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Are we losing it? Thoughts on “Digital Records Dilemma”

June 17, 2013

In the June 15th Winnipeg Free Press, it was discussed (http://tinyurl.com/n6f3f7r) that some government emails are irreversibly deleted. Keeping digital records is important because they provide evidence of how government conducts its business.

Good recordkeeping requires a lot more effort than just ensuring crucial records are not deleted, whether intentionally or not. Essentially, digital records need to be maintained so that they can be accessible and usable over time. Physical artifacts may exist for thousands of years, and paper records could stay for decades, but digital records do not have such robustness. Digital carriers have short longevity, both media and file format obsolete in fast fashion (see Chamber of Horrors), digital data is vulnerable to damage (see Atlas of Digital Damages), can be altered with great ease, all of which could render digital files unreadable in a few years. Stated simply, digital records won’t survive benign neglect.

One might think about printing out and keeping paper records instead. This is definitely not an ideal solution—the benefit of digital format such as links, searchability, and certain functionalities will be lost. Digital records need to be refreshed and migrated on an on-going base. Till today, migration is the most commonly used digital preservation method followed by emulation. Neither of them is straightforward and can be costly. For example, when files are transferred to a different format, errors could be introduced. When it comes to proprietary software, when the vendor is out of the market, support is likely to be discontinued.

Digital preservation is at its infancy. Strategies and methodologies are yet to be developed! One thing is certain–we need to consciously and actively maintain our digital records to avoid leaving a black hole in our society’s collective memory.