A Digital Dark Now? : Digital Information Loss at Three Archives in Sweden
Abstract: The purpose of this study is to examine digital information loss at three Swedish archives. Digital preservation is a complex issue and something most archival institutions struggle with today. While there is merit in focussing on successes in this struggle, doing so to the exclusion of failures runs the risk of creating a blind spot for existing problems. We hope that this study will contribute to an open and productive conversation about digital preservation and how it can be improved. This study is based on interviews at three different kinds of archives, each of which have a different function in society. Limiting the study to a small number of archives allows for a more in-depth examination of how and why digital information loss occurs. The interviews concern the struggles dealt with by these archives and how they handle their digital information. We use a broad definition of digital information in order to look at parts as well as whole digital objects and their metadata. We also examine digital internal work documents, as these may serve as a contextual support for an archive’s collections. The results are analyzed from several perspectives including the transition between the Records Lifecycle Model and the Records Continuum Model, an ontological understanding of digital information, the SPOT model for risk assessment and the OAIS Reference Model. Some of the conclusions in this study echo previous research, such as the need to prioritize organizational issues. Others conclusions are more representative of the current state of digital preservation at these archives. One such conclusion is that there is a delicate balancing act involved between setting up systems for successful future digital preservation while managing existing digital collections which may not have been preserved correctly. Another conclusion we arrived at is that some institutions are unable to undertake a more proactive form of digital preservation, as the nature of the materials they preserve precludes such interference from archivists. We also discovered that when discussing digital preservation, the tendency remains to think of digitized material first rather than born digital information. Another finding of this study is that information loss may involve only a part of the information. Losses of metadata or the connections between information may be more common than the loss of entire digital objects. Finally, one question has followed this study from the beginning to the end: How can you know that you have lost something you never knew existed?
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