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Did you know that you have a digital archive? Is your favourite movie on VHS but you can’t watch it because your VCR is broken? Have you ever lost all of your files and wanted to pull out your hair while trying to rebuild?

A comedic illustration of a woman pulling out her hair.

Courtesy of

If you have digital photos or music for your mp3 player you, my friend, have a digital archive. Since the transition to a national museum in 2011, our Museum has prioritized the acquisition of digital content and concentrated collections efforts on the improvement of all of the Museum’s collections, most notably its digital content.

The loss of our Collection content is one of my biggest fears, especially when it comes to the irreplaceable oral histories and written stories! To protect the Collection we have launched an active digital preservation program. It will see to it that our digital objects will be safely backed up, both on and offsite. In emergencies (environmental or technical) we will be ready to retrieve our backups anytime, anywhere. This program will also make sure that the digital content collected today will remain accessible through the years for future generations with an interest in Canadian immigration history.

Because a museum blog wouldn’t be complete without a little bit of history…

With the rapid development of technology in the 20th century, archivists, librarians, and museum collection managers were faced with new and evolving content being offered for donation to their collections. Together they had to forge ahead with new strategies for preservation that were based on the standards and best practices of the past. The very diligent work that has been undertaken in this area has been ongoing since the 1970s. What started with a few people sharing experiences and looking for new best practices has today become an international movement with ISO registered standards and recognized best practices adopted internationally by archives, libraries and museums.

Why is our digital preservation program important?

The answer is fairly simple. Unlike many museums, the majority of our Collection is digitized or born digital material. As an organization, we must:

  • identify what needs to be preserved and for how long;
  • identify the human and financial resources we will need to collect and protect the Collection;
  • approve policies and standards to act as a road map for the way digital preservation is carried out.

Otherwise, we run the risk of losing our digital content. Canada’s cultural history could be permanently erased due to an accidental delete, potential server failure or such physical threats as floods, hurricanes and nor’easters. But with our plan in place we won’t let that happen! Our Collection also runs the risk of obsolescence if the files are not properly monitored as they age.[1] If you don’t believe me, trust in Digiman and Team Digital Preservation!

Currently, our program is young but we are laying a strong foundation by developing standards and workflows to guide the work we do day-to-day. With multiple terabytes of audio, video and still image files, Collection and IT staff need to ensure that we manage the current collections and plan for their growth in the decades to come.

Got files?

So, with all of this data on our server, where did we start? First, I gathered together our collection, oral history and IT staff and asked, “What content do we have and want to preserve? How long do we want or need to keep it?”

In our case, the conversation was fairly simple. We knew that we needed to be able to maintain the collections over time, for as long as we are able. We also knew that whatever strategies we chose to use in reaching this goal needed to be sustainable and adaptable if they had any hope for survival.

Where did we go next?

We conducted a content analysis. Our team marched directly into our files, hardware and software systems to take stock of what we had and to make general observations about gaps, areas of duplication, disorganized files etc. We then looked to growth rate estimates for data over the coming years to compare with the growth of our current storage system.

What did we find?

Our current servers won’t hold our existing collections and the planned growth.

So we knew what we had, and what our immediate issues were.

What were our next steps?

We needed a plan and to research. Equipped with best practises, standards and case studies from similar institutions, I was able to draft a Digital Preservation Standard and establish a program that will best fit our needs right now as well as in the years to come.

Knowing that this is in place I will be able to rest assured that short of a zombie apocalypse, the digital collections here at the Museum will remain safe and accessible to our staff and the public. The blue screen of death on a computer monitor will no longer be one of my biggest fears!

A blue screen of windows with white typing, called The Blue Screen of Death.

Blue Screen of death. Windows '95 (Microsoft)

If you’re faced with a similar challenge I would refer you to the Digital Preservation Management tutorial developed by Cornell University Library and resources developed by such masterminds as Nancy Y. McGovern, currently head of Curation and Preservation Services at MIT Libraries (one of the drivers behind the Digital Preservation Management workshop).[2] The Canadian Heritage Information Network is also full of great information and tools to help you get started![3]

Do you have a Digital Preservation Management program for your Collection? What about lessons learned that you think might be helpful? Let us know!

  1. A good example of a near obsolete file format is a 15” floppy disk. Can you remember the last time you used a 15” floppy disk, or even saw one for that matter?