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Digital Preservation: Planning and Policies

This guide is an introduction to fundamental concepts of digital preservation.


Planning for preservation of digital objects

Much of the work that is necessary for digital preservation can occur even before any digital objects are collected and deposited in a repository. Below are some of the topics that must be discussed to start developing a preservation plan.

Scope of collections

An essential point when designing a preservation strategy for a collection is to establish scope. This means determining what material will be included in the collection. If this is not determined beforehand and there is no sense about what objects will be collected, actions such as organizing and describing the collections and creating adequate policies and procedures can become much more difficult. 

Articulating a vision for what your collections will be and who they will serve, as well as establishing criteria to determine what material will be included in them, will facilitate future management. Criteria for inclusion in the collections may take into account factors like:

  • Thematic aspects of the collection (What is my collection about?)
  • Type of digital objects collected (text documents, video, images, etc.)
  • Acceptable digital formats (More on this below!)

The decisions reached on these topics will guide the development of your collections and affect the preservation actions which you will eventually conduct.

What are your priorities for preservation?

Establish priorities about what is most essential for your institution to preserve. For example, digital objects created by members of your institution which are unique can be identified as a priority as you plan your preservation strategies. When establishing priorities, think about your institution's mission and what is most significant to your community of users.

What is my community of users?

When planning the development of a collection, it is good to think about who will eventually use the collection and how the objects will be used. Knowing your community of users and what is important to them allows you to make better decisions about what to collect and preserve. Also, knowing how the material is likely to be utilized helps you make better choices about organization and description, what interfaces to use, necessary technology, and other aspects of user services.

What can we preserve?

Be aware of what your institution's capacity for preservation is. If you collect material which you will not be able to preserve or provide access to, you are being counterproductive. In this case, it is better if this material is deposited at an organization that has the necessary resources to properly preserve it.

How much material can we preserve?

This is another issue where you have to be honest with yourself. Think about things like staff time, storage infrastructure, backups, etc. Avoid collecting more material than you can manage. Also, remember that some forms of digital media take up a lot more space than others. For example, video consumes a lot more storage space than text files. This is something to consider when deciding what type of material you will collect.

Digital formats

In general, digital formats that are open-source, non-proprietary, and widely used are preferred for long-term preservation. Establishing parameters for what formats will be accepted for inclusion in your collections can facilitate future preservation actions. For information on this topic provided by the Smithsonian Institution Archives, click here.  


The importance of establishing policies

In order for digital preservation strategies to be most effective, they should be established in official policy and procedures documentation. This will create a framework with clearly defined parameters and purposes. Established policies and procedures encourage consistency and provide guidance for future decisions related to digital preservation.

The digital preservation policy should cover points such as:

  • The subject matter of the material that will be collected
  • The type of material that will be collected (images, videos, text documents, etc.)
  • Who the user community is and what their needs are
  • What digital formats will be accepted
  • Metadata schemas used to describe the digital objects
  • Information related to storage, such as where materials are stored, how many copies are created, and what storage media is used 
  • Procedures for checking the fixity of digital objects
  • Procedures for refreshing or migrating the material
  • How the policy will be reviewed and updated

It is also helpful if the digital preservation policy has alignment with an institution's mission and vision statements. It is always better if there is institution-wide commitment to digital preservation, so connecting the policy to larger institutional objectives is a good way to gain the support of different stakeholders in the organization. This can be crucial when arguing for resources that will help achieve your digital preservation goals, such as software, equipment, or personnel with expertise.

Below are some links that provide guidance for development of a digital preservation policy, as well as links to sample policies from different institutions.

Guidance on developing a digital preservation policy

Sample digital preservation policies