming languages are unlikely to disappear and can be used as alternative mechanisms for long-term preservation.
The third consideration is Intellectual Preservation – this refers to keeping the integrity and authenticity of the information as it is originally recorded. This is particularly true of photographs and video. Digital photographs and media can be copied quickly and easily. We assume that they are being copied exactly, but just as copying is easy and simple, undetectable changes may also be made that over time that will alter the integrity of the original. Eventually we don’t know if we are looking at an original or a copy, or whether the dress was bright red in the original, or deep red?
Our goal as family archivists is to keep things unaltered in perpetuity.