Cultural Continuity Through Digital Preservation

The transmission of information across time is a challenge currently addressed through institutional digital preservation efforts. How might this challenge be met in other ways?

Think about digital communication for a second. Think about the incredible network required to package electrical pulses as information objects and to send this package from one place to another. While it is possible to send, receive, and even authenticate a perfect copy of a message across space, we do not yet have consistent, automated methods of sending, receiving, or authenticating a perfect copy across time.

While early developers of digital communication acknowledged that noise distorted the transmission of a message, their linear model did not represent information lost. Lost data graphic based on Claude Shannon’s transmissive model of communication.

A number of factors contribute to the challenge of long-term transmission. The initial transfer of data might be incomplete, data corrupts, retention policies are unstated or ambiguous, inactive communities might cease support, elements might deprecate, and entire systems might use obsolete features with little to no documentation. Instead of a fully automated system of active management, managing digital objects for transmission across time currently requires organizational commitment, resources, and supporting technology. This system of active management and the action taken to mitigate data loss contributes to a type of preservation activity known as digital preservation. Consider the image of the digitized map below. Collection strategies, administrative procedures, and archival handling methods supported the library staff’s efforts to carry forward both the form and content of the physical 1868 map in an almost perfect transmission process. Digital objects, however, are much more complex than physical objects, and staff members collect more information in an effort to carry forward information. Procedures adapted for digital objects within an active digital preservation system will allow the digitized images (master TIFF files and derivative JPEG files) to be securely managed, restored if the file becomes corrupt, or migrated if the format becomes obsolete. Additionally, retention and review policies will ensure that digital files are not mishandled. Digital preservation starts at the point of transfer (or creation) and it is an active system; it is not an end.

Unknown. Map of the Agricultural College Farm. 1868. Digitized map. Iowa State University Library Special Collections and University Archives. Ames, IA.

Digital preservation in its current manifestation draws on various methodological approaches developed over the past forty years. Librarians and archivists began applying their deep experience with research, authentication, copyright, and information management in the 1980s, and they developed standards for managing digital objects in the mid-1990s. Hacking communities cultivated knowledge networks around interrogating systems, forensics experts interrogated digital files, and data curators refined data management practices. In 2003, the Management Council of the Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems (CCSDS) developed a reference model – the Open Archival Information System – which became an ISO standard (ISO 14721:2003). This standard provided preservation communities with a much-needed lexicon. Scholars with the Data Curation Center graphically represented the concepts with a lifecycle model, which is useful for planning preservation actions.

Higgins, S.; Harvey, R.; and Whyte, A. The DCC Curation Lifecycle Model. 2008. Graphic. Digital Curation Center

Locally, the Iowa State University Library began digital preservation actions ca. 2007, and they managed these activities in tandem with digitization, digital collections management, and archival processing activities. These activities provided staff members with the opportunity to develop a range of skillsets, although library administrators recognized the need for a consistent library-wide approach. To support this consistency, the library worked with AVP an information management and digital preservation consulting company. AVP conducted a review of ISUL’s infrastructure and activities, and their experts designed a roadmap with clear action items to support the development of a systematic approach to digital preservation. As the ISU Library applies this roadmap and organizes digital preservation activities, we strive to build a digital preservation approach responsive to the environmental and social factors that contribute to the continuity of the digital resources of Iowa State University. Watch this space for updates about the policy and procedures that we’re developing in support of digital preservation or contact us at

Stewardship ensures consistent transmission of information across time. Troup, T. (GIF-maker). 2020. Introduction to the 2008 film City of Ember. [GIF].

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