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Digital Preservation - Things to Consider

teenwriters.jpgWe have been talking about best practices for preservation, but often we tend to ignore our digital collections of β€œstuff” until it’s too late and the computer dies or gets damaged. In current times, we enjoy the ease of information that we can have at our fingers – word documents on our phones that we can adjust on our computers, endless pictures and videos in the palms of our hand, and even downloadable music, movies and more. But the loss or damage of a device, or even changes in software can cause the loss of a digital item forever.

Some concepts to consider for digital items –

  • Back up your digital collection regularly (i.e. at least quarterly, more when you have something to lose), whether it be your phone to your computer/cloud and your computer files to the cloud/backup hard drive/off-site location (i.e. Google Drive, Dropbox, or even Crashplan for Home. You could even back up to a hard drive or high-capacity flash drive and save it in a fireproof safe or a safe deposit box.
  • Pay attention to those items that are created in a software-specific format and consider formatting them into multiple versions to ensure that you can always access it. For example, Windows 95 software is no longer compliant with up to current versions of Windows, so you can’t share that original paper in college with the newer generations any longer.
  • Newer technology doesn’t always mean that the format is more stable. You may want to consider creating multiple versions of technology, especially audio and visual, as they might not last long enough to share with future generations. Various sites of given the following estimates regarding life expectancy of audio/visual materials:
Type Estimated Life Expectancy with proper storage/humidity
Music – Vinyl 100 – 1,000 years
Music – Cassette 10 – 30 years
Music – CDs Probable up to 20 years; ideal conditions up to 100 years
Music – CDRs 5 – 10 years
Music – Mp3 files Unknown
Video – 8mm or 16 mm 40 – 60 years
Video – VHS/Beta 10 – 30 years
Video – Hi8, Digital8, mini-DVD 10 – 20 years
Video – DVD Probable up to 20 years; ideal conditions up to 100 years
Video – M-DISC Up to 1,000 years (theoretically)
Video – Blu-Ray unknown

Lastly, make sure that you digital items are in the best possible format for long-term access. The following file format suggestions are provided courtesy of the Smithsonian Institute Archives.

Type Primary Preservation Format (preferred) Secondary Preservation Format (acceptable)
Text/word processing applications PDF/A
RTF (text)
XML with schema
Spreadsheet applications or structured data PDF/A (must capture entire workbook – macros disabled)
Presentations PDF/A
Images TIFF (uncompressed) JPG
Graphics TIFF PDF
Video Motion JPEG 2000
Audio BWF-Broadcast WAV
(.wav is the extension)
Websites and social media records WARC ARC
Files from Content Management System
Email messages/account XML email preservation format
Database Management Systems (DBMS) Keep original XML with schema


When it doubt, contact a professional who will analyze what you have and assist you in making the best decision to ensure that your files and precious memories, music, videos, Instagram-filtered pics and more are able to be shared with future generations of your family and the Lowell community.