Preserve, Curate, or Steward? Changing Definitions in Digital Preservation

Digital preservation is a series of managed activities necessary to ensure continued access to digital materials for the highest utility—and for as long as possible or necessary. Archivists work to save bits and bytes beyond the limits of media failure, software obsolescence, and technological change. The phrase “digital preservation,” however, has been questioned because it may not sufficiently describe what needs to occur for digital materials to be accessible over time.

Preservation is Only the Beginning

Preservation rose from the idea that saving existing digital information was the first and most important part of this effort. Preservation, however, is just one aspect, albeit an important one, of what these activities encompass. Considering all the actions that archivists must conduct to protect digital materials throughout their lifecycle, is “preservation” the most accurate description? As the idea of preservation in the digital environment is challenged, other definitions that are perhaps more definite have emerged.

More Precise Concepts

Throughout the literature, practitioners have introduced and explored the concepts of digital continuity, digital sustainability, and digital resilience. Each definition has its nuances, but they all share a unifier. They reflect a shift in thinking of preservation as a one-time activity (as was applied to physical artifacts) to preservation as an ongoing approach. This change in thinking reflects the acceptance that the preservation of digital artifacts ideally starts when they are created and continues throughout their life.

In addition, preservation has a long history of being used within a cultural heritage context, but not regularly used outside of it. While digital preservation affects all research communities—academic, cultural, social, technological, and scientific—the phrases each group uses to describe similar activities will reflect their priorities.

Digital curation and digital stewardship are terms that have also gained traction within the professional literature. These terms refer to the lifecycle of a digital file, from the creation, collection, organization, and dissemination of digital objects.

Digital Curation

Curation concepts have arisen from the scientific communities, who are motivated more by the practical, immediate data re-use concerns than by theoretical preservation concepts. “Curation” describes the evolving whole-life view of digital preservation but concentrates on the underpinning activities of building and managing collections of digital assets. Curation also implies expertise in one narrow area, rather than a generalist approach. The concept of “content curation” which aggregates, organizes, and filters online resources in subject areas has become more widely known. “Curation” has also become more popular as a marketing term, which tends to dilute its importance.

Digital Stewardship

Stewardship models evolved out of the environmental community. Stewardship denotes the idea of holding resources in trust for future generations, which has long resonated with digital preservation practitioners.

Stewardship, unlike curation, implies that it is a role for a generalist: someone who is knowledgeable in sustainable digital file formats, practical and useful applications of standards, quality control, and other aspects of digital preservation. The knowledge necessary to save digital materials is continually evolving, requiring archivists to be knowledgeable on a range of topics. Digital stewards can work with subject matter experts like curators to leverage their expertise for digital preservation projects.

The National Digital Stewardship Alliance

Stewardship, in this context, is best embodied in the National Digital Stewardship Alliance (NDSA), an organization that incorporates a unified vision of digital preservation while leveraging community collaboration to ensure enduring access to digital information. NDSA created the Levels of Digital Preservation, a tiered set of recommendations on how organizations should begin to build their digital preservation programs. The easy-to-use guidelines, along with NDSA’s other activities, integrate the perspective of experts and institutions to provide insight into emerging technological trends and critical areas for development.

Reshaping Preservation Practice

Digital stewardship marries preservation and curation, unifying the lifecycle approach of curation along with research in digital libraries and electronic records archiving. Stewardship broadens the emphasis to address all digital materials, while continuing to underscore digital preservation as a core component of action. Stewardship embodies both the essential elements of the archives profession as well as the custodial dimension of the curatorial profession.

The blog was originally published on Lucidea's blog.

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