Digital collections – our most fragile and at risk Tasmanian heritage?

When you hear the words ‘heritage’ and ‘archive’ what is the first thing that comes to mind? …. paper? books? photographs? buildings? physical objects? … What about ‘digital heritage’ that is created via websites, word documents, emails, texts, and on social media?

Without regular intervention, in only a few years digital information can be completely lost, inaccessible, or corrupted. Each day Tasmanians are using computers, laptops, phones, and tablets to create millions of records of our state, our community, and our lives. How do we ensure that these will be available in the future? The content we create using digital technology becomes obsolete as new versions of hardware, software, file formats and media supersede older versions. Digital content relies on regular and controlled migration to contemporary software formats. Even content that has been turned digital (e.g. scans of documents) needs to be preserved through migration.

Libraries and archives have to keep up with collecting and preserving different kinds of digital content. We then need to ensure it is stored it in a contemporary format that will remain accessible in the future. The long term preservation and access of digital born collections created in the 1990s to today is one of our biggest concerns. For example, records of key events in Tasmanian history, such as elections, bush fires, and social debates, have been created as word documents, digital photographs, and emails. All of these formats rely on rapidly changing hardware and software.

LINC Tasmania via the State Library and State Archives serves as the continuing memory of Tasmania’s government and people. We hold around 135,000 physical heritage items, and 20km, or over 3 million, physical archival items. LINC Tasmania also collects and provides access to a growing digital collection. This collection includes digitised items, born digital objects, and digital objects on physical carriers.

We are dedicated to supporting research and discovery by ensuring our history is available to all who seek it. This is the heart of what we do; however, our capacity to do so in the 21st Century is reliant upon having the right tools and skills needed for ongoing curation of and access to digital collections. The ‘digital preservation challenge’ is something we are working hard to address.

We have been digitising our physical archive and heritage collection since the late 1990’s. Today, our website provides instant virtual access to over 250,000 digitised items. Digital access allows us to preserve original material that is fragile or difficult to handle, and protects items that are in high demand.

We also collect Tasmanian online or e-publications. Publishers submit digital publications directly to the holdings of LINC Tasmania through the Stable Tasmanian Online Repository Service (STORS). STORS currently ensures retention and access to over 33,000 published e-items.

LINC Tasmania was one of the first state libraries to actively collect websites. Initially called ‘Our Digital Island’, this collection of around 3000 individual website records (with over 9000 captures or snapshots of these websites taken at different times) is available through our catalogue.

Our large collection of digital items on physical carriers includes film, vinyl, VHS tapes, audio cassettes, floppy discs, USB sticks, CDs and DVDs. These carriers pose a particular challenge of a combination of technological obsolescence (the hardware can’t be used anymore) and deterioration. To combat this risk, we have an ongoing program of moving digital content from fragile carriers to more robust digital formats within a backed up system.

LINC Tasmania is planning to expand on our current e-storage and management systems with the development of a digital repository. When operational, this repository will allow safe, long term storage of all of our digital content. It will also provide access to digital content regardless of the software used to create and display it.

To commemorate the first International Digital Preservation Day on November 30, the  key message we’d like to share with Tasmanians is that digital preservation is important for everyone. Unless all of us, not just libraries and archives, regularly migrate our photos, videos, and important electronic documents to newer software formats, the likelihood is that we will lose this irreplaceable content.

Would you like to know more about protecting your own digital collections? The National and State Libraries Australasia (NSLA) has put together a great online toolkit – http://www.nsla.org.au/publication/digital-archive-toolkit.

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Author: Jen Jerome

Jen is Manager of Government Archives and Preservation with the Collections Unit, State Library and Archives, LINC Tasmania.

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